This story appears in the Feb. 12, 2017, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
The most spectacular show in Las Vegas features many apparent mysteries but only one obvious illusion. Exiting the home locker room before each period at T-Mobile Arena, the Golden Knights march down an entrance tunnel lined with looking glass. Viewed from the right angle, this creates the appearance of multiplying hockey players hitting the ice. “Those mirrors ...” says Nashville GM David Poile, evidently still spooked from a 3–0 defeat that his defending Western Conference champs received Jan. 2. “It’s like an army coming out.”
The in-game experience is not far off for visiting teams. Whereas past NHL expansion efforts such as the 1993–94 Florida Panthers chased respectability with passive, defensive-minded systems, the Golden Knights swarm on an aggressive forecheck, overwhelm with swift counterattacks, suffocate through prolonged offensive zone possessions. They roll four lines and three defensive pairs without regard for matchups (and giant fuzzy dice, but more on those later). Given how often Columbus got hemmed in while losing 6–3 on Jan. 23—defenseman Seth Jones was credited with a muscle-melting shift of 2:53—it is a wonder that no Blue Jackets dashed across the street during intermission to huff the oxygenated air at the Monte Carlo.
“They play with arrogance, which is a compliment,” Columbus captain Nick Foligno gushed. “They’re making behind-the-back passes, passes in the slot right on guys’ tape. They just know when someone’s coming through, and—boom—they take off.”
When team owner Bill Foley repeatedly declared his intention for the Golden Knights to reach the playoffs in three seasons and capture Lord Stanley in six, most hockey minds judged him crazy—not conservative. The city gets labeled for its fluorescent phoniness, fair or not, but here is something spectacularly real: Not only should Vegas become the first major league expansion franchise in the four major sports to finish its inaugural season above .500, the Golden Knights (34‑13‑4, through Feb. 3) lead the Western Conference, are tied for the best home record (19‑3‑2) in the NHL, have scored the second-most goals per game (3.35), have ceded the eighth fewest (2.65) and are on pace to become the first NHL expansion team to make the postseason since the league doubled from six to 12 in 1967.
First place? Hockey? Las Vegas? How the hell is this happening?
“Good question,” top-line center William Karlsson says. “It started off as a bunch of guys trying to prove themselves.” Behind the scenes, the players razz each other constantly about getting ditched by their previous teams, whether they were exposed in the expansion draft or traded. Even coach Gerard Gallant can play the castaway card: He was fired by Florida 22 games into last season. “Those classic chirps,” says Karlsson, who earned proper revenge with two goals against Columbus. “They didn’t want you! Hell, no, they didn’t want me! We have fun with it.”
“They’ve probably been telling each other that people don’t respect them,” Foligno says. “Well, everyone is f‑‑‑‑‑‑ starting to.”
The man whose $500 million check put pro sports in Las Vegas would like everyone to stop. “We’re still not any good,” Foley says, with more than a hint of sarcasm. “We understand. We’re just lucky. Teams come here, they go out, they stay up all night. They’re tired.” In the medical community, this malady is known as the Vegas Flu. Side effects include headaches, nausea, lighter wallets and losses. But whether sloshed, sober or “playing guilty,” as Columbus coach John Tortorella encouraged when his team arrived two days early, most comers to Sin City simply get smashed by the Golden Knights.
So, how is this happening? No need for complicated theories. Around Las Vegas, the simplest answer is usually correct—Occam’s Luxor. Assembled under the most generous expansion draft rules in league history, backstopped by an all-world goalie, encouraged by a not-so-bossy bench boss—“Whatever happens this year,” Gallant announced at the first team meeting, “I want you guys to have fun”—and fueled by a rabid fan base ranging from Lil’ Jon to Carrot Top, the Golden Knights are believe-it-or-not legit. “I don’t think we expected to be this successful this quickly,” says winger Reilly Smith. “But I don’t think it’s that hard to fathom why we are.”
The footage opens on general manager George McPhee, zooming into focus and revealing a smile. He sits inside the war room at Golden Knights headquarters, against a wall covered with hundreds of magnetic name tags forming depth charts for every NHL and AHL team, opposite a row of grease boards and darkened projection screens. A few minutes earlier, at 6:56 a.m. PST on June 21, 2017, the Vegas front office had emailed its draft picks to league headquarters. Like any proud parent, McPhee wanted to catalog those early moments of existence. “Because this is history,” he explained, so someone found a handheld camera and hit record.
“We prepared for every single thing,” McPhee tells assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon in the video, which SI recently viewed. “But actually when we got here ... the world had stopped for a minute. And we sat down. And I looked at you. And we both had the same feeling. Like, Now what do we do? How do we actually start? Because it’s the real thing.”
As months of scouting trips, phone calls and staff-wide mock drafts led to a three-day selection window, McPhee recalled the words of Doug Risebrough. Childhood friends from southwestern Ontario, the pair had recently spent five hours discussing Risebrough’s experience running the expansion Minnesota Wild (2000–01). Among his morsels of advice, the longtime NHL executive and current Rangers pro scout encouraged McPhee to seek “the unknown surprises” who could outperform their past. “We don’t have the talent that other teams have,” McPhee says now. “We had to find another way.”
