LAS VEGAS — The rapper Lil Jon is standing in the wings of the outdoor stage next to T-Mobile Arena with a towel over his head. I can’t see his face, but I know it’s Lil Jon—an avid Vegas Golden Knights fan—because the back of his custom jersey says so. He removes the towel and smiles, flashing his diamond-encrusted grill, then bounds onto the platform and yells the chorus/only lyrics of one of his hits into the mic: “SHOTS, SHOTS, SHOTS, SHOTSSHOTS.”
It’s 3 p.m. on Monday, and the crowd—which includes a man wearing a furry suit under a Golden Knights jersey that says 'Sasquatch' on the back, a woman in a golden helmet made out of a flower pot, a man sporting a gold mohawk and thousands of other shiny fans—loses its collective mind. Everyone waves their arms toward the stage as though they were one giant creature.
Away from the chaos, in the quiet basement of the arena, some Vegas players are heading a soccer ball back and forth outside their locker room. A few of the Washington Capitals are giving a press conference where they’re making it very clear that they were not out partying last night, thank you very much.
The teams are about to meet in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, and you couldn’t make up a better or more improbable narrative. The Capitals haven’t made it to the Final in 20 years, but the team has managed to break its fans hearts in numerous, soul-crushing playoff losses since. They’ve since battled through several of their arch-nemeses in the playoffs (when you’ve suffered this much, you have many), namely the Pittsburgh Penguins. Alex Ovechkin, the Caps’ star, is one of the greatest players to never win a championship. This could be the year, if the team can get past the Golden Knights, whose general manager George McPhee was the GM in Washington from 1997-2014. And whose goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, thwarted Ovechkin for years when Fleury was with the Penguins.
As for the Golden Knights, they didn’t even exist a year ago, and the team was cobbled together from guys that other teams didn’t protect during the expansion draft. The most tortured fanbase in hockey is facing the newest, in a town where people didn’t even know they needed the sport until Golden Knights owner Bill Foley rolled in. Everyone thought the billionaire was crazy to try to build a fanbase in a transient city that caters to visitors and doesn’t lack for activities. But the growing population of locals, lured by low cost of living and an increasing number of jobs outside the service industry, was hungry for an identity separate from tourism. They were starved for something to call their own.
As the crowd of gathered thousands, all chanting, “GO KNIGHTS GO,” proves: Hockey in the desert makes all the sense in the world.
Two hours after the Lil Jon concert, a replay of his performance appears on the video board before the game begins. The crowd is mostly Golden Knights fans, with Caps fans (several of whom tell me Vegas fans have been very friendly to them so far) in red, dotted amid the ocean of black and gold. As I stood in the crush of bodies outside earlier, I asked about 20 or so of the people around me who were decked out in Golden Knights gear where they were from. All of them lived in Vegas.
Normally, the pump-up video before a game in Vegas features lots of armored knights on skates pulling swords out of stones. That kitschy shtick is still here tonight, but the Stanley Cup Final edition also features shots of people wearing Knights gear around the city, as well as signs around town that say “Vegas Strong.” The slogan was adopted after the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival on October 1. The Golden Knights’ first home game, about a week later, honored the victims, and the team immersed itself in the community after the tragedy. It gave a shocked and devastated town a distraction. A woman I met today told me that her friend was at the concert when the shooting started and her PTSD was so bad she couldn’t be around crowds. But then she went to a Golden Knights game in December and “forgot to be afraid.” The lyrics of the song accompanying this video are, “I love my city.” I’m not not tearing up in the press box.
Then the pump-up begins. WELCOME TO IMPOSSIBLE flashes across the screen, and as the Golden Knights walk out of the tunnel and skate through a giant golden helmet onto the ice, I’ve almost forgotten that the whole reason we’re here is for hockey. The noise and excitement all day has been so overwhelming, so all-consuming, that it feels like even the idea of a hockey team would’ve been enough for this city.
But we are here for hockey, because the hockey is even more incredible than the show that accompanies it. The Capitals are the furthest along they've been in decades, and Vegas has blown through every record any American expansion team has ever held. Fans might’ve latched onto the Golden Knights after tragedy, or for want of something that truly belongs to Vegas, but they’ve stayed because this team is insanely good.
