- Vegas continues to heal a year after the largest mass shooting in U.S history. The expansion Golden Knights' run to the Stanley Cup helped galvanize the city.
Watch THE KNIGHTS ARE OURS, a short documentary on how the Golden Knights' unexpected run to the Stanley Cup helped victims of the Vegas shooting begin to heal. Available on SI TV with a free, seven-day trial.
Stoney’s Bar and Grill occupies the corner plot of a shopping center at the very southern end of the Las Vegas Strip, about a five minute drive from the Mandalay Bay resort. A massive parking lot surrounds the beige, stucco buildings. They crawl across the pavement the way the ever-expanding city sprawls through the desert. It’s a strange place for a clubby bar, to be squeezed among an H&M, a Bath and Body Works, and a Whole Foods.
But most normal things in Vegas seem to be in strange places, if you’re an outsider. A CVS in front of a giant ferris wheel? A school plunked down next to a casino? A replica of the Statue of Liberty across the street from a small-scale Eiffel Tower? The place is a study in incongruity.
Disconnects are standard for locals. On this past June 7, Lindsey Volz was one of the people born and raised in Vegas who were twirling and two-stepping in a line dance across Stoney’s giant hardwood dance floor. The bassline of a Luke Bryant song pulsed through the walls, the floor. Beside Volz, Megan McPherson and her boyfriend, Larry Lopez, and their friend Dylan Hansel moved in perfect time to the music, too, their movements synchronized with everyone in the room.
There’s a large community of country music fans in Vegas, and many of them dance at Stoney’s on Thursdays. On Mondays they go to Locals Night at Gilley’s, a rodeo-themed bar inside the Treasure Island resort. Most of the people inside the bar on that hot June evening were wearing Vegas Golden Knights shirts and jerseys. One hour before and three miles away, their brand-new hockey team had lost the Stanley Cup finals to the Washington Capitals.
None of the dancers seemed too upset by the loss. They were just happy their expansion team had gotten as far as it did. The Knights’ unprecedented run was a gift, a bright spot in a year that had become darker than any of them could imagine: Volz, McPherson, Lopez and Hanzel are all survivors of the largest mass shooting in American history, which took place at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival a year ago, on October 1, 2017. Volz ran between the bullets as they pinged off the jet fuel tanks at McCarran Airport just beyond the stage. Hansel searched bodies for pulses as shooter Stephen Paddock reloaded his gun. Lopez dragged McPherson out of the festival grounds when she froze in fear.
After something so awful, it seemed astonishing hockey could matter at all. That they’d ever want to dance again.
I found this group of friends by accident, in February 2018. I was out in Vegas reporting a story on the Knights. Were locals going to games, or were visiting fans buying out tickets to see their teams play and also get a fun weekend in Sin City out of it? I’d spent the past two days driving my rental car up and down the Strip, visiting the practice arena—that was as shiny and novel as the team itself—and stopping into local businesses. Earlier that day I’d gone into 11th Street Records, a vinyl shop in the old downtown district that’s gentrifying rapidly. A T-shirt hung in the window that said, “This town sucks.” Except the “sucks” had been crossed out with a Sharpie, and someone had written “rules” above it. The clerk shrugged when I asked him about it.
“After what happened on October 1…” he said, trailing off. “I don’t know, it just seemed better to have it say that.”
A few hours later, I was in an Uber on the way to a Knights game. I called my mother to tell her about how after the record store I’d gone to visit Sonny Liston’s grave. I was trying to understand Vegas, and a cemetery seemed like the right place search for history in a place of reinvention, where the only thing that doesn’t get torn up and rebuilt are the burial grounds.
I found Liston’s grave with the help of Hugo Hernandez, the superintendent of the cemetery. We started chatting, and when I told him I was in Vegas to write about the Knights, he told me that he’d been at the preseason game hours before the shooting happened on October 1. He came straight to work and helped sort out paperwork to get bodies back to their families. A few days later, Hernandez buried the 21-year-old Erick Silva, one of the five locals who died, in a fresh plot by the fence in the back.
