- The Las Vegas Golden Knights had a season their fans will never forget, and now they're acquainted with the agony of losing at the final stage.
LAS VEGAS — The day the Golden Knights lost the Stanley Cup, policeman Ken Sager stood in front of the fountains at the Bellagio and shooed people away from the railing. The band Panic at the Disco! was playing a concert on a floating raft in the middle of the lake (if you can call it a lake), and Sager didn’t want the crowd to completely block the sidewalk. The fountains were timed to the music in huge, arcing sprays of water set to the beat. It was as though Vegas saw D.C. put Sting and Shaggy on stage before Game 3 and thought, “Oh, you want a show? We’ll give you a SHOW.”
Before this year, Sager and the others who call this city home never had a local team to live and die for. Now, T-Mobile Arena holds all their hopes and dreams. Before they dropped Game 4 of the Finals, the Knights hadn’t been down by more than one game at any point during the playoffs. Waiting to play an elimination game was an unfamiliar experience for fans.
“I’m nervous,” Sager said before Game 5, spitting the shells of sunflower seeds into a water bottle. “Really nervous.”
“You’re new to sports heartbreak, huh?” I asked.
“Well, I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan, so I’m used to it at this point,” he said. “But this is different because the Knights were born in Vegas, and I was born in Vegas. It sucks, because we were doing so well and then we got ourselves into this huge hole. It’s like they just forgot how to play hockey.”
“Welcome to being a hockey fan,” I told him.
“It’s miserable,” he shook his head. “I’d never watched hockey in all my 27 years, and now I’m a die-hard Knights fan, and if they lose it’s like ... jeez.”
It’s not that that Las Vegans were cocky heading into their improbable Stanley Cup run, it’s just that they were naive. When you’ve never had a team before, and all of a sudden yours—comprised of players other teams didn’t want—is unexpectedly white-hot and competing for the championship, it sets an unrealistic expectation. Sports fandom mostly means being absolutely miserable. Capitals fans know this heartbreak better than anyone. They’ve come so close so many times that they steel themselves for the worst, while hoping for the best (“CAPS YEAR!!!”) and preparing for disaster. Vegas hit the jackpot in its first season. That’s unprecedented.
This sports innocence, this false sense of normal, explained a lot about the vibe outside T-Mobile Arena before Game 5. Every Knights fan I talked to was relentlessly positive and sure. “We can do it,” and “We’re not going home tonight,” and “There’s going to be a Game 6” were common refrains among those in Knights gear gathered on the cement plaza in front of a giant screen projecting the pregame festivities. It felt like a rave out there, with the thumping techno beat ricocheting off the concrete, steel and glass of the arena. Inside, the incredible narratives of two franchises were about to come to an end.
At the cavernous Beer Haus, one of the bars in the new, neatly designed park surrounding T-Mobile, the fans’ emotions were rising and falling like the roller coaster across the street at New York, New York. As the Caps and the Knights batted the lead back and forth, you could see the anguish of a good, close game that really matters play out on locals’ faces. Megan McPhearson, a third grade teacher from Vegas who’s gotten extremely into the Knights this year, had her hands over her mouth. She went from sitting, to standing, to sitting, to standing, to pacing as the Caps pulled ahead in the second period.
“I’m so nervous,” she said. “This is so stressful.”
By the third period, the techno rave party outside of T-Mobile had turned into more of a surprise party for a friend who never showed up. After the Caps scored their fourth goal, which would end up killing the Knights’ season, Vegas fans Lindsey Volz and Frank Aragas, who had been among those guaranteeing a Game 6 had their hands over their mouths, staring up at the giant screen which showed their beloved team trailing 4–3. The plaza had become almost totally quiet except for the booming of the announcers’ voices. One guy lay down on the pavement, which was still hot from a day’s worth of 100-degree heat. He put his hands over his eyes. A man in Knights gear walked around yelling, “COME ON!,” motioning to the crowd to make some noise. For the first time in Golden Knights’ history, no one did.
A group of about seven Caps fans nearby was getting more and more excited as the clock wound down. Vegas pulled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for an extra attacker, and the group in red lost their minds every time a Capital took a shot on the empty net. All of the attempts went wide, but it didn’t matter. The Knights couldn’t score the goal they needed and the Capitals, for the first time ever, had won the Stanley Cup.
The Caps fans might have actually exploded. Beer went everywhere as they jumped up and down. A Knights fan threw a Bud Light can at their heads (“F--- off!”) and got taken away by security. A woman in Vegas gear wept softly as she stared up at the game projected on the side of T-Mobile. The fans looked as if they’d just lost their life savings on one bad bet at the roulette table or awakened in the wrong hotel room with a fresh new lower back tattoo. No amount of pomp or circumstance or timed fountains could make up for this loss, and you could see the reality of sports set in. With .6 seconds left in the game, Las Vegans discovered that caring about your hometown team is exactly what the policeman had told me earlier that afternoon: miserable.
But it's beautiful misery. And absolutely worth it. Just ask Caps fans.
“Well, it took them 44 years,” said Volz, pointing to the celebrating Caps fans, who were all chanting “OVI, OVI, OVI!” and jumping up and down.
“Yeah,” said Aragas. “This is the worst season our team has ever had, so ... I’ll take it.”