Several obvious choices, such as sharpshooting winger James Neal (22 goals, 13 assists) and journeyman linemate David Perron (13 goals, 33 assists) have delivered as hoped. But pleasant revelations litter the rest of the roster. After a 30-goal season in Florida, the Golden Knights’ own Lil’ Jon—5' 9", 174-pound Jonathan Marchessault—is scoring at a point-per-game pace. Four defensemen have already reached career-best offensive totals too, a group that includes time-on-ice leader Nate Schmidt (22:30), who endured several healthy scratches with Washington late in 2016–17. “Guys knew that they were coming into a clean slate and any spot was open,” defenseman Deryk Engelland says. “Everyone took that and ran with it.”
No better example exists than Karlsson. Ironically nicknamed Wild Bill by his former coaches in Anaheim, the shy Swede had been Columbus’s checking-line center for the last two seasons. Sensing greater opportunity after Vegas picked him, Karlsson shaved several inches from his Warrior stick last summer and flattened its lie angle, hoping to feel “more compact, more like a unit” while shooting. The result: After scoring only 18 goals in 183 career games, the 25-year-old entered the All-Star break with 27, trailing only Alex Ovechkin (30) for the NHL lead. “We just thought he was a good all-around player,” McPhee says now. “We didn’t think he’d be this.”
As the camera rolled 7 1⁄2 months ago, the GM looked across the war room at the Golden Knights’ selections, each name boxed and checked on a grease board. Prompted to describe the feeling, he replies, “Relieved. I think we delivered.” Indeed, the entire process had been an exercise in stamina; before publicly revealing the results that evening at T-Mobile Arena, McPhee sneaked in a catnap on the coaches’ room carpet using his dress shoe as a pillow. When the lists of unprotected players had been released, he recalls, only one choice felt like “automatic” from the start. Clearly fans at the expansion draft show agreed, judging by the standing ovation and booming chant showered upon the new face of the franchise:
FLEUR-Y! FLEUR-Y! FLEUR-Y!
Elvis has entered the building.
Five Elvises actually, each sporting thick makeup, thicker sideburns and a brilliant rhinestone jumpsuit—except for Justin Shandor, winner of the 2010 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest, who rocks a gold lamé jacket. Think the NHL is intense? Try wading into Las Vegas’s pool of impersonators. As word of a photo shoot spread around town, seven others cold-called about joining the gig, pitching themselves as ’50s Elvis, ’60s Elvis, Red Cape Elvis, Gold Lamé Elvis, Old Elvis, Black Elvis.... So did a woman, wondering if by chance SI needed any showgirls.
(Thankyavurrymuch, but no.)
Soon Las Vegas’s newest headliner enters the hotel ballroom, holding the door for Purple Elvis. “How’s the hair?” Marc-André Fleury says. “I didn’t bring gel.” He laughs. Of course he does. That’s the first thing anyone mentions about the 33-year-old goalie. No matter the situation, “Flower” is always abloom. During games he narrates parries—“pokecheck!”—and hollers as shooters skate past: “Good try, dude! Next time, maybe!” Before starts, he cartwheels around the locker room, dives over couches, walks on his hands. As fellow Pittsburgh Penguins quietly focused before Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup finals at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena—which Fleury clinched with a lunging, cross-crease shoulder save on Nicklas Lidstrom at the buzzer—he was busy fashioning a belt and suspenders out of shin-guard tape.
In addition to a decorated résumé—he has won more Stanley Cups (three) than the rest of Vegas’s roster combined (zero), and his 115 playoff games outpace any teammate by 35—this joie de vivre made Fleury perfectly suited for an expansion franchise. If the Golden Knights were indeed destined for a rocky maiden voyage, might as well have someone cracking jokes in the galley. (Or performing Fleury’s favorite prank by ducking under table cloths and dumping pasta sauce onto sneakers; rumored victims of the daring “shoe check” include NBC Sports announcer Pierre McGuire in a Philadelphia steak house and actor David Spade over dinner at Penguins owner Ron Burkle’s Beverly Hills mansion.)
“Trying to be in the zone, in the game, all these words people use, to me it doesn’t work that way,” Fleury says. “I don’t like sitting there waiting for the clock. I feel stuck. I’d rather run around and laugh.”
That was the plan in Las Vegas: Shake hands, save lots of pucks and perform face-of-the-franchise tasks—like, say, posing with Elvises. Then came Oct. 13. Unbeaten through their first three games, riding a .963 save percentage from Fleury, the Golden Knights were hosting Detroit. Midway through the second period, as Fleury sprawled sideways to make a save, Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha’s right knee plowed straight into his head. “My neck was really sore and tight,” Fleury remembers. “I was like, ‘I’ll be fine.’ Then I went back for the third period, and that’s when things started to get a little rough. I knew I wasn’t right then.”
