You've got your desert/Goddammit, give me mine.
—Randy Newman, "Happy Ending," Faust
How do you make an American place out of an American dream? Is it even something that you want to do? Don't you want your American dreams to stay golden and shining? Don't you want them with pyramids and volcanoes and Statues of Liberty cheek by jowl with Eiffel Towers and pirate ships and fountains that dance to the first side of Revolver? Dreamers built Las Vegas. Granted, many of them were criminal dreamers who came to very bad ends, but they were dreamers nonetheless. They looked at a dusty town along the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, a spot in the desert named after the meadows that sprang from its underground springs, and they dreamed themselves up a gilded repository of American vice and sin. And it worked, too, for a while, anyway, in those years after World War II when America was fat and prosperous.
The lights in the desert shone so brightly that most people hardly knew that this was an actual city, with actual people living actual lives. Most of the people who lived there couldn't afford much of what the tourists came there to enjoy. They dealt blackjack, ran drinks to the high rollers and took bets in the sports books. They parked cars and waited tables. They stripped and sang and danced onstage, or outside on the sidewalks for spare change. Gradually, an American city grew around the gleam of the strip. And an American city needs something to cheer for besides millionaires from Singapore on a hot streak at the craps table.
On March 26, 2018, the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Colorado Avalanche, 4-1, to clinch a spot in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. They are the first expansion team to do so in their inaugural season in 38 years, and that was when the WHA's Oilers merged into the NHL, bringing Wayne Gretzky along with them. The Golden Knights did not squeak in, either. To put it in the local mathematical vernacular, the Knights started the season at 500 to 1 to win the Stanley Cup. Those odds have dropped to 6 to 1. Moreover, their season having begun just after an unspeakable crime, the Knights have become a big part of the city's wounded heart, and a big part of rendering Las Vegas a city like all other cities in the eyes of a country used to seeing it as a movie set with roulette wheels.
"Everyone thinks of Las Vegas as the Strip," says Bill Foley, the West Point grad and financial-services millionaire who ponied up the $500 million expansion fee to create the Knights. "It's gambling, it's casinos, it's shows. And what we did, we converted the perception of Las Vegas. It's a town. It's a [community] with 2.2 million people, and they love hockey."
Of course, this isn't Winnipeg or Edmonton, or even Columbus or Nashville. This is the place that has Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group as intermission entertainment, which certainly beats watching the local peewees skate around on their knees or some drunk fan trying to win at Score-O. And the Knights benefit from the fact that Las Vegas is still a destination spot. One weekend in February, when the Canadiens were in town, the Strip was awash in bleu-blanc-et-rouge for three days.
For decades professional sports pretended Las Vegas didn't exist. Burned by betting scandals and wary of the people running things out in the desert, the leagues preferred to exist in a bubble made up of their relationships with the more respectable precincts of corporate America. (That this required equal amounts of naiveté and cynicism never seemed to bother anyone.) But now, to paraphrase Mr. Joyce, gambling is general, all over America. It takes 20 minutes to buy a banana at a convenience store because the person in front of you is pondering the lottery display. There are casinos of every kind built on Native American reservations all over the country, a kind of karmic payback for all those broken treaties and all that stolen land. Destination casinos, as they are called, are springing up everywhere, and the Supreme Court is, at this very moment, deliberating the case of Christie v. NCAA, which, if it is decided in favor of the plaintiffs, could legalize sports betting all over America. The primary reason for Las Vegas to exist at all has been diluted in a thousand different places. The tourist dollars over which Sin City once had a monopoly became diffused while the city still needed them to prop up the local economy.
So, in the late 1980s, the conversion to a "family friendly" Las Vegas was as much a recognition of those changing circumstances as it was anything else. "I'd say the change started in the 1970s, when [Atlantic City] got gambling," said Jon Ralston, the veteran Nevada political reporter. "A lot of that money started going to New Jersey." The arrival of professional sports in Las Vegas is perhaps the final demonstration that the leagues have adapted to the new casino culture in America, and the final act of renovating the city into something more than a theme park. Even the NFL has surrendered; the Oakland Raiders will be playing in a new stadium in Las Vegas very soon. And the Knights have become a genuine phenomenon.
