No one expected the breakout success of the Vegas Golden Knights in their inaugural season as an NHL expansion franchise in 2018.
Amaze. Inspire. Surprise. You’ll be hearing those words a lot in the coming weeks—together, they cut to the heart of why we love sports in the first place. So in the days leading up to the naming of SI’s Sportsperson we’ll be looking back and shining a light on the athletes, moments and teams (and one horse) who did one—or all—of those things in 2018. There can be only one Sportsperson. But it has been a year full of deserving candidates.
The office floor was all but empty when George McPhee called out for Katy Boettinger, his longtime executive assistant. This was two years ago, Labor Day weekend, right before the newest NHL expansion franchise would hold its inaugural batch of scouting meetings. Thinking that McPhee needed something urgent, Boettinger snapped to attention. Instead she found the recently appointed general manager simply gazing around the room, soaking up the scene.
“We’re in Vegas,” said McPhee, more mystified than matter-of-fact. “How did we get here?”
Back then, they part of just another ambitious construction project along the Strip. No players, no coaches, no name. Until their practice facility was finished, the front office worked out of the title insurance headquarters of billionaire owner Bill Foley; for the first staff-wide picture, everyone wore golf shirts from his cattle company, seeing as team apparel didn’t exist. But even in a city known for swift assembly, where a new resort casino could probably raise overnight if locals truly set their minds right, the Golden Knights’ rate of growth was staggering.
In the early stages, McPhee was conscious about taking time to document history. After the team’s expansion draft picks were formally made in June ’17, for instance, he requested that several front office colleagues stick around and film a quick video recapping their process. “I’m really happy we’re taking this, that we’re catching this now,” McPhee says at one point on the tape. “For a lot of us, it’s going to be a blur. But to look at this someday is going to feel good.”
He was correct about the first part, at least. Upon unveiling their roster selections that night, the Golden Knights received what roughly amounted to a Nelson Muntz laugh in response from most hockey pundits, so loaded were they with reclamation projects. Four months later they were 8-1-0, matching the ’74–75 expansion Washington Capitals’ entire win total. Seven months later they led the Western Conference at the All-Star break. And late last May, McPhee was eating lunch inside the team’s practice facility restaurant, stealing glances at the televised replay of the Golden Knights’ Game 5 series clincher over Winnipeg in the Western Conference final.
“Someone’s going to have pictures,” he said then. “Someone will write a book. I don't know how you find the time to look at that stuff anyway. We don’t get a lot of time to reflect in this business. If we’re fortunate enough to win the Stanley Cup, then that’s all we need.”
They would fall short of that goal, of course, in five games to the Alex Ovechkin-led Capitals—McPhee’s former team, bittersweetly enough. But the show was spectacular while it lasted. Who expected a roster that dubbed itself “The Golden Misfits” would fit together like puzzle pieces, unleashing wave after wave of fore-checking pressure under coach Gerard Gallant? For that matter, who wondered whether hockey would take hold in Vegas at all?
It is here that we come to the unavoidable mention of Oct. 1, 2017, when 58 concertgoers were killed by a gunman at the Route 91 Harvest Festival outside Mandalay Bay, less than a mile away from T-Mobile Arena. The Golden Knights had finished an exhibition game there not long before the first shots were fired; several players heard about what was happening while eating dinner at a nearby casino hotel. The team quickly mobilized its full strength in aid, donating blood, visiting hospitals, hosting survivors and first responders at games. It was a horrible thing that brought team and community so close, so fast, but the fusion was undeniable.
Just go to a home game. The experience is extremely Las Vegas. Drummers wearing flashing LED lights perform in front of a mini medieval castle. Showgirls peacock behind the visiting net during warmups. Sometimes Cirque du Soleil shows up at intermission. Heck,a costumed knight cleaved a virtual jet in half during an elaborate pregame ceremony against Winnipeg. Even better, the main act usually delivers the goods.
Turns out the fans are pretty damn loud, too. They stuck around until the very end on June 7, a brief moment of finality before Ovechkin and the Capitals began their celebratory bender. As the Golden Knights players circled through the neutral zone at T-Mobile Arena, sticks raised, the crowd returned the favor with one last ovation, thanks for a season that lasted far longer than anyone could’ve imagined.
Of course, their city is always open for another go. After a slow start to their sophomore season, the Golden Knights had won five straight thru Thursday, hitting their stride behind a scorching stretch from, among others, castoff Montreal captain Max Pacioretty. The Pacific Division is wide open. The cap space is ample. No. 1 defenseman Nate Schmidt just returned from suspension. No longer should McPhee be wondering how everyone got there in Vegas, but rather how much farther they all can go next.