GOLDEN KNIGHTS Play­ers no one wanted bond in Ve­gas

Edmonton Journal - - FRONT PAGE - ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI rty­chkowski@post­media.com Twit­ter: @Rob_Ty­chkowski

Tues­day: Come back to whip the Chicago Black­hawks 5-2 in front of a sold-out crowd and re­claim first place in the Western Con­fer­ence, one point out of first over­all.

Wed­nes­day: Head down to the strip to train with Cirque du Soleil on stage at the MGM Grand.

Wel­come to Las Ve­gas, where it’s busi­ness as usual for the coolest team in the NHL.

“Who would have thought we’d be here do­ing this?” said Ve­gas winger Pierre-Edouard Belle­mare, soak­ing in the ma­jes­tic KA The­atre.

“All of the play­ers on this team were scat­tered all over the United States (six months ago), and now we’re all here to­gether at the Cirque du Soleil. It’s pretty sick.”

They’re all sea­soned hockey play­ers who have seen a lot in sports and done a lot in life, but the Knights were still grin­ning like it was a ju­nior high school field trip.

Not many of these play­ers would have ev­ery guessed when they were bus­ing through snow­storms in ju­nior that one day soon they would be spend­ing a prac­tice day on stage in a Ve­gas ho­tel, swing­ing from the rafters on aerial sheets.

“This is an ab­so­lute high note. It’s pretty in­cred­i­ble,” said de­fence­man Nate Schmidt. “This is it right here, this is what makes our city so spe­cial, that we can go out and do these things.”

What be­gan as the most hum­bling day of their pro­fes­sional ca­reers, be­ing left un­pro­tected in the ex­pan­sion draft, is turn­ing into the best thing that ever hap­pened to them.

And one of the best sto­ries in sports.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Deryk En­gel­land. “We have a great group of guys in the room, great staff, the or­ga­ni­za­tion has been phe­nom­e­nal in ev­ery way pos­si­ble. I think guys are just en­joy­ing the time right now.

“And you can’t beat the at­mos­phere in the rink. It’s been phe­nom­e­nal ev­ery sin­gle game. I think, as a player, see­ing the en­ter­tain­ment and at­mos­phere is amaz­ing.

They had no idea what was wait­ing for them in Las Ve­gas, but they, like most of the world, guessed it was go­ing to be a lit­tle sleazy, a lit­tle tacky and about the worst place in the world to bring up kids and play hockey.

Wrong.

“I wasn’t ex­pect­ing this,” said Belle­mare. “It’s so much better. When I first got the news I was, ‘How do you raise a fam­ily there?’ But 85 per cent of the world has no idea what Ve­gas is all about. You come here and see the com­mu­ni­ties. They’re un­be­liev­able. There is no point be­ing on the strip. The restau­rants all around town are un­be­liev­able and they ’re made for the lo­cals, and if you want to have a crazy night out, you go on the strip.

“And I’m a hockey player, so if the hockey is go­ing well, ev­ery­thing else will fall into place.”

Win­ning had made ev­ery­thing else fall into place. The at­mos­phere, the sup­port, the rest of the Ve­gas com­mu­nity wel­com­ing the team into the en­ter­tain­ing scene, none of it would be hap­pen­ing if the Knights weren’t a Stan­ley Cup con­tender right out of the box.

“I think win­ning makes ev­ery­thing better. It makes ev­ery­thing fun,” said goalie Marc-An­dre Fleury. “And we have a great bunch of guys, too. I’m proud of where we are right now and how our team is play­ing.

“When we came here, we didn’t know to ex­pect. There has never been any other (pro) team here be­fore. It’s ex­cit­ing. It’s crazy the sup­port we get from the fans and how many peo­ple I meet off the ice wear­ing our hats and shirts and talk­ing about hockey.”

And they have be­come one of the tight­est teams in the NHL, pulled to­gether by a com­mon thread: No­body else wanted them.

“We all re­al­ized we’re in it to­gether and no other team wanted to keep us,” said Belle­mare. “Some­how that made us tighter. Ev­ery­body thought that was go­ing to di­vide us, but it was the op­po­site, it made us much closer.”

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