"I grew up in Buffalo," said Ralston. "I'm just astounded by the enthusiasm of the crowds. There has been this yearning of the people here for professional sports, and it was hockey that got here first. People have embraced it."
"You drop hockey into the desert," said Marc-André Fleury, the former Pittsburgh goalie who has been central to the Knights' success this season, "and you never know what can happen."
The stage is still there, like the ruins of a lost and abandoned city, and it's directly across the street from a replica of the Sphinx and not far from a pyramid. There's a wide expanse of asphalt. There was a sign on a chain-link fence that read, IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING. There also are flowers hung there, withered a bit now, even the plastic ones. This is a kind of memorial now. It is also a killing ground. It will be both of those things, forever.
On Oct. 1, 2017, a man named Stephen Paddock went to the windows of the two suites he had rented on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay resort. In those suites, he had 22 assault-style rifles—14 of them AR-15s—a bolt-action rifle and a revolver, as well as ammunition for all of them. Across the street, on the stage that stood on the asphalt, singer Jason Aldean was giving a show on the final night of a three-day country music festival. Paddock broke out his windows with a hammer and, at 10:05 p.m., opened fire on the crowd across the street. Fifty-eight people died, and 851 people were wounded. And, in a very real and modern sense, Las Vegas became a place like so many other places. A place like Aurora, or Newtown, or Sutherland Springs in Texas, or Parkland in Florida. It was a place like every other place—wounded and bleeding. Nine days later the 2--0 Vegas Golden Knights were scheduled to play their first home regular-season hockey game as an NHL franchise.
Opening night was turned into an emotional maelstrom. There were tributes from players and teams around the league. There were 58 seconds of silence, one for each of Stephen Paddock's victims. There was a great enfolding of the team into the community, the real community, the place where real people live and die. Right before the puck dropped, defenseman Deryk Engelland took the microphone. Engelland was born in Edmonton, but he's lived in Las Vegas for 15 years.
"Like all of you, I'm proud to call Las Vegas home," Engelland said. "I met my wife here. Our kids were born here. I know how special this city is. To all the brave first responders that have worked tirelessly and courageously through this whole tragedy, we thank you. To the families and friends of the victims, we'll do everything we can to help you and our city heal. We are Vegas Strong."
Then, Engelland went out and scored the team's second goal, one-timing a blast from the right point. The Golden Knights blew out the Coyotes 5--2. They won five of the next six games, and they haven't looked back since. "Everything that happened on October 1 shifted things," says Kim Frank, the team's vice president for marketing. "We had a fanfest scheduled for October 2. We canceled our fanfest. First thing we did was get right out into the community and made sure the community knew we were there for them. The thing about these guys, they were, like, you know, we're nobodies. We're new here too." Frank had tickets to the country jamboree but, exhausted from the preparation for the Knights' first season, had turned them back in.
"It threw us off," Foley says. "But in a way, I believe it brought the city of Las Vegas into us. We became part of the city of Las Vegas, and the city of Las Vegas became part of us. Now we're part of the environment."
That environment still includes a pyramid, a volcano, an Eiffel Tower and a Statue of Liberty, all within a few blocks of each other, and there is still a parking lot with an empty stage to remind everyone that this is a real place where real people live. A place like Parkland, in Florida, where there was another mass shooting to bookend the remarkable first season of the Vegas Golden Knights. On Feb. 15 the Golden Knights held a moment of silence for the 17 people killed by Nikolas Cruz at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Several players spoke out; defenseman Jon Merrill's wife and daughters took part in the Las Vegas March for Our Lives, because that is part of being in the community, too. The Vegas Golden Knights have done their job, which has turned out to be so much more than simply being the surprisingly good hockey team that they are. They have made themselves more than a part of the neon dreamscape that surrounds their arena. They are a part of what makes this place a home, and a part of what makes their home an actual place.