Diagnosed with his third concussion in less than three years, hockey’s happiest man spent two months trying to recover. He received cranial massages to relieve tension and headaches, performed vestibular exercises that helped manage dizziness, visited a vision therapist because one eye was getting blurry whenever he exercised. “It’s just frustrating to not know how long it’s going to be,” Fleury says. “Your body feels fine. You feel like you can do anything. But your head’s not right. ... New team, new teammates, new fans, so much hype. I didn’t want to disappoint anybody. I’m supposed to be in there playing a lot and I couldn’t.”
When a high shot struck Fleury’s chin late in 2015–16—fired by his future Golden Knights teammate Neal—it sparked a chain of events that ultimately led to his departure from Pittsburgh. The torch officially passed when Fleury handed successor Matt Murray the Stanley Cup after Game 6 of the finals last June. No similar timeshare awaited upon Fleury’s return in Vegas. In fact, only one other goalie on the Golden Knights’ depth chart entered the season with previous NHL experience: backup Malcolm Subban, 62 minutes, spread across two games. “When Flower went down,” Marchessault says, “we could’ve gone really south.”
Through fall and early winter the Golden Knights cycled through more netminders than Spinal Tap did drummers: Subban, Oscar Dansk and Maxime Lagace all played and got hurt; at one point 19-year-old Dylan Ferguson was summoned from the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers for nine minutes of emergency duty against Edmonton in mid-November. But the Knights only trailed first-place L.A. by four points when their No. 1 finally returned on Dec. 12.
Since then everything has been sunny for Fleury. Winning 11 of his last 16 starts, he’s dazzled with a .946 save percentage and a 1.61 GAA since coming back. He was invited to his third All-Star Game and won over hearts in Tampa by requesting “Let It Go” from Frozen as his song for the save streak challenge. An anthem for goalies everywhere, Fleury explained.
Fleury is again sprawling, pokechecking and cart-wheeling as much as ever. His goals against average (1.77) and save percentage (.942) both rank second league-wide. “He’s a great leader,” Marchessault says. “It’s been 14 years, and he acts like he’s here [in the NHL] for two months.” Pranks were shelved while he healed, but Fleury is coming around there too. Returning to his hotel room during a recent road trip, Marchessault discovered water leaking onto the bathroom floor. Someone had sneaked inside and unscrewed the toilet pipes.
Two days before the regular-season opener, a 2–1 win in Dallas behind two goals from Neal and Fleury’s 45 saves, the Golden Knights split into four teams for a scavenger hunt around their new city. Clues were scattered at local landmarks—the replica Eiffel Tower outside Paris Las Vegas, the dolphin habitat inside the Mirage, a wedding chapel, a wax museum. The route began at Red Rock Canyon, where players needed to land snake eyes on fuzzy dice before setting off, and ended with sushi dinner along the Strip. Unsurprisingly, the group captained by Engelland won. “But that’s cheating,” Smith says. “Because he lives here.”
More than any player, Engelland understands Las Vegas. He settled there after his pro career began with the ECHL’s Wranglers in 2003–04. He met his wife there, saw their two sons born there. He was at home four miles away, sleeping, when a gunman killed almost five dozen concertgoers along Las Vegas Boulevard on Oct. 1. He spent several days memorizing the speech that he delivered at the team’s first home game a week and a half later: “To the families and friends of the victims, know that we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal,” Engelland said, flanked by first responders at center ice. “We are Vegas strong.”
They are in this together, town and team. At first, players wondered how hockey would fare in the desert; Fleury recalls attending a youth clinic where the goalie used a skater’s stick, a baseball catcher’s mitt and two right leg pads of different sizes. “Aw, geez,” he thought, “they’ve got a long way to go.”
Now? Las Vegas ranks fourth in average home attendance by percentage (103.2), trailing only Chicago, Minnesota and Buffalo. Gallant compares the attention he receives to the decade he spent playing in Detroit. When 10,000-strong packed old downtown for last month’s fanfest, a woman surprised Karlsson with a blindside smooch. “Just on the cheek,” he reports. “She was married. But it was a good kiss.” Smith, meanwhile, recalls getting flagged down at the mall and shown an eight-inch VGK calf tattoo. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really early to get one of those. I hope you don’t regret it,'” Smith says.
No way. Armed with ample draft picks and prospects from 10 expansion draft side deals and generous cap space—including the casino-level heist that netted a first-rounder alongside Karlsson from Columbus—Vegas looks poised for an extended run at the NHL table. “It’s not just one of the best stories in the league now,” Poile says. “They’re going to be one of the better teams for a long time.”
After the expansion draft show ended, a small group of players that the Golden Knights had flown out for the event—they checked into hotels under pseudonyms to avoid giving away their draft status—retreated into the empty home locker room at T-Mobile Arena. Cracking open beers, everyone toasted the new team. At one point, an enthusiastic Foley approached Fleury and reminded the goalie of his lofty hopes.
“Well,” Foley said, “playoffs in three, Stanley Cup in six?”
“Why wait?” Fleury replied.