Hockey Makes a Home
Who would have thought? After 112 years, the City of Las Vegas was (finally) awarded a professional sports team, by the NHL of all leagues. To say that critics were skeptical would be an understatement. Many said things like this: "garbage idea to put a team in the desert," or that hockey would never be successful in Las Vegas, etc. I guess what they missed was that, before the city was approved for a team, more than TEN THOUSAND people had placed deposits on season tickets (for a team that didn't even exist), just to prove that we wanted a team. There was more than enough interest that team Owner Bill Foley could show the NHL that Las Vegas was serious - we had an arena and an overwhelming interest in season tickets. So the league pulled the trigger and this city hasn't been the same since!
This city can be described as a hodge podge of people. A lot of us came from other places, where we had favorite teams that we continued to support while here in Vegas. I grew up in San Diego and have been a life long Padres fan. I was also a fan of the Chargers, until the organization moved the team to Los Angeles. In 1996, I moved away to college in Pittsburgh and was formally introduced to NHL hockey, via the Penguins. I fell in love immediately! I eventually moved to Iowa and then back home to San Diego and didn't get to follow my new team as closely as I would've liked. The great thing about Vegas is that it has always been a very sports-centric place. There are team bars during NFL season (so, if you are, say, a Broncos fan, there are bars where all of the Denver fans meet and they show all of the games and have giveaways). It's not hard to find your games on somewhere. Over the last 2 years, I was lucky enough to watch the Penguins win back to back Stanley Cup Championships. What a great feeling! Little did I know that something much better would be coming my way!
Nobody knew what to expect from the Vegas Golden Knights, we just knew that it was wonderful to finally have our own hometown team to cheer for. I started studying the rules of the expansion draft and realized that there was a really good chance that Vegas would take Marc-Andre Fleury from the Penguins. Although he had a few rough years, he has always been a great player and an ever better human being - active in the community, and an awesome teammate. Turns out, the Penguins wanted the Golden Knights to take him so badly that they also offered a draft pick to ensure they did so. I've read that George McPhee and the Golden Knights organization had a plan going into the draft - one of the most important things to them was that they drafted players with good character. They also obviously did a very good job of scouting each and every one of these guys, because the team they assembled has far exceeded all expectations. Just after the draft, many news outlets reported on how Vegas had totally failed and would be even worse than originally predicted.
Before these guys even took to the ice, there was a buzz around this city. People were excited, people who had never even watched a single second of hockey. The team started on the road and won their first 2 games, which was incredible to watch. Then October came and our city and lives were changed forever on the night of the 1st. The Vegas Golden Knights were back home, preparing for their home opener, and the way they handled that tragedy is a HUGE reason why so many people are 1000% fans for life. Nobody asked them to, but the next morning, the players went to the blood bank and greeted people waiting to give blood. They talked to survivors, went to hospitals and met with first responders. The opening ceremony before that first home game was very emotional and could not have been more well done. They retired the number 58 and held 58 seconds of silence to honor the victims and I am pretty sure there wasn't a dry eye in the house. At that point, it became more than just hockey. See, that's the great thing about sports - it's entertainment, but they can transport you to another place where you can forget about the horrors in the world for a few hours. These games have allowed so many people to have an outlet for their sadness and rage and have helped everyone heal.
It's really inexplicable what this team has done. They took on the name the "Golden Misfits," a group of players that other teams didn't want or didn't find important enough to protect. They built such chemistry and have proven the critics wrong time and time again. There was no way they'd make the playoffs they said. Then Vegas won the Pacific Division and headed to the playoffs to take on the Kings. They'll never be able to compete with the Kings, an experienced playoff team and 2 time Stanley Cup Champion. Then they swept those same Kings right out of the playoffs (Los Angeles fans are still salty). Round 2 brought on the Sharks and critics again said this run was over. Well, someone forgot to tell the Golden Knights that! Although it wasn't a sweep, the result was the same - Vegas was moving on to the Western Conference Finals, and did so quick enough that they got extra rest before finding out who their opponent would be. This time around, there would be no home ice advantage, so there was NO WAY these guys could beat the Winnipeg Jets, who had been one of the best teams in the NHL during the regular season. Whoops....try again! After losing game 1 and looking a bit over matched, Vegas came back with a vengeance and dominated the rest of the series. So, here they were again - playing for the Stanley Cup Championship! I seriously still cry every time I think about it. This was easily been the best thing I've experienced in my sports life - far surpassing the Chargers Super Bowl run in '94 and edging out the Padres World Series appearance in '98. In both of those cases, the teams were way over matched in the championship and ended up dominated by far superior teams. Although the series didn't end how the team or the fans would've liked, we are all SO proud of these guys and all that they accomplished. They helped build a sense of community in this city that I had never seen before, even after living here almost 14 years. They have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of either, and anyone who says any different is insane.
There are many people who don't think this is "fair." They say that Vegas should have to suffer and suck for many years before getting an opportunity like this. I say bullshit. As I mentioned earlier, I used to be a die hard SAN DIEGO Chargers fan. My Dad had season tickets for more than 30 years and I grew up going to games with him. I was there through the rough years (hello 1-15 and also Ryan Leaf!), and I was there through the somewhat good years. They all ended the same - with heartbreak. I would take that team being crappy every season over them being 14-2 and constantly choking. I traveled to other cities (Denver, Kansas City, Phoenix, etc) to see them play. I spent tons of money on apparel and gear. My Mom and I got matching tattoos. In the end, it didn't matter - all of my years of suffering were never rewarded. The team chose to pack up and move to Los Angeles and I will never again support that organization. I was left with a void that I wasn't sure would ever be filled.
When I would travel and people would ask me where I am from, I would always say the same thing: "I am from San Diego, but I live in Las Vegas." I was never proud of living here, it never felt like home, even though I have lived here almost 14 years. I've had quite a few friends say the same as well. That is, until now. This team absolutely united this city. Everywhere you go, everyone is wearing Golden Knights gear and it's not odd to hear a random "GO KNIGHTS GO" chant. Strangers smile and wave when they see you in your Fleury jersey and there is just a sense of civic pride that was really missing previously. Suddenly, Las Vegas feels like home. It's a feeling I can't explain, but I am proud to live here and to have so many great friends and family here. This will be a season not soon forgotten, and it's really just been amazing to be part of it all! That void I mentioned has been filled. It's the most inconceivable of stories and we're all proud to be part of history! We've already started to countdown to next season and look forward to taking Rosslyn to more games. As free agency starts, it will be interesting to see what kind of moves the organization makes, but I know that the core of young players have built a foundation for many successful years.