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Las Vegas caught Knights fever during historic inaugural season

Updated December 29, 2018 - 7:35 pm

There isn’t a soul alive who looked at the assortment of castoffs and retreads who made up the Vegas Golden Knights’ opening-day roster and said, “Yep, that’s a Stanley Cup finalist.”

That’s what made the “Golden Misfits” label so endearing.

But while national pundits expected the worst from the team — along with indifference from the city — they tended to agree on one other prediction: It’s Vegas, so at least the games will be entertaining.

They had no idea.

Pregame pandemonium

Just as the National Hockey League had never seen anything like the Golden Knights, hockey purists had no idea what to make of the team’s bonkers pregame show that only grew more over the top with each playoff victory. During his on-ice battles against a stand-in for the opposition, The Golden Knight was backed up by everything from archers to a catapult. Against Winnipeg, he sliced a military jet in half. The brainchild of Jonny Greco, the team’s vice president of entertainment production who was hired away from the WWE, the shows were part “Tournament of Kings,” part “Disney on Ice,” part mild hallucinogen. Just how radical a departure were they from traditional pregame ceremonies? For the Washington Capitals’ first Stanley Cup Final home game in 20 years, the team called on “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak to ramble on about how much he likes his season tickets and read the starting lineups from a sheet of paper. It was HORR_FY_NG.

inline-regThe Golden Knight battles the Capitals villain before the start of Game 2 of the NHL Stanley Cup Final between the Golden Knights and Washington Capitals on Wednesday, May 30, 2018, in Las Vegas. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Jersey sure

By the time the team rolled into the playoffs, there was plenty of room on the Golden Knights’ bandwagon — especially if you happened to have a band. Celine Dion began wearing a Marc-Andre Fleury sweater — that’s hockey talk for “jersey” — as a dress during the “River Deep, Mountain High” portion of her show. Terry Fator and his puppet Duggie Scott Walker donned VGK sweaters while performing their take on “What a Wonderful World,” dubbed “A Stanley Cup World.” The Australian Bee Gees wrapped themselves in team gear and rechristened “Night Fever” as “Golden Knights Fever.” The casts of “Fantasy” and “X Burlesque” even covered themselves up — albeit temporarily — with jerseys. The Fountains of Bellagio got into the act, too, cueing up “Viva Las Vegas” after victories.

inline-regCeline Dion, shown with guitarist Kaven Girouard, sports a Marc-Andre Fleury Vegas Golden Knights jersey during her return to the Colosseum at Caesars Palace after minor ear surgery on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (Cashman Photo)

Big names, big games

To kick off Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Blink-182’s Travis Barker led the Knight Line drummers into Toshiba Plaza for a performance by Golden Knights superfan Lil Jon, who returned to that stage five days later to ignite the overflow crowd at the Game 3 watch party. In between, Imagine Dragons hit the ice for “Whatever It Takes” before Game 2. And before Game 5, Panic! At the Disco made a splash — literally — performing “High Hopes” on the lake in front of the Fountains of Bellagio when a gust of wind caught the airborne water and soaked the band.

inline-regFrontman Brendon Urie, center, and members of the Las Vegas rock band Panic! at the Disco perform at the Fountains at Bellagio ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights-Washington Capitals NHL hockey game at T-Mobile Arena Thursday, June 7, 2018. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Anthem allegiance

The Golden Knights’ romp into the postseason was one of the greatest underdog stories of all time. So, naturally, when the team was on the verge of its biggest stage yet, management essentially told country superstar Carrie Underwood, “Thanks, but we’re sticking with the singing gondolier who got us here.” Carnell Johnson, known as “Golden Pipes,” wasn’t the Knights’ first national anthem singer — or even its 20th. But once the man with the day job at The Venetian made his T-Mobile Arena debut Feb. 13, he did everything in his power — and with his powerful voice — to make sure he was their last. Shortly after Underwood’s husband, center Mike Fisher, and the Nashville Predators were bounced from the playoffs by the Winnipeg Jets, the singer declared her allegiance to Vegas in a series of tweets that included an offer: “If the @GoldenKnights need an anthem singer, I’m 2-0 in the playoffs…just saying.” Unfortunately for her, Johnson was 4-1 at the time, en route to a 7-3 overall record as the team’s only postseason anthem singer.

inline-regCarnell Johnson, AKA Golden Pipes, performs the national anthem before the start of the NHL Western Conference Finals between the Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets on Friday, May 18, 2018, at T-Mobile Arena, in Las Vegas. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Ratings routs

Whether you were at home, crowded into one of the variety of watch parties or lucky enough — and or/wealthy enough — to score tickets, you couldn’t get enough of the Golden Knights during the playoffs. A staggering 28.1 percent of Las Vegas households with televisions watched Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, compared with just 16 percent in Washington. When the Sharks made the 2016 Final, San Jose mustered a meager 5.3 percent. Of everything aired on NBC in recent years, only the Super Bowl attracted more Las Vegans, with 42.6 percent watching this year. The last time any series on any network finished a season with national numbers higher than Game 1’s local rating was in 1987 with “The Cosby Show” (34.2 percent) and “Family Ties” (32.7 percent). They might not be able to topple Michael J. Fox, but if there were some sort of redo, there’s a decent chance the Knights would prove more popular than Bill Cosby. Just saying.

inline-regFans attend a Vegas Golden Knights watch party for game six of the Stanley Cup playoffs outside on Toshiba Plaza in Las Vegas on Sunday, May 6, 2018. (Andrea Cornejo/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

VGK gear in high places

During the heat of the playoffs — seriously, it topped 100 degrees at some outdoor watch parties — seemingly everyone was wearing a Golden Knights sweater. This included the Statue of Liberty at New York-New York — sporting a 600-pound, 28-foot version — and her confectionery doppelganger at Hershey’s Chocolate World, as well as the Benny Binion statue at the South Point. Not to be outdone, the Julius Caesar statue in front of Caesars Palace picked up a hockey stick and Golden Knights flag, while the nearby pedestrian bridge boasted a 6-foot “Vegas Born” puck. With the addition of a team crest on its chest and a massive puck nearby, the MGM Grand lion completed a near sweep of Strip landmarks covered in VGK gear. Your move, Eiffel Tower.

inline-regWorkers install a Vegas Golden Knights jersey on the Statue of Liberty at New York New York on Friday, April 13, 2018, in Las Vegas. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

A host for the ages

Mark Shunock, who co-hosts the team’s in-game entertainment, grew up playing hockey in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario — birthplace of Hall of Fame brothers Phil and Tony Esposito, as well as Golden Knights defenseman Colin Miller — and made it to the Canadian Hockey League. Far more than just the guy who coined the phrase “It’s Knight Time,” Shunock’s resume as an entertainer is even more impressive: He’s performed in the Las Vegas productions of “Rock of Ages” and “Magic Mike Live” and created “Mondays Dark,” the twice-monthly philanthropic production that’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities. With that level of commitment to entertainment, it’s a wonder the team didn’t hire contortionists as ushers and showgirls as beer vendors.

inline-regMark Shunock at The Fortress inside T-Mobile Arena (@MarkShunock/Twitter)

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands operates The Venetian.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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