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Las Vegas’ bond with Golden Knights explored in ‘Valiant’ documentary

It may not be the largest movie premiere ever.

Apparently, in 2015, some 43,624 people gathered in the Philippines to watch a film about Church of Christ founder Felix Manalo.

Still, events on the scale of Sunday’s screening of “Valiant,” a documentary on the Golden Knights’ inaugural season that’s available to all 18,000-plus ticket holders for the game against the Calgary Flames at T-Mobile Arena, don’t come around often.

In 1998, “Godzilla” debuted to 13,000 people inside Madison Square Garden. Seventeen years later, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was declared the largest premiere in Hollywood history by stuffing 6,000 people inside three theaters along the Walk of Fame.

“I’m very, very nervous about it, to be honest with you. … I hope the fans are going to like it,” said producer Virgil Price, who repeats the familiar analogy that making a movie is like birthing a baby.

“This baby, actually, will be in front of thousands of fans.”

Foley on board

With the 2018 Stanley Cup Final tied at one game apiece, Price was killing time during an airport layover, talking with a friend who, like pretty much anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Knights, thought the team’s storybook first season would make a good movie.

What set Price apart was his strong connection to West Point and his ability to get Eugene “Boo” Corrigan, then the school’s athletic director, on the phone. Corrigan connected him with Knights owner and 1967 West Point graduate Bill Foley, who took Price’s call aboard the team plane on the way back to Las Vegas following the Game 4 loss.

With Foley on board, Price enlisted writer-director Cruz Angeles, with whom he made “Fernando Nation,” the 2010 entry in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series about Los Angeles Dodgers pitching phenom Fernando Valenzuela.

What was envisioned as a look at how Foley gambled $500 million on placing a hockey team on the Las Vegas Strip evolved to include the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting, its aftermath and the way the tragedy forged a bond between the city and the players.

Price knew about the tragedy from news coverage at the time. “But you didn’t feel it,” he said. “Once we got out to Las Vegas and started making the movie, it became one of the most emotional experiences of my life.”

Struggling to cope

Clark County firefighter Richard Janise was on duty at Station 11, between Mandalay Bay and the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, on Oct. 1, 2017. His stepdaughter, Rylie Golgart, attended the country music festival and was shot in the back.

Amid scenes of his fellow firefighters preparing dinner at the station and discussing how they adjust their schedules as best they can to watch games, Janise explains their devotion to the team to viewers. “The Knights, they were kind of that light in one of our darkest times. And I think people latched onto that.”

Glade Tonks tearfully recalls the phone call telling him Neysa Davis Tonks, his ex-wife and the mother of his children, was killed at the festival. The three sons she left behind were struggling to find a way to cope, he says in the film.

“The boys grabbed onto hockey. The common denominator was the games. It was the only time that we could enjoy and smile and laugh and high-five and do those things you do without tragedy in its place. For us, it was the only thing that we looked forward to.”

Neither Price nor Angeles was prepared for the magnitude of the emotions they encountered.

“There’s a lot more tears that were left on the editing room floor that I wish I could have incorporated,” the director said. “But your job is to make people cry, not see people cry.”

Engelland was the glue

“Valiant” includes interviews and insight from players Marc-Andre Fleury, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Ryan Reaves, Nate Schmidt, Malcolm Subban and Alex Tuch. The film’s anchor is Deryk Engelland.

“If Bill Foley and the city are the two main characters, he’s the third most important character in this whole thing,” Angeles said, “because he does become the glue that brings these two things together.”

A longtime Las Vegan dating back to his debut with the minor-league Wranglers during the 2003-04 season, Engelland met his wife, Melissa, here. They got to know several first responders through the annual Las Vegas Firefighter Youth Hockey charity game.

“For us, living there for so long, we knew right when we got woken up in the middle of the night to see what was going on,” Engelland said in an interview. “We knew the next morning we were going out and doing what we could.”

‘Very proud moment’

The Knights had plenty of fans in their early days, but thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — didn’t come around until the victories started piling up. For those relative newcomers, “Valiant” may be their first look at the team