- Vegas GM George McPhee knew he's be able to find success with a team of hard-working players. What he didn't count on was the 'revenge factor,' which has helped the Golden Knights become one of the most successful expansion franchises in sports history.
Late one afternoon last October, several hours before palling around with five Elvis impersonators, Marc-André Fleury waded through the flotsam of his family’s new home. A Penguins wastebasket sat on a garage shelf, overlooking stacks of moving boxes labeled with permanent marker: VEGAS. Three pint-sized Prince of Wales trophies and two miniature Stanley Cup replicas glistened in the study, missing one more of each that hadn’t yet arrived. Stowed away somewhere was the goalie mask that Fleury commissioned for Pittsburgh’s 50th anniversary last season, adorned with images of current players and names of past teammates.
“I think I might try to ship it to everybody and have them sign it,” he says. “I think that’d be pretty cool, eh? To have afterwards?”
Back then Fleury was still balancing an emotional departure from Pittsburgh with his arrival in Las Vegas, still reconciling memories formed over 12 seasons there with an intoxicating future backstopping the NHL expansion franchise here. But like every other Golden Knights player, the goalie felt the city’s love fast. At its first official practice on Sept. 15, the team received a standing ovation from a crowd of season-ticket holders. The DirecTV technician wished Fleury luck. So did the Enterprise rental car agent and several Bellagio bellhops.
“Welcome to Vegas,” said the restaurant maître d as Fleury arrived for lunch. “There was a time I wasn’t rooting for you too much,” said the Best Buy clerk as Fleury picked up a new television. “but I’m excited to have you here.”
By now, Las Vegas has gone full-blown gaga over the Golden Knights, leaders of the Western Conference through Wednesday and pacing toward the first playoff appearance by an NHL expansion franchise since 1967, led by a gang of overlooked upstarts and their merry netminder. This week’s SI explored the machinations behind the most spectacular story around Sin City—not to mention all of sports. But, as always, certain subject matter was ditched on the cutting-room floor. Like any casino buffet, there are plenty of leftovers to take home.
Prior to the 2016–17 season, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford met Fleury and presented several paths for the future. One involved ultimately buying out his $5.75 million-per-year contract, far too pricey for a backup goalie, even someone as beloved around Pittsburgh as Fleury. On the one hand, Fleury could become an unrestricted free agent and choose his next home while still cashing checks from the Penguins. But he hated saddling them with an extra (albeit reduced) cap hit. “This team gave me everything, made my dreams come true, made me win a Cup,” he says. “That would’ve been a d--- move.”
Here Fleury invokes a phrase from his native French. Partir comme un voleur. Leave like a thief. This was how he saw the second option: Rutherford would seek trade partners if the goalie insisted, allowing him to play regularly elsewhere. Again sentimentality tugged at Fleury. In 2003, he arrived when the franchise was bad—“sucked,” he corrects—bankrupt and maybe bound for Kansas City. He stayed through four Stanley Cup Final appearances, three championships, the building of a new arena and finally, sustained financial security. A midseason trade, whenever it happened, would mean leaving abruptly—like a thief. No, saying goodbye would take time. “Maybe more [of a] farewell tour,” he says.
Which only left one choice: obliging Pittsburgh’s request to waive his no-move clause, thereby becoming eligible for the expansion draft. “Maybe I’ll never ask you,”Rutherford told Fleury, hopeful but not quite realistic. The official one-page form was signed and sent to league headquarters around the All-Star break in late January.
Fleury struggled with his backup role behind Matt Murray during the regular season, both on the ice—a .909 save percentage was his worst since 2009–10—and in private. “You just feel so not useful,” he says. “Come to the rink, take a few shots, go home, look at the walls, you know? It was like, f--- me, when’s it my turn, you know? But it’s normal to just keep quiet and do my job. Guys didn’t need me to complain.”
