A Taste of Vegas Born

Chapter 7 – A City Heals

The images on television were undeniable. The carnage was unimaginable. They began counting the dead and trying to account for the wounded. Twelve. Then 20. Then 32. Eventually, the number of dead in the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival attack had reached 58. The number of wounded were over 500. How many exactly, no one was sure yet.

Las Vegas, as a city, was numb. How could one person cause all this? Why would Stephen Paddock do what he did? The people wanted answers, and Sheriff Joe Lombardo was doing his best to provide those answers.

Meanwhile, in Summerlin the Golden Knights were preparing to practice at City National Arena. Other than Deryk Engelland, none of them had lived in Las Vegas. This was still a new place for them. When the expansion draft had wrapped up, Engelland and his wife Melissa served as unofficial concierges for the defenseman’s new teammates and their families. Need a place to go shopping? Call Melissa. Looking for a church? Deryk might know someone. From a restaurant for dinner or a park to take the kids to play, if you needed help or a recommendation, you called the Engellands.

Now their new city was one in mourning. The full impact of what had taken place still hadn’t hit them. But they also knew that they were now part of something big, whether they liked it or not.

Las Vegas’ NHL team was going to play an important role in helping the city heal. There was no getting around it.
But how? How can a group of hockey players help?

When it was appropriate, the players would get out into the community. They would meet with the first responders who put their own lives on the line to save others. They would get to the hospitals, meet with the wounded and encourage them to get well. They would visit the local blood banks, where hundreds were lined up for hours waiting to donate.

Team officials quickly organized groups of players to make the requisite visits. By Tuesday they were out all over the city, posing for pictures, signing autographs, having a few private words with those who needed their support the most.

“Sports are a great thing. It can help take people’s minds off of things,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “As much as the city has embraced us, we’re a part of Las Vegas.”

For Engelland, trying to make sense of it all was an exercise in futility.

“My wife is still shaken up. She’s almost scared to go to the games, to take the kids to the home opener,” he said. “It hits hard and it hits in a lot of different ways. You see these things happen all over the world and no one ever thinks it’s going to happen in their backyard. For it to happen here, it’s horrific.”

After meeting with the first responders, Jonathan Marchessault was left with a healthy dose of humility.

“We’re nothing compared to those guys,” Marchessault said. “What they’ve done and what they do for our community and our country, it’s amazing. If you think about it we’re just entertainers. That’s it. They save lives. They make sure everything goes properly around us. They’re survivors. They’re warriors.”

And while this was going on, the team had to prepare for its opener on Friday. When they stepped onto the ice now, it was with a different sense of purpose. They were no longer just playing for themselves. They weren’t just playing for their fans. They were playing for an entire city. Gallant’s message of coming to the rink every day and having fun suddenly felt conflicted. Here was their city grieving, and yet they had a job to do, which was to entertain.

As the players prepared for the historic opener in Dallas, the marketing side had a dilemma on its hands. Elaborate plans had been in the works for a couple of months to celebrate the team’s home opener on October 10 at T-Mobile Arena. It was to be a festive affair, one of fun and all sorts of surprises. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman planned to attend as did local officials.

Suddenly, that celebration did not seem appropriate. The team had a Fan Fest scheduled for October 3 downtown at the Fremont Street Experience, which was to kick off the season. That was put on hold indefinitely. The attack was still fresh in everyone’s mind. No way could the hockey team expect its fans to show up and cheer the coming of the inaugural season.

That was the easy one. The pregame celebration for October 10 was far more problematic. The team had to do a 180-degree turn and make the celebration respectful, and with a somber tone to it.

Kim Frank, the team’s vice president of marketing and her staff along with Brian Killingsworth, the team’s chief marketing officer, met at City National Arena. Kerry Bubolz took part in the meetings along with Jonny Greco, who was going to coordinate whatever pregame activities there were going to be.

While the front office sorted out the details for the home opener, the Knights boarded their plane for Dallas. McPhee had made some tough decisions following the final preseason game. He had to turn in his roster to the league and when he did, some noticeable names were missing.

Calvin Pickard was no longer with the team. His preseason struggles combined with picking up Malcolm Subban off waivers sealed his fate. Pickard was traded to Toronto for forward Tobias Lindberg and a sixth-round draft pick in 2018. Subban, the younger brother of Nashville Predators all-star defenseman P.K. Subban, was considered a talented prospect. He was just 24 years old and had lots of upside. The feeling was that goaltending coach David Prior would be able to work with Subban and accelerate his development. Besides, Fleury was going to play the majority of the games and Subban wouldn’t need to be rushed.

On defense, Shea Theodore was headed to the Chicago Wolves while Clayton Stoner was put on injured reserve. Theodore had shown some ability offensively during the preseason, but defensively he was still trying to find his way. Rather than make him a healthy scratch, better for him to play regular minutes in the AHL.

Clayton Stoner reportedly had sustained an abdominal injury similar to one that had limited him to just 14 games with Anaheim in 2016-17. He would never play a game for the Golden Knights.

Alex Tuch also was headed to the AHL. While his game was good, there was no spot for him, and like Theodore, McPhee felt Tuch would be better served playing in Chicago than sitting in a press box with the Knights.

But the biggest, most shocking move was Vadim Shipachyov. The player the Knights hoped would center their first line had failed to deliver and he too was optioned to the Chicago Wolves. But unlike Tuch and Theodore who had accepted their reassignments gracefully and reported with no issues, Shipachyov balked at being sent to the minors. No way did he want to leave his family in Las Vegas to go work in yet another strange city. He and his wife were still struggling to deal with the October 1 shootings and how uncomfortable they were. So the last thing he wanted was to accept a demotion.

