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.”