Indeed, teammates swear they never saw Fleury betray frustration. “Didn’t make it a distraction when it easily could’ve been,” captain Sidney Crosby says. Rather, when Murray hurt his groin during warmups before Game 1 against the Blue Jackets in the first round, Fleury was ready. He averaged a .933 save percentage against Columbus in the opening series and stayed hot, going on to shut out the Capitals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semis.
And even though Murray reclaimed the starting role during the Conference Finals, Fleury could think of no better person to hand the Stanley Cup while celebrating on the ice at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena—obvious symbolism be damned. “I knew I was leaving,” Fleury says. “A way to pass on the torch. My time was done, and now it’s his time.”
Plenty of other prankster personalities have preceded Fleury. His first NHL roommate was current Montreal GM Marc Bergevin, a luminary in the field of hijinx. But few possess greater guile or wider diversity than Fleury. Over the years, his greatest practical jokes include:
- Filling towels with shaving cream.
- Nailing shoes to locker stalls.
- Tying Coke cans to the bottom of Penguins center Evgeni Malkin’s new Porsche.
- Stuffing Pittsburgh strength coach Mike Kadar’s car with packing peanuts.
- Drenching teammates’ clothes in the shower and sticking them in the freezer.
- Taping the spray button on a deodorant can, then lobbing that can into an occupied bathroom stall like a grenade. “Not ideal when you’re taking a No. 2,” says Devils assistant coach Alain Nasreddine, who played in Pittsburgh for bits of three seasons.
- Hanging new players’ clothes from arena rafters. “If you know the rink security guys,” former Penguins forward Eric Fehr says, “you can accomplish quite a bit.”
Remember when cameras captured Fleury affectionately massaging the knob and shaft of his stick after a miraculous save against Alex Ovechkin in Game 7 of last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals? Yes, that act was intended to symbolize exactly what you thought.
“It’s something I do in practice for the guys,” Fleury says. “I caught myself. I was like, ah, f---, what am I doing? Probably not the best thing to do on national TV. Kids watching.”
There is a longstanding pregame tradition among professional hockey locker rooms known as "putting money on the board." Basically, players will scribble dollar amounts onto the dry-erase board before warmups and then contribute that amount toward team parties if they win. Common reasons include NHL debuts, significant others attending a road game, returning to someone’s hometown, or competing against a former team. Thanks to their hodgepodge roster of expansion draft selection, the Golden Knights are always putting money on the board.
“We’ve got somebody from every team,” Fleury says. “We’ve been winning, so it’s good for the team fund.”
“Feels like that,” center William Karlsson says. “I don’t know if it’s every single game. I’m sure it’s a lot. There’s for sure a lot of money on the board.”
“Pretty much every night, one of the guys was left unprotected,” winger James Neal says. “That’s all in good fun. Especially when we’re at the top of the league and they’re telling you that somebody didn’t want you, when you’ve got more goals than half the guys on the team who are still there.”
James “Wild Bill” Hickok was an outlaw marksman from the nineteenth century who developed a mythical reputation. William “Wild Bill” Karlsson is a sharpshooting center for the Vegas Golden Knights. The 25-year-old earned the nickname during his first full season with the Anaheim Ducks organization in ‘14-15, but never bothered to research its origin. “A cowboy, isn’t it?” Karlsson says. “Did he kill a lot of people? Was he a good guy or a bad guy?” History is murky in that regard, but Karlsson is informed that Hickok was certainly fast on the trigger with his revolver pistol. “That’s what I’m trying to do,” Karlsson says.
After the Golden Knights picked him from Columbus in the expansion draft, Karlsson returned home to Sweden hellbent on earning a larger role. He worked incessantly on plastic ice and even altered his stick measurements, borrowing the curve of countryman Victor Rask and lessening the lie so it sat flatter against the ice. But the biggest change came when coach Gerard Gallant moved Karlsson to center early this season, flanked by former Florida wingers Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith; the trio ranks second league-wide in 5-on-5 goal differential at plus-18 according to Corsica, and first with 35 goals. “We always know what the others are going to do,” Karlsson says. “We have great chemistry. We anticipate what the other one’s going to do. They have the puck, try to find a soft spot for me to score, and they always seem to find a pass. And I know it’s coming. They make it real easy.”