He was getting paid nine million dollars to play hockey and from McPhee’s perspective, it was a case of “If we’re paying you, you’re playing where we tell you to.”

Shipachyov reluctantly agreed to report to the Wolves, who, ironically, were also starting their season in Texas against the Texas Stars. However, he refused to suit up and play.

It was the kind of distraction the Golden Knights didn’t need, particularly as they were trying to focus on their first- ever game. But the team’s leadership group made sure it didn’t impact the locker room. Everyone was excited about playing in the historic opener and coach Gerard Gallant’s lineup for October 6, 2017, looked like this:

Forward lines:
Reilly Smith-Oscar Lindberg-Jonathan Marchessault

David Perron-Cody Eakin-James Neal

Brendan Leipsic-Erik Haula-William Karlsson

Tomas Nosek-Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Will Carrier

Defense pairs:
Deryk Engelland-Jason Garrison

Colin Miller-Brayden McNabb

Nate Schmidt-Luca Sbisa

Goaltenders
Marc-Andre Fleury
Malcolm Subban

The Stars were aware of what had transpired in Las Vegas, and their organization was also dealing with the loss of a loved one. Team broadcaster Dave Strader had fought a brave battle against bile duct cancer and died on October 1. The team was going to honor Strader on the night of their opener. Now they would also honor the 58 shooting victims in Las Vegas.

As the Knights players stood on their blue line for the pregame ceremony, the Stars joined them, standing behind the visitors in a show of solidarity. A video tribute for Strader was shown inside American Airlines Center and was met with warm applause. Then a moment of silence for both Strader and the shooting victims was observed. It was a nice touch by the NHL and Stars management.

The game would be televised back to Las Vegas as an eleventh-hour deal had been struck between AT&T, which owned AT&T Sportsnet Rocky Mountain, and Cox Communications, the largest cable distributor in the area. And as the puck dropped at 7:42 p.m. in Dallas, the Golden Knights were officially playing hockey that would count in the NHL standings.

The Stars were coming in waves, outworking the Knights and putting pressure on Fleury. But despite 14 shots on goal and several missed quality chances, the game remained scoreless heading into the second period. But eventually Dallas solved Fleury as Tyler Seguin scored the game’s first goal with just under three minutes to play in the second period.

It was 1-0 with 20 minutes to play. Yet despite being outshot 35-18 over the first two periods, the Knights believed they were in good shape. Dallas starting goaltender Ben Bishop had to leave the game in the second period with an injury after he took a shot to the face and had to go to concussion protocol. Kari Lehtonen, his backup, had struggled mightily the year before and now Lehtonen was being asked to hold the fort.

The Knights picked up the pace in the third period and James Neal scored the franchise’s first regular-season goal, a wrist shot as he had jumped on the ice as an extra attacker on a delayed penalty to the Stars.

Neal had missed the entire preseason as his surgically repaired right hand was still healing and he was a game-time decision for opening night. But he convinced Gallant he was good to go, and he delivered with 9:33 to play to tie the game at 1-1. The goal had given the Knights a lift and they continued to press forward, working hard on the forecheck and putting additional pressure on the Stars’ defense and their vulnerable goalie.

With under three minutes to play and overtime looming, it was Neal again delivering. Garrison had gotten the puck out of the Knights’ end to Eakin who skated down the middle. Neal, who was moving down the right side in support of the play, caught Eakin’s eye. He slid the puck to Neal and while it wasn’t a perfect pass, it was close enough. And as Neal lost his balance, he still was able to make a play, shooting from one knee from inside the right face-off circle. Lehtonen was slow to respond and the Knights suddenly were in front 2-1.

Fleury took over from there, repelling the Stars’ attempts to tie it late, and when the game was over, the Knights swarmed their goaltender and hugged each other. The franchise had won its first game and there was excitement stemming from the victorious locker room.

“I expected to stop them all,” Fleury said after stopping 45 of the 46 shots he faced. “But it’s a great win for us. We’re a new team and everyone kept working hard. It’s exciting to win the first game.”

Gallant said of the historic first win: “We worked hard all game. We stuck around, we got a couple of good opportunities and we capitalized on them.”

But the Knights had little time to celebrate. They were flying to Phoenix to face the Arizona Coyotes the next night in Glendale, at Gila River Arena. The Coyotes were a struggling franchise and were trying to move on without their captain and spiritual leader, Shane Doan, who had retired after the 2016-17 season. They had changed coaches, replacing Dave Tippett with Rick Tocchet. They had also traded popular goalie Mike Smith to Calgary, and this was a team that was in transition.

Once again, the Knights found themselves trailing as Tobias Rieder had scored 5:52 into the game. But unlike the opener where the home team carried the play, the visitors were the ones dominating. The Knights pressured Antti Raanta with 32 shots over the first two periods yet they still trailed 1-0 heading into the third period. Fleury was equally brilliant in the Vegas net, denying several quality chances by the Coyotes and also getting help from the goalpost and crossbar on a couple of occasions.

But the Knights were still unable to score and time was running out. With 1:12 to play, Nate Schmidt finally broke

through, tying the game with a shot from the slot. It went to overtime and once again Neal delivered, scoring the game- winner with 1:14 to play after David Perron had set him up on the right side.

“You have to play a patient, simple game and wait for your chances,” Neal said. “I think that’s what we did.”

Though the season was only two games old, the Knights were showing a trait associated with winners — resiliency.

“Nobody was panicking on the bench,” Schmidt said. “We were getting our chances. It was just a matter of getting one to go in.”

They were undefeated and going home to what would be an emotional night, the kind of night none of them would ever forget.