LAS VEGAS— The night started with 58 seconds of silence. It ended with the hockey players wearing the gray sweaters skating around the center circle, sticks raised to acknowledge the home crowd, as “Viva Las Vegas” blared on the T-Mobile Arena speakers.
In between, there were touching tributes, Cirque du Soleil dancers and 60 unforgettable minutes of game time. The Golden Knights’ first home game served dual roles Tuesday night—offering an outlet for the sold out crowd to look back and remember, and a chance to look ahead.
This was supposed to be a happy story. To come out to Vegas and cover the first home game of the city’s first major league sports team.
Inaugural games are often fraught with mixed feelings. It’s hard to watch the L.A. Chargers without thinking of the fans left behind in San Diego. It will feel the same way when the Raiders eventually kick off in this same city, to know how many scorned fans remain in Oakland.
But expansion is very different from relocation. One day there are 30 NHL teams and then the next—poof—there are 31. Hockey has expanded south and west, fully conquering the Sun Belt, putting sheets of ice in any climate it chooses. And so the longstanding dream of a professional team in Vegas is finally realized.
This was supposed to be a happy day.
Then last Sunday night happened. A gunman 32 stories up in the Mandalay Bay shot into a crowd at a concert below, resulting in more casualties than any other mass shooting in U.S. history.
Less than a mile down Las Vegas Blvd. from the Golden Knights’ home arena, the concert area is still roped off. There are orange barricades laced with caution tape that says CRIME SCENE in capital letters. A median in the road has become a memorial area with posters, flowers and lots and lots of candles. There are messages written in chalk, bottles of Bud Light and Fireball, and teddy bears draped in t-shirts with the famous “Welcome to Las Vegas” logo.
Much of the Strip remains the same as it ever was. There are the glitzy signs, even for outfits like CVS and Denny’s. There are Ninja Turtles and Elvis impersonators posing for pictures. There are slot machines, blackjack tables and buffets around every corner. This was the happy, carefree tourist attraction Vegas that was given a pro team.
But for so many members of this community, life will never be the same.
Physical reminders of last Sunday’s shooting are abundant around town—often packaged as uplifting messages of the city’s strength, but still present enough that the grief and gloom is rarely far from mind.
Anyone who landed at McCarran International on Monday night was greeted immediately with #VegasStrong messaging above the escalators from the terminal down to baggage claim. Elsewhere, casinos around town shared similar notes on video boards that might typically be used to advertise drink specials or concert dates.
Inside the arena, the Golden Knights forewent advertising on the boards to instead encircle the rink in the Vegas Strong hashtag and logo. The in-game video feeds offered a steady stream of camera shots featuring Vegas Strong t-shirts, fans holding up the white #VegasStrong rally towels placed on every seat and supportive social media posts with a common theme.
The Golden Knights desperately want to be a part of this community. One of the knocks on Vegas as a potential home to a pro sports franchise has been that it’s a tourist city that could struggle to gain a true local following. Will they ever have a home crowd advantage, or will the stands be full of tourists and bachelor parties, ready to leave after an hour to get back to the clubs and the craps tables?
The team reached its cap of 16,000 season tickets, then went so far as to announce a plan to embed the names of its season ticket holders into the ice itself as a symbol of unity—team and community, joined together. On Tuesday, the team was joined by a list of names much more meaningful.
Emotions ran high as the arena counted down the final minutes before the first puck dropped. There were video tributes from players around the league, and another from famous musicians, to declare themselves on Vegas’s team. An even more powerful video was the tribute to first responders, doctors, nurses and others who showed their strength and came together in the face of tragedy. Players took the ice accompanied by those very members of the community as sergeants and policemen and hospital workers were rightfully bathed with the type of ovation frequently reserved for athletes.
The most touching moment of the night, though, was not the applause but the silence. Fifty-eight seconds, one for each casualty of last week’s tragedy. The video board counted up from 0 to 58, as a chilling silent emptiness filled the arena. A projector shined the phrase Vegas Strong and those 58 names of the shooting victims. Nobody made a peep.
Eventually a hockey game took place. Here’s as good a time as any to note that the team started the inaugural season by winning two road games before the first home date.
The raucous crowd was decked out in jerseys, t-shirts and pullovers with their new team’s logo. And if they’d never before had the chance to root on their very own winning team, they didn’t show any inexperience in that department. The team itself, which pundits did not expect to be very competitive this year, looked like it was accustomed to winning too.
The first period in particular rivaled any show you could buy tickets to on the Strip. Two minutes and 31 seconds in—goal. Tomas Nosek, who’d played only 17 career NHL games before becoming a Golden Knight. Less than two minutes after that—goal. Deryk Engelland, who had addressed the crowd before the game and spoken about Vegas being his home, where he had met his wife and where his kids were born. Less than two minutes after that—goal. James Neal, who had already tallied three of the first four goals in franchise history. Four and a half minutes after that—goal. Neal again.
Four goals in just over 10 minutes. The crowd erupted each time, as this team—their team—put a dramatic stamp on its arrival in town.
There were plenty of times it just felt like a normal night at a sporting event. They played "YMCA" and people did the arm motions. They had a dance cam. The fans hilariously booed the ref as he announced a cross-checking penalty against the home team with 1:03 remaining in a game that was long over.
There were aspects of the night that still felt very Vegas-y. The enormous panorama of the Strip curved around one end of the arena just below the ceiling. An inflatable beach ball in the shape of a six-sided die that bounced around one section early in the night. Perhaps a little too much Carrot Top on the jumbotron. And yes, the Cirque du Soleil performers who put on a show during the first intermission.
On Tuesday night the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Arizona Coyotes 5-2. It would be trite to say that a hockey game will help the grieving families or scarred community recover. This will take a long time. But for the many fans, the Vegas residents, those who had waited a long time for what they expected to be a happy night, they got one with a happy ending. Viva Las Vegas.