Life as a Golden Knights player is pretty good in Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — It took 112 years for the city of Las Vegas to finally get a major sports team, and its first year couldn’t have gone any better. 

An NHL expansion team in the Stanley Cup Final? No one was thinking that in the first year, not even Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley, who famously aimed for “playoffs in three, Cup in six.”

The excitement about the team coming to town was evident in the build up to the their first game. Around 5,000 fans showed up outside T-Mobile Arena in Nov. 2016 to learn the team’s nickname and see the logo. Every game night has been a sellout and winning helped create an even bigger buzz around the city. Life has been pretty good for the players.

“Winning helps, sure. But for it to grow as quickly as it has it’s a surprise,” said defenseman Deryk Engelland, who played parts of two seasons with the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers from 2013-2015. “You knew it was going to take some time to grow but you didn’t think it was going to be this quick.”

Go to any Golden Knights practice at City National Arena and you’ll find a packed house. The interest became so great during the playoffs that attendance was eventually limited for their skates, with lines forming outside the rink hours before the players took to the ice. Merchandise sales? Well, just add that to the long list of things tied to this team that went above and beyond.

“It’s crazy to think that there wasn’t any franchise here before,” said defenseman Shea Theodore, “and the love we’re getting from the city and the fans, we’re going out to eat, people are coming up to us and taking pictures.”

Speaking of meals, there have been those times that players have been out to eat and the bill was picked up by a fan. Or, if you’re general manager George McPhee, you’ll get a standing ovation when you walk in somewhere to grab a bite.

“Reap the benefits while you can, someone said,” said defenseman Colin Miller. “They like taking care of us and we try to do the same for them.”

For many of the players, their perception of Las Vegas from the outside — the bright lights, the celebrities, the gambling — changed after they settled in their new homes.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize the sense of community there really is in Vegas,” said Miller. “I know I didn’t realize it until I got there. It’s been awesome. The fans are behind you there. It seems like they’re everywhere. Everyone’s got a t-shirt or a hat or something like that. It’s a pretty fun place to call home.”

Ryan Reaves wasn’t a member of the “Golden Misfits” until late February. While with the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this season, he played a game in Vegas against the Golden Knights and echoed a lot of the same sentiments that had been felt around the league.

“At the beginning of the year, you don’t know how it’s going to work. A lot of tourists going to Vegas. It’s a hot place,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to go sit in a rink for that long when it’s that hot outside, but you get here and everybody was dead-wrong, that’s for sure.”

Some members of the Golden Knights, like head coach Gerard Gallant, like to keep things low-key, so you won’t find him on the strip bumping into any celebrities. Then there’s Cody Eakin, who’s taken advantage of his new city since coming over from the Dallas Stars in the expansion draft. From dining at different restaurants to catching the latest show to go-karting in the desert to hiking and biking, the 27-year-old forward has gotten out to experience much of what Vegas and its surrounding areas have to offer.

“The opportunities are almost endless around here,” Eakin said. “I don’t think you can do them all in one season.”

It’s clear that the love affair between the community and team didn’t take long to get off the ground, and that support has paid off with this fairy tale of a season.

“It’s a lot of fun and there’s a lot of recognition in the community right now,” said Eakin. “Guys are going out and you see the signs and Vegas Golden Knights flags flying in the wind attached to cars. It’s pretty special. 

“The community’s happy. The community’s excited. The community’s passionate about it and it translates into us playing for them, playing hard and having fun with it.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL, NHLPA agree on protocols to resume season

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The NHL and NHL Players’ Association agreed Sunday on protocols to resume the season, a major step toward the return of hockey this summer.

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press there was an agreement on protocols for training camps and games and the sides are still negotiating an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, which is crucial to the process.

A person with knowledge of the situation said the return-to-play protocols would only go into effect if each side votes to approve the full package of the CBA extension and return-to-play agreement. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because CBA talks are still ongoing.

To complete a return, two-thirds of the league’s board of governors and majorities of the players’ executive committee and full membership must vote in favor.

If everything is ratified, it will end a pandemic-forced shutdown that began in mid-March. Games would resume in late July or early August with 24 teams taking part in an expanded playoffs, finishing with the Stanley Cup being awarded in October.

The agreement was first reported by TSN.

The 47 pages of protocols outline the health and safety measures the league and players agreed to after several weeks of negotiations. Any player has until 5 p.m. EDT on Tuesday to notify his team if he’s choosing to opt out of participating in training camp and games.

For those playing, each team is limited to 30 skaters and an unlimited amount of goaltenders for camp and total roster of up to 31 players for games. Each team is limited to 52 personnel in its game city, a group that must include two trainers, a doctor and compliance officer in addition players, coaches and management.

They are expected to be quarantined from the general public during play at least for the qualifying and first two traditional playoff rounds. Family members will be permitted to join when play is moved to one city for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

All team and league employees plus hotel, restaurant and arena staff coming in contact with players will be tested daily in the two ”hub” cities.

One player’s positive coronavirus test result is not expected to shut down play entirely. The league has said it would isolate any player or staff member who tests positive, acknowledging an outbreak would threaten the remainder of the season.

”The players will be pretty well-protected from being exposed,” Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said during a conference call in June. ”It’s going to be a completely different way for you all and us watching hockey and being around a team because players will be really well protected throughout the process.”

The protocols include a provision for Commissioner Gary Bettman in consultation with NHLPA executive director Don Fehr to postpone, delay or cancel games in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Assuming the protocols are approved, teams are expected to open training camps July 13 before traveling to the two hub cities for games. Players have been able to skate and train off-ice in voluntary, small-group workouts since June 8 – nearly three months after hockey was halted March 12 with 189 regular-season games remaining.

Returning for the playoffs is seen as a stirring victory for the NHL, which like other top leagues faced the prospect of losing millions more without the television revenue tied to the postseason. There were deep concerns about canceling the rest of the season and word of positive tests didn’t help: 26 players since June 8, in addition to almost a dozen before that.

Boston defenseman Matt Grzelcyk called the positive test results ”eye-opening” but expected. A few players expressed concerns in recent weeks about the uncertainty surrounding a return.

”We have obviously a unique situation right now,” Montreal goaltender Carey Price said. ”The NHL and the NHLPA are trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. Moving forward I’d like to play, but we have a lot of questions that need to be answered and a lot of scenarios that need to be covered.”

If the protocols and an CBA extension cover those scenarios for enough owners and players, there will be a path forward to hand out the Stanley Cup. Only twice since 1893 has the Cup not been awarded: in 1919, when the final couldn’t be completed because of the Spanish flu pandemic, and 2005 when the season was wiped out by a lockout.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports