Golden Knights’ suc­cess lays ground­work for a pro sports in­va­sion in Ve­gas

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - SPORTS -

More than 1,500 peo­ple jam a rink in the Las Ve­gas sub­urbs to watch the NHL’s new­est and most sur­pris­ing team prac­tise. The bleach­ers at City Na­tional Arena in Sum­mer­lin, Nev., are full 30 min­utes be­fore­hand. Spec­ta­tors stand six deep along the glass be­hind the net.

It is a spec­ta­cle un­seen in any pro mar­ket in Canada or the United States. It has been hap­pen­ing since well be­fore the sea­son be­gan. Ve­gas is the league’s only team to in­vite spec­ta­tors to view its work­outs ev­ery day.

A DJ plays mu­sic in the lobby. Dancers en­ter­tain. Free pop­corn is handed out. A wag­ging Jack Rus­sell ter­rier dressed in a Golden Knights sweater is mobbed. Fan af­ter fan kneels for pictures be­side Bark-An­dré Furry.

“He is a nice lit­tle doggy,” says Ve­gas goal­tender Marc-An­dré Fleury. He stopped, in full gear, to have a photo taken with his name­sake last week.

So much for ques­tions about the way hockey would be em­braced in the Repub­lic of Wayne Newton.

“I went to my first hockey game last night,” said Michael Gim­mel­lie, trans­planted from Cleveland. “My voice was dy­ing in the first three min­utes.”

He was so en­thralled by the Golden Knights’ 4-2 play­off vic­tory over the Winnipeg Jets on Wed­nes­day that he showed up to watch them do drills the next morn­ing. He has gone to a World Se­ries game. He has watched the Browns, but not so of­ten that it soured him on foot­ball.

Gim­mel­lie says noth­ing com­pares to what he wit­nessed at TMo­bile Arena.

“It was the great­est sport­ing event I have ever seen live,” he said. “It was ab­so­lutely ex­hil­a­rat­ing.”

Game 4 of the NHL’s Western Con­fer­ence fi­nal is Fri­day night.

Doubters said putting an NHL team in Las Ve­gas was as dar­ing a gam­ble as spin­ning a roulette wheel. But a sta­dium is un­der con­struc­tion now for the Raiders of the NFL and the NBA has be­gun to sniff around, too.

The Golden Knights had de­posits for 16,000 sea­son tick­ets be­fore their arena, a five-minute walk off the Las Ve­gas strip, was built. A team of castoffs and a re­mark­able goalie won the Pa­cific Divi­sion in its ex­pan­sion sea­son and has a 2-1 lead over the Jets in the con­fer­ence fi­nal. The Knights are two vic­to­ries shy of vy­ing for the Stan­ley Cup. The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs made it that far was a half­cen­tury ago.

“We are a bunch of hockey play­ers that wanted to find a home, and now we have one,” said Jonathan Marches­sault, who scored two goals on Wed­nes­day night. He had 30 goals for the Florida Pan­thers last sea­son be­fore Ve­gas snapped him up in the ex­pan­sion draft. “That is the story of our club. It is what has made us a suc­cess.

“Every­body wants to show their last team they were wrong.”

Fleury won three Stan­ley Cups with the Pen­guins, and was the top player avail­able in the ex­pan­sion draft. He is play­ing bet­ter this post­sea­son than he ever has. He had 33 saves on Wed­nes­day, a hand­ful spec­tac­u­lar.

“I knew early last sea­son that I was leav­ing Pitts­burgh, so I had a chance to wrap my mind around it,” Fleury said. ”Com­ing in here, I just wanted to help this team any way I could.

“I would have laughed like any­body else in the room if you told me at the be­gin­ning that we would get this far. I don’t think any­one saw us here. It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of it.”

The Ve­gas coach, Ger­ard Gal­lant, took the Florida Pan­thers to the play­offs for the first time in 11 years. Early in the next sea­son, he was fired. He landed in Ve­gas, and brought his as­sis­tant coaches along. There is lit­tle chance that any­one other than him will win the Jack Adams Award, given to the NHL’s coach of the year. He has taken an ex­pan­sion team farther than any coach ever has in any ma­jor pro sport.

“I didn’t imag­ine in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber that we could do it, but come around Jan­uary, I knew we had a good team,” Gal­lant said. “A lot of teams can beat any­body and we were in that group. I didn’t know we would go this far, but I knew we had a chance as well as any­body.”

The Golden Knights have done more than win. They have cre­ated a stir in a city that is an epi­cen­tre of en­ter­tain­ment. Cher is play­ing at the Monte Carlo Re­sort, which sits be­side T-Mo­bile Arena. Tick­ets for her show on Fri­day night cost US$90. It will cost at least twice that to get into Game 4, if a seat can even be found.

A gun­man killed 58 peo­ple on the Las Ve­gas strip on Oct. 1. The Golden Knights scrapped plans for a cel­e­bra­tion be­fore their first reg­u­lar-sea­son home game on Oct. 10. They staged a pregame me­mo­rial in­stead.

A mo­ment of si­lence was held for 58 sec­onds.

The city has re­bounded from that great tragedy, and has taken its new team to heart. It is the first ma­jor pro sports team in Las Ve­gas.

“They have ig­nited this city,” said Marco Gar­cia, a steel­worker. “Noth­ing has ever im­pacted this town like hockey.”

He has lived in Las Ve­gas for 43 years. He worked on the arena’s con­struc­tion for more than a year. On the night the killing spree oc­curred, he helped pick up peo­ple that sur­vived the shoot­ing and drove them to safety.

“What the Knights have done has helped re­unite the com­mu­nity,” Gar­cia said. He cries. “I still get choked up.”

Hockey has found a home in the Ne­vada desert. Five thou­sands fans showed up to watch when the team’s nick­name and logo was in­tro­duced. Items given away dur­ing games are be­ing sold for hun­dreds of dol­lars on eBay. Golden Mis­fits T-shirts and Pa­cific Divi­sion Cham­pion pen­nants are be­ing sold al­most by the minute at team stores.

“Early on, we saw in­di­ca­tions of the in­tense pas­sion fans would have,” said Kerry Bubolz, the Golden Knights pres­i­dent. “But the way peo­ple have be­come en­gaged has blown me away.”

The game ended on Wed­nes­day night with Ve­gas hold­ing on. A row oc­curred be­tween both teams af­ter the game ended.

Fans cheered, and then joined in singing, Viva Las Ve­gas.

BRID­GET BEN­NETT/NYT

With wild, the­atri­cal pregame shows, such as this one from Wed­nes­day’s Game 3 of the West fi­nal, the Ve­gas Golden Knights have cre­ated a stir in a city that is an epi­cen­tre of en­ter­tain­ment.

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