- On an expansion team filled with castaways, Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant is inspiring his team in Sin City.
LAS VEGAS – “What the f--- do you want?”
Gerard Gallant strolls into his unmarked office inside City National Arena, wearing socks without shoes and peeling a banana. Things are kept casual around here, an ethos that evidently extends to greeting visitors. The head coach laughs. At this moment, early one morning last week, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights sit atop the Western Conference, jockeying with Tampa Bay for the league lead. Barring some drastic bust—or maybe an all-night bender at the Mandalay Bay ice bar by the voting bloc of broadcasters—Gallant will run away with the Jack Adams Award too. What could anyone possibly get mad about?
Almost four months have passed since the team moved to its new suburban headquarters, located across the street from Red Rock Casino Resort & Spa, but Gallant still hasn’t decorated his digs. The walls are empty, save for a mounted TV, dry-erase board and a breastplate-sized version of the Golden Knights’ helmet logo. The desk is covered with printouts of drills and statistics, plus a few handwritten envelopes from fans and a bottle of Jack Daniels gifted by the training staff—but no pictures or souvenirs. Perhaps Gallant will frame the lineup card from the regular-season opener. Otherwise, he says, “I think about the hockey part of the job. I think about coming to the rink and getting ready to play. But it’s all first, all new. We enjoy it.”
That was the gist of the message Gallant impressed upon his players at their first training camp meeting, held in the video room across the hall. “One of the first things he says is, whatever happens this year, I want you guys to have fun,” winger Jonathan Marchessault recalls. “When he starts saying that, everybody’s like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard that from a coach.’” Since then, the Golden Knights have minted all sorts of memories together: an 8-1 start, an eight-game winning streak entering 2018, a three-goal, third-period flurry Tuesday night against Calgary that tied Vegas with Florida and Anaheim for most wins by a first-year franchise (33) ... with 33 games left to go.
“We have a good culture right now,” Marchessault says. “It all starts with Turk.”
The nickname predates Gallant’s memory. He was 2 ½ years old, chasing baby turkeys around his uncle’s clay basement floor. His older brother called him Turkey, which turned into Turk, which stuck. (Between this and Spuddy, another sobriquet inspired by the abundant potatoes grown along his native Prince Edward Island, the coach is some cranberry sauce short of Thanksgiving dinner.) Out here in the desert, however, Gallant doesn’t do much chasing. He rarely speaks during practice, delegates whistle-blowing duties to longtime assistant Mike Kelly, gets mad "two to three times every year" and religiously avoids making his presence felt inside the Golden Knights’ locker room.
“That’s their space,” he says. “If I’m in there too much, it’s not going to help.”
Perhaps this is what folks mean when they describe Gallant as a “players coach.” He spent a decade in the NHL, mostly with the Red Wings, stockpiling 1,674 penalty minutes and 480 points over 615 games, before moving behind the bench. “He’s been in our shoes before, so he can relate,” winger James Neal says. But plenty other coaches wore sweaters once; Gallant separates himself with a quick wit and open ear. Wonder why all of Vegas’ top-four wingers—Marchessault, Neal, Reilly Smith and David Perron—skate on their off-wing? Gallant shrugs. “Because they asked,” he says. “That’s what they prefer.”
“He’s excellent tactically,” says general manager George McPhee, “but it’s not so much the tactical stuff as the trust and faith that he has in players to give them a second, third, fourth chance.”
It is an expansion team filled with castaways, after all, coach included. Gallant declines to discuss details about his messy firing from Florida in Nov. 2016, but describes a recent shootout loss there as “closure.” This feeling extended to the next stop on the Golden Knights’ road trip, Carolina’s PNC Arena, where Gallant and Kelly had been informed of their dismissals after an 11-9-1 start to the season. As Gallant was leaving the rink, waiting for a chauffeured car that never arrived—which led to the ubiquitous, and somewhat misleading, photo of him climbing into a taxi that he and Kelly actually flagged down—he shook hands with Marchessault. “That was brutal,” says Marchessault, then a Panthers forward. “Everyone was mad about it. He doesn’t want it. It was a bad situation. I couldn’t be happier for his success this year.”
More than most, Gallant also understands expansion from the players’ perspective. He was an assistant under head coach Dave King when Columbus debuted in ‘00-01. He recalls the Blue Jackets boasting far less offensive firepower than the run-and-gun Golden Knights. "We knew we had a hard route," Gallant says. "We thought we’d have a lot of trouble to score, which we did."
Still, the experience taught him about how new squads need long leashes, especially at the start. “They wanted us to make mistakes, so they could see what they had to work,” center Pierre-Édouard Bellemare says of the Golden Knights’ staff. “Instead of having an organization that would’ve overworked us … [and] controlled every move, they let us do quite a lot in the beginning. Then, when they had materials, they said, ‘Boys, we don’t want this, more of that.’”
But unlike McPhee, who had conducted several information-gathering interviews with former general managers of past expansion teams, Gallant did not plumb his predecessors for advice. Not even King. “I don’t know what anybody else could tell me,” he says. “I made up my mind when I got the job, what I was going to do was what I did in Florida. Didn’t matter the players I got. That’s what I’m going to do. I wasn’t going to change my system.
“We’re trying to play a fast, aggressive game. That’s the way I coach. I make our players play fast. I want them to play fast. I don’t want to be a trapping team that backs off. I want to play with energy. We’re not a big physical team. We’ve got some physical players. But for the most part we’re a smaller, quicker team that uses their speed and has some skills.”
Indeed, the Golden Knights unleash a hellacious 1-2-2 forecheck, punish opponents through neutral zone counterattacks, exhaust them with four balanced lines. Marchessault paces the team with 48 points in 46 games, four ahead of top-line center and leading goal-scorer William Karlsson. Puck-moving defensemen like Nate Schmidt, Colin Miller and Shea Theodore join rushes without reservation.
“As soon as you play a little bit passive, we can hear it,” Bellemare says. “They do not want us to play that way. They let us know that this is not the way you can win games. You might win one. But eventually you will lose more than you win. That’s where we’re at right now. It is way more fun.”
Ah, yes. That word again. Out in Sin City, the Golden Knights are having a devilishly enjoyable time. There is Neal, scaring the bejeezus out of teammates by dressing like Pennywise for the Halloween party. There is Schmidt, taking the ice for practice with some … creative helmet art. There is Flava Flav, flashing his clock necklace to the T-Mobile Arena crowd and cranking the siren before the third period against Columbus last week. “Very first time ever at a hockey game,” the rapper tells the crowd. “Go Golden Knights! Yeah boy!”
Gallant senses the energy too. He thinks about the team’s recent fan fest, when more than 10,000 packed into old downtown and “you didn’t see nothing but heads.” In Florida, Gallant says, “the only people who recognized me were French-Canadian snowbirds. And it didn’t happen that often. In Detroit, a lot of people recognized you back in the day. It’s getting close to that. If you go out here, it’s sort of shocking. You don’t get many days off, but maybe you go to the casino for dinner, people are saying, ‘Hi coach!’ It surprised me a little bit.”
A fun surprise, no doubt.