One obvious sign that the Golden Knights have become a bonafide NHL franchise? They import shipments of Tim Horton’s-branded cups and coffee to their practice facility.
When asked which moments from the first half of this season will stick with them decades from now, several Golden Knights mentioned the powerful speech delivered by Deryk Engelland prior to the home opener on Oct. 10. Nine days after a gunman murdered almost five dozen concertgoers along the Strip, the only year-round Las Vegas resident on the roster stood beside first responders and spoke from the heart.
“The team gave me the direction to go in, and my wife dumbed it down so I could memorize it,” Engelland says. “I was pretty nervous. For four days I don’t think there was a moment when I wasn’t rehearsing it, so I could memorize it. Lying in bed, that’s all I thought about.”
Fittingly enough, Engelland scored the first goal in the 5-2 win over Arizona.
“I don’t think there’s been more emotions running through your head at one time than then,” he says. “You’re nervous for the speech. You’re saddened when it happened. Then you’ve got a game, the home opener.”
In addition to meeting with former Minnesota Wild general manager Doug Risebrough for expansion draft advice, Golden Knights GM George McPhee and assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon also spent four hours inside a Philadelphia hotel room interviewing Bob Clarke, architect of the ‘93-94 Florida Panthers. The main takeaway: “He said you can have success with a team of workers,” McPhee recalls. “So we tried to get talented people who had low egos and would completely buy into what we were trying to do.”
The roster is littered with these types of players, humbled by their departures from past organizations and motivated by increased roles in Las Vegas. What McPhee didn’t expect, however, was for the “revenge factor” to play such an important role. “You have some pride, some real confidence in your ability, deep down in your soul,” McPhee says. “To be rejected is not easy. To get a second chance is important to people. And a lot of them have delivered.”
One day during training camp, while he was recovering from a broken hand suffered during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Neal flew to California and filmed a television segment with Golden Knights owner Bill Foley. After the shooting wrapped, the pair ate dinner and guzzled vintage bottles from Foley’s vineyard—the Lancaster Estate cabernet sauvignon and the Chalk Hill chardonnay. “Hockey players can drink,” Foley reports. “They’ve got empty legs, I think. They can knock it down pretty good.”
At one point, Foley told Neal about his belief that the Golden Knights could reach the playoffs in three years and win the Stanley Cup in six, a claim that had earned mockery around the hockey world. “He looked at me,” Foley says of Neal. “He was irritated. He said, ‘What do you mean? We’re going to make the playoffs this year.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay. I’m for it.’ I had no expectations, really. I thought we’d be building. I thought we’d have to grab some RFAs, be sneaky about it, do some trades, do something in terms of building the pipeline.”
Several weeks into the season, as Vegas barreled toward an 8-1-0 start, Foley encountered Neal again. “Don’t worry,” he told the veteran winger. “I remember what you said.”
Neal on the atmosphere inside T-Mobile Arena, where the Golden Knights boast the NHL’s best home record at 19-3-2: “I was in the stands for every preseason game. The first time I went on the ice was the first game against Arizona. The second I got on for warmups, I was struggling because of how fast the building felt and how fast the game was. Because of the atmosphere, because the seats are dark, because the fans are on top of you, because of how bright it is, how loud it is—the whole atmosphere would make you feel uncomfortable as an opposing team.
“I know exactly how guys are feeling coming into that rink. It’s quick. It’s different. You saw a prime example in Nashville last year. Ask any player who faced team last year how hard it was playing in our building. Every single person would be like, ‘I felt like I was slow, I felt I couldn’t get to pucks, all because of the way the building is, the way fans are, the way people are on top of you, how loud it is.’ We play a fast game. We play our systems. We move the puck quick. We’re a relentless team. We just go. Everybody’s working. That’s how we’re having success.”