Fan Cindy Hurtado is particularly obsessed. She and friend Toni Fulweiser (who estimates that her husband has at least $10,000 worth of Golden Knights merchandise in their house) got to the arena at 7:45 in the morning. They wanted to be first in line when the retail store opened at 9 a.m. so they could score special limited edition posters and Stanley Cup pucks. Hurtado is as Vegas as they come. She couldn’t believe her beloved team is about to play in the Cup Final.
“After October 1, the team became part of the community,” she told me, eyeing the store’s door. “Being born and raised here, this is the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s thrilling, seeing the community come together. All the cars have Golden Knights stickers now. It gives us something to focus on.”
In a town where spectacle is constant but never for its citizens, the pomp of this Stanley Cup Final is a pageant specifically for them. They’ve gone from being home to the Wranglers, the old minor league hockey team that would hold games at midnight so locals who worked at casinos could go, to a sports town competing for a championship on a part of the Strip that’s all theirs.
As Big D, the Knights' in-arena host and local radio personality, told me after he introduced Lil Jon to the crowd, “The Knights make Vegas feel like home.”
But let’s get back to the hockey, because as I write this, there are nine minutes and 49 seconds left in the second period, and Game 1 is on a bender in Vegas. It’s tied 3-3; the Caps and the Knights have been trading goals all game. Someone should probably write the name of the game’s hotel on its hand and tell the bartender to stop serving it, because things are getting wild. The stands erupted earlier as William Karlsson—who scored 18 goals over three seasons before Vegas drafted him—put away his 50th of the 2017-18 campaign (regular season plus playoffs) for Vegas.
The second period ends tied 3-3, but the Caps’ Tom Wilson comes out early in the third to sneak a goal in past Fleury with an assist from Ovechkin. AND THEN, A MINUTE LATER, RYAN REAVES SCORES TO ANSWER FOR VEGAS! IT’S TIED 4-4 IN THE THIRD!
This game feels too good to be true, much like both of these team’s seasons feel too good to be true, much like the fact that they’ve met here feels too good to be true. The hockey gods have blessed us, and while we might not be worthy, we can definitely enjoy it.
Tensions flare as Fleury makes a save. T.J. Oshie and Deryk Engelland start going at each other, while Reaves has Jakub Vrana in a headlock. Then Wilson hits Jonathan Marchessault with a cheap shot, hitting the Vegas forward while he looks the other way. Marchessault crumbles to the ice holding his head. He gets up and swears at the Washington bench. The crowd boos so loudly that I worry they might go full “back up your buddy at a bar” and storm the ice. When play resumes, the crowd waves their battle towels. I think I may have lost all my hearing.
Then Vegas’s Tomas Nosek puts away a goal so efficiently it’s like he’s cutting the head off a dragon. A box of popcorn flies up into the air in front of the press box from the stands. Battle towels are twirling, fans are chanting, the drummers in the plastic castle in the nosebleeds are drumming, and if you could take the blood pressure of T-Mobile, doctors would be alarmed.
The Caps can’t answer, and Nosek scores into an empty net in the game's waning seconds. I wouldn’t be surprised if the streets of Vegas are on fire when we all leave this building. The Golden Knights have been promoted in royal court and are now Golden Princes. If they pull this whole thing off, they’ll be kings.
Let me tell you, this Game 1 is one of the greatest sports games I’ve ever seen in my entire life. If the rest of this series is even half as nerve-wracking as this was—regardless of who you’re rooting for—we’re all going to have to get into meditation apps and calming teas.
In the locker room after their victory, Golden Knights players are pleased, but they’re not ecstatic like their fans, and they’re certainly not counting any chickens with potentially six games left. There are a lot of Standard Hockey Answers like, “We’re just thinking about the next game,” and “The Caps are tough opponents,” and “We just need to focus,” etc.
But Nosek lights up when I ask how the crowd played into their performance.
“It felt like a sea,” he says. “I was looking at one part of the crowd the whole time, and I feel like those people never sit. They were just standing up. They should probably play stand-up prices. It’s been crazy, the whole year long, to be able to reward them with one more game, one more round, it has been fun. It’s just…”
“Everywhere you go, you see a hat or a jersey or a t-shirt, it’s cool. You’re proud of your town. It’s as simple as that.”