We walked over to the grave. It was raw: cuts in the dormant, yellowy grass exposed the dirt in a rectangular outline. There still wasn’t a headstone, just a piece of cardboard wrapped in plastic, with a few American flags and a picture of Silva surrounding it.
I was recounting this to my mom on the phone, trying not to cry. The city was still reeling—will probably always be reeling—and spending time there, it was hard not to absorb some of the pain. When I hung up, my Uber driver looked at me in the rearview mirror. His name was David Meagher, and he told me he couldn’t help but hear my conversation. His closest friends were survivors who at the concert when the gunfire began. Some of them were shot. Many of them were going to dance that night at Gilley’s, and he invited me to stop by after the game.
We exchanged numbers before he dropped me off at T-Mobile Arena, and after three periods of hockey, I went line dancing for the first time in my life in a casino in Las Vegas.
Volz is a small, muscly 24-year-old with blonde hair who grew up in Vegas and works in hospitality at one of the fancy resorts on the Strip. She dances competitively; she and her partner practice intricate lifts and twirls, so it resembles something you’d see in a gymnastics competition more than anything you’d do at a wedding reception. She two-stepped to Brad Paisley’s song “Ticks” as a woman rode a mechanical bull beyond the wooden corral posts that separate the dance floor from the bar.
“It’s a good city,” Volz told me after Meagher introduced us. “People don’t realize how just amazing the city is. The people in it. There’s a little bit of everybody. You get the best of people—other cultures, a little bit of everything. It’s a town of hospitality. Everybody knows how to be nice.”
Like most locals, Volz embraced the Knights. She went to games all season. So did her friend David Lee, whose brother got so into the team that he bought Lee’s dog a Golden Knights shirt. The dog wore it on game days.
Like Volz, Lee had boots on. Everyone wears boots to Local’s Night. The only time Volz didn’t was the Monday after the Sunday night shooting; she came in sneakers and workout clothes, her hair up, no makeup on. She and Lee were at Route 91 when the bullets started raining down from the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay resort. It was the only time during the three day festival that they were separated; Lee had gone to buy a t-shirt, leaving Volz alone on the left side of the stage. She thought the shots were a speaker glitch at first, but as soon as she realized what was happening, she started running.
Separated from Lee and their other friends, Volz tried to hop a fence, or a barricade, or whatever it was. She was too short to make it over, but there was a man standing there helping people escape. She then ran in front of the fuel tanks as Stephen Paddock shot at them, realizing that she was sprinting through bullets only when she heard them ping off the side of the tanks. One penetrated but it didn’t cause an explosion, and Volz was able to make it to an office building where a stranger she’d been running with used a rock to break in.
Lee, Volz and at least five other dancers here tonight were the lucky ones. They made it out. They could come grieve with their country music community at Gilley’s two days later.
“I personally used to come here to dance and drink and that’s it,” Volz said. “I always loved the locals and recognized the community, but after Route 91, everything changed. The day after, I didn’t want to dance. But I came to be here. It was a beautiful night. At the beginning nobody wanted to dance. We talked about it, made sure people were okay. It was a weird, weird night. By the end of it we were dancing. I mean, I danced as well as I could in Nikes. Not to the faster paced songs, it’s not like we were happy. It was one night to kind of heal.”
One of their friends has shrapnel wounds up and down his legs, and another was shot in the arm. She hasn’t come back to dance since. In fact, she left Vegas, and only returned late in February. Even then, she couldn’t bear to see anyone. The country community lost Brennan Lee Stewart, a singer whose cover of Luke Comb’s song “Hurricane” the bar now plays at least once every Monday night. He died shielding his girlfriend from the bullets.
Lee—who owns guns and still shoots them—read a lot about how to stop shootings since October 1, and even more so after the massacre in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. He showed me an article about how we have to stop bullying in order to stop shootings. Maybe that would work. He shrugs.
“You keep thinking they’ll do something about it,” he says. “But nobody gives a sh-t.”
A new song comes on, one I wasn’t familiar with. People start pairing off. He held his hand out to me.
