LAS VEGAS — It’s all brand-new. Everything here at 1550 South Pavilion Center Drive, which is such a new address that Google still spits you onto the other side of the roundabout. There is the giant inflatable hockey player that looms outside wearing a No. 31 jersey, and the truck parked nearby where fans can buy merchandise of the human-sized, non-inflatable sort. Eleven months ago, this lot was nothing but dirt and dust. Now there is concrete, and trees, and the sign letters above the entrance—CITY NATIONAL ARENA—that were hung just last week, only slightly late for the hockey team that arrived.
The two ice sheets are fresh inside, the 6,500 square-foot restaurant is open and five rows of bleachers are packed with season-ticket holders, much like they were on the first day of training camp. The glass boards are still clear and the crossbars are still bright red, though it won’t take long for both to get smudged by pucks. The ice resurfacer advertises for The D Las Vegas, a downtown casino that opened in 2012, back when the NHL had 30 teams. The right side of the scoreboard says VISITOR; the left side says HOME.
Each day, the Vegas Golden Knights march onto new ground. “Everything’s the first time,” owner Bill Foley says. And sometimes they get lost. When training camp opened, forward Pierre Edouard-Bellemare went looking for the stick room and got lost three different ways. “I always tried to take a shortcut but I never actually reached it,” he says. “Now it’s been three days. It doesn’t feel yet like I know where every place is, but I know the couch is there, TV’s there, shakes are there, locker room, shower...”
Look, new carpet shaded in the team’s primary colors—steel gray, black, red and gold!
Around this time last fall, Bellemare was attending the 2016 World Cup of Hockey with Team Europe, the pancontinental mishmash of players whose countries weren’t big enough to participate alone. “Same feeling,” he says. “Compared to when you’re a new player into a team, all the guys know each other, so some of the guys have to make efforts. Compared to that, here, we’re all in the same situation. We’re all new players in a new team.”
And so, on his first day at the facility, Bellemare visited the team offices upstairs to make introductions and begin learning names. A nice gesture, but an almost impossible task. “Right away,” Bellemare says, “you get like, Oh boy.” Defenseman Nate Schmidt has focused his efforts on teammates, albeit with mixed results. “To establish chemistry with people you give them nicknames and start remembering everything by it,” he explains. “Sometimes they’ve liked it, sometimes I’ve gotten an awkward stare back.” Try having to manage them all. “I didn’t know a lot of our guys,” head coach Gerard Gallant says. “They’d walk by, you’d guess their name. Now you put the name with the face, it’s a lot easier.”
And how’s it going so far? “I’m awful with names. Awful.”
Sunday night, the Golden Knights had their first preseason game in Vancouver and walloped the Canucks 9-4. The next morning, city leaders proclaimed that Sept. 18 would be known as City National Arena Day in Clark County and southern Nevada. “This is a game-changer for us,” lieutenant governor Mark Hutchison told the crowd, not long before the first ceremonial puck was dropped at the new rink. “Vegas had one thing missing: Major league professional sports.”
Of course, it’s all novel for locals too. Defenseman Deryk Engelland, whose family was already living in Las Vegas during the offseason before he joined the Golden Knights, had a first-day-of-school experience Monday morning. Upon coming downstairs in his gameday suit, a few hours before flying to Denver for his preseason debut, his wife started taking pictures. “Probably the best dressed I’ve been leaving the house, for sure,” Engelland says. “Definitely a new feeling coming to the rink. It’s going to be real. We’re playing a different team.”
At some point, players expect, life as NHLers in Las Vegas will start feeling normal. Engelland’s son, Cash, got there promptly after the expansion draft, when he started telling strangers at the grocery, “My dad plays for the Golden Knights!”
Others have help; while he looked for a house, Schmidt was living with forward Erik Haula, his former roommate at the University of Minnesota, just like old times. “After a week’s gone by, since most of the guys have been here, a lot of people are getting used to each other,” he says. “You’re getting more acclimated. Sometimes you run out of things to say...Usually not me, though. I try to get guys going.” Now that Schmidt closed on a sale, one assumes he’ll host some get-togethers in the near future; he has big plans for a game room featuring Ms. Pac-Man and Golden Tee.
“You knew what to expect by your fourth or fifth camp [on another team],” goalie Calvin Pickard says. “It’s the first for everybody here. You never know what to expect in terms of practices, what’s going to happen before or after. Everybody’s taking it in stride and having a lot of fun.”
If they weren’t, well, something would be seriously wrong. The practice facility sits across the street from the Red Rock Casino, where the Golden Knights recently held an organization-wide shindig and Bellemare again made an honest effort to learn names. A few have explored the Strip, but suburban Summerlin has enough attractions (mainly golf courses) to keep idle minds occupied. Everything is located 20 minutes away. “Food everywhere, simple, no traffic,” Bellemare says. “You get spoiled a bit.”
Already there are whiffs of familiarity at work. When everyone returned to the locker room after the first practice, sweaty and gassed, Bellemare thought back to his time with the Flyers. Same feeling. “Always stressful,” he says. “You worry about your first set of passes, make sure they’re nice, because everyone’s looking at you.” Close your eyes and the rink sounds—maybe even smells—like any other. “Once you get to know the trainers, the guys sitting beside you, it’s just hockey,” center Cody Eakin says. But even the bigwigs need to learn; Foley spent Monday afternoon on a self-guided tour, peeking in the training room and storage closets.
More firsts are coming soon, of course. The first exhibition game at T-Mobile Arena is next Tuesday, the season-opener in Dallas on Oct. 6, and the regular season home opener Oct. 10 against Arizona. Someone will strike the first goal, feed the first assist, record the first shutout. The rhythms will settle, the grind will begin, and road trips to Winnipeg in February will still freeze their toes.
For a time, Bellemare thought that he would hate playing in a warm-weather climate. He spent eight years in Sweden, and then three in Philadelphia. “For me, hockey is winter, and my brain is set to vacation mode in Florida or all those places,” he says, starting a story. The other night, he and his wife were at a nearby restaurant, talking about how this was definitely not vacation. It was a weird feeling, one that he guesses will wane over time, but unfamiliar nonetheless.
“This is cool,” Bellemare says. “I’ve worked so hard to be able somehow make the NHL one day, and I didn’t even believe I could make it. I’ve never been picky about which place I will play. I’ve played in Sweden in a town which was really small, 7,000 to 10,000 people, and 11 years later I’m in Vegas. Talk about keep working and see what happens. Really.”