How a hockey team helped a grieving city heal

October 1 will always hold special meaning to Las Vegas and the expansion team that helped the city heal.

LAS VEGAS — On Saturday, Las Vegas will be busy, as it is most every weekend. The city, which like most of the country is still bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic, will have visitors come to town to watch and wager on football, go to concerts and shows, dine at its fine restaurants, gamble and do what it does best — provide a place for people to have a good time.

But for the city’s residents, the date October 1 means something much different. Five years ago on that night, a deranged gunman perched himself in a room on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay facing Las Vegas Boulevard and spent 15 minutes raining terror down on concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest festival, a three-day country music event that had attracted tens of thousands of fans across from the hotel-casino.

When the carnage had stopped, 58 people were dead, hundreds more were wounded. It was the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. It remains so despite the dozens of other mass shootings that have taken place throughout the nation since.

Eventually, the number of dead would grow from 58 to 60 as two others who had sustained injuries that night succumbed to their wounds. Those who survived, more than 800, have emotional scars that may never heal.

A couple hours before, less than half a mile away at T-Mobile Arena, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights had just finished their final exhibition game of their inaugural NHL season, a loss to the San Jose Sharks. Five days later, they would travel to Dallas and play their first-ever regular season game. The home opener at T-Mobile, was scheduled for Oct. 10.

But amid all the chaos stemming from what took place at the concert, this new hockey team would help the city heal its collective wounds. Only one player, defenseman Deryk Engelland, had any connection with Las Vegas, having played for the ECHL’s Wranglers early in his career. But the team knew it could not stand idly by and watch.

“It was important to do something,” said forward Reilly Smith, one of six players still on the Golden Knights from Year One that includes William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore and William Carrier. “It was a crazy night. It was one of those fortunate things that you weren’t part of it. But we had no idea of how big an impact we were going to have. We were just trying to do our part to help in a terrible situation.”

McNabb, a defenseman and one of the “Original Six,” remembers how terrible it was but how the presence of the players seemed to lift up the community.

“You never forget something like that,” McNabb said. “It was a horrible evening but I thought we did a great job of helping the community out the best we could. There’s only so much we could do but we wanted to be there to support the city and I thought we did a good job.”

The day after the shooting, the players gathered at City National Arena, the team’s practice facility in Summerlin located approximately 16 miles from the killing zone on the Strip. Team staff were working with city and county officials to offer any support it could. Players were dispatched to United Blood Services, where people waited hours to give blood while standing in triple-digit temperatures without complaint. They went to the Las Vegas Convention Center, which was serving as a command center to disseminate information to those seeking the status of loved ones who were at the concert but hadn’t been heard from. Still other players visited with first responders — police, fire, EMTs, doctors, nurses — to thank them for answering the call when it was made and risked their own lives to save others.

“We didn’t know anyone and they didn’t really know us,” said Karlsson, who would center a line comprised of fellow “Golden Misfits” Smith and Marchessault for most of the team’s first five seasons. “But we knew it was the right thing to do and be there, even if we couldn’t do anything to help those who died or who were wounded.”

The team sent an important message to the community, one that has not been forgotten — “We’re with you. We support you.”

“Being in a new city, you definitely want to support your new fans and do whatever you can for them,” McNabb said.

Smith said: “We were all new here. We were just trying to do our part and help in a terrible situation.

“It’s remarkable the number of people who have come up to me and the others on the team and thanked us. But we were just doing what anyone would do.”

And while the community was beginning to bury its dead and continue to care for its wounded, the new hockey team had a game to prepare for. Somehow, coach Gerard Gallant managed to have his guys stay focused on Friday’s opener against the Dallas Stars, whose organization also was in a state of grieving, having lost team broadcaster Dave Strader to cancer earlier in the day on Oct. 1.

As the players continued their final preparations before taking off for Texas, the Golden Knights’ front office was making a 180-degree pivot for the home opener scheduled for Oct. 10. An elaborate festive gala had been months in the planning. The team’s mascot, a Gila monster nicknamed “Chance” was going to be introduced. The game, which was sold out for months, had intended to be a celebration of Las Vegas’ first major professional sports franchise.

Instead, the organization’s creative team, led by Jonny Greco, was coming up with a new plan. It had to hit the right notes. It had to be respectful. It also had to quickly go from somber to festive because, after all, there was a hockey game to play, and to win.

The team had first responders accompany the players, coaches and management on the ice during the pregame introductions. The dasher boards, which were normally filled with ads, now bore the message “VEGAS STRONG.” The names of the victims were etched into the ice and projected on the playing surface. Chance’s debut would wait. A moment of silence was observed for the victims.

Visitors come to the makeshift memorial of 58 crosses near the Welcome to Las Vegas sign October 7, 2017. Several makeshift memorials have sprung up after the worst mass shooting in modern American history on October 1, 2017. Credit: Tom Tingle/The Arizona Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK

Finally, Engelland spoke to the crowd. The veteran defenseman, a relatively quiet person off the ice, talked for 58 seconds.

“Like all of you, I’m proud to call Las Vegas home,” Engelland said. “I met my wife here. Our kids were born here. I know how special this city is.

“To all the brave first responders that have worked tirelessly and courageously through this whole tragedy, we thank you.

“To the families and friends of the victims, we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal.

“We are Vegas Strong.”

The crowd erupted. People were wiping away tears. The Arizona Coyotes, the opponent that night, joined the Golden Knights on the blue line in a show of solidarity, their sticks banging the ice in affirmation of Engelland’s words.

Then they dropped the puck. Vegas dominated and quickly led 1-0. Then, in storybook fashion, Engelland scored from the point to make it 2-0 en route to a 4-1 first-period lead.

The Knights would go on to win 5-2, their third straight win in what would turn out to be a magical season, one that saw them post NHL records for most wins and points by an expansion team and have the most success of any first-year team in sports history.

“We wanted to win for the city,” Karlsson said. “Everybody was pumped up. We definitely were ready to play.”

Smith said the Knights, who had come home with a 2-0 record with road wins over Dallas and Arizona, weren’t going to lose.

“Everybody knew how important that game was,” he said.

Vegas would win the Western Conference title and play for the Stanley Cup, only to lose to the Washington Capitals in five games. But it’s the things the team did before it played its first game that people in Las Vegas will always remember.

Yes, the fan base has recently become a bit sour on the team after it traded two of its most popular players in goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and forward Ryan Reaves and getting virtually nothing in return. The Knights, who will open their sixth season Oct. 11 in Los Angeles against the Kings, are on their third coach after hiring Bruce Cassidy on June 14 to replace Peter DeBoer, who replaced Gallant 2 1/2 years before. And the franchise is coming off missing the playoffs for the first time in its short existence, so there’s some hand-wringing over that.

But while Las Vegas recently celebrated the success of the WNBA’s Aces winning their first championship and are enjoying the status of having an NFL team in the Raiders, it is the Golden Knights who the citizens identify the strongest with. People who didn’t know a blue line from a goal line back in 2017 became fans of the Knights because of what the team did to help the city heal after suffering its darkest hour.

Players and coaches may come and go, but the connection between the team and community will never be broken. The team continues to have outreach events. Saturday, there’ll be an annual blood drive at City National Arena along with visits to the police and fire departments as well as the donation of a VGK-themed police cruiser.

“I think it’s important that we continue to stay involved,” Smith said. “These annual events are important to us as players as well as the community.”

And while the fifth anniversary is here, everyone who was with the team then remembers and has a special connection with Las Vegas.

“It’s hard to believe it’s five years already,” Karlsson sad. “It seems like yesterday.”

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