“Do you want to dance?”
I said yes, and we twirled around with a group of strangers who’d been brought together—whose entire community had been made closer—by a tragedy they wouldn’t wish on anyone.
A few months later, I came back to cover the Stanley Cup finals. Volz, Meagher, McPherson, Lopez and Hansel met me to watch what turned out to be the last game in front of the T-Mobile Arena. McPherson and Lopez were dating at the time (they’ve since gotten engaged). They met two and a half years ago at Stoney’s, where Hansel had dragged Lopez, who hated country music before he started dancing to it.
The lead alternated between the Capitals and the Knights. McPherson and Meagher practiced lifts in the big open area in front of the arena during commercial breaks to the music blaring out of the speakers. They all shouted at the big projection of the game, fist-pumping and cheering at each good play and looking like they wished they could sink into the ground with every mistake. It was joyous, having a team.
Each of the survivors told me that the Route 91 festival before the shooting began was “the best three days of their lives.” Then it became a nightmare: Hansel helped for hours after the shooting stopped, carrying bodies out on stretchers and helping people get to safety. He looked down and realized he had blood on his pants. He had no idea whose it was. McPherson still felt enormous guilt for having survived. Volz was unable to speak about her experience for months. She read every page of the police report when it came out in February. Only recently has it become easier for her to talk about. She still can’t listen to the song Jason Aldean was playing when the shots began.
In the months after the shooting, the Knights became important in a way that Volz, McPherson, Lopez, and Hansel could never have expected. Out of the four of them, Hansel was the only one who cared about hockey before 2017. McPherson had never watched a game and suddenly found herself familiar with players’ stats and intricate rules she didn’t know existed prior to October. Lopez, too—neither knew what to expect when the team arrived.
“Who is this for?” McPherson had wondered. “That’s the first thing you ask when something new comes to Vegas. Who is this for?”
The Knights made it clear that they were there for locals before tourists (although, this is sports—they’ll happily take anyone’s money). The team opened the first game after the shooting by stripping the boards of ads and displaying each of the victims names on the ice. The games sold out, and not because bachelor parties there for a weekend were buying up huge swaths of tickets. Hansel did wonder if the town would be fair-weather towards the Knights. What if they played the way expansion teams are supposed to?
It didn’t matter. As the city looks ahead to this season, which starts with a game against the Philadelphia Flyers at home on October 4, the fandom is as strong as ever. When I checked in with Volz recently, her first text back to me was about how she can’t wait for hockey to return. McPherson truly believes that this year, her Knights will win the Cup.
It’s been exactly a year since Route 91. McPherson and Lopez are now planning a wedding. Volz is still dancing. They all wanted the Route 91 festival to come back, but it won’t. Volz thinks with all the lawsuits surrounding last year, it was just too much trouble.
There have been close to 350 mass shootings since 58 people died last October. No laws were enacted after so many deaths. Nothing has changed.
It’s trite to say that sports can make any real difference after a tragedy, or that they’re an escape separate from the real world we live in. They’re not. But the Knights did give locals and survivors something: Hockey became a diversion, a pleasant few hours a few times a week to focus on and care about something wildly inconsequential. They also gave the city its first professional sports franchise in the four major leagues, and they helped legitimize a community that was hurting profoundly but didn’t have an identity beyond tourism that people beyond the city limits could understand.
There was that Vegas contradiction again—hockey in the desert? But the team became intertwined with October 1. It gave locals a way to show others that their home is a real city where people are from. A place that can be damaged.
You could say that same strange partnership exists between hockey and country music, too. They don’t necessarily go together, but both helped Volz, McPherson, Lopez, Hansel, and Meagher deal with a tragedy and has linked their two passions forever. As the calendar comes full circle, they’re still gliding around the dancefloors in their city. They’re getting ready to once again watch their favorite players skate around the oval rink.
As the team’s second season begins, the games are once again a distraction. Something to care about when the memories of a night the country moved on from—but that the survivors and their city can’t ever forget—flare up. A stretch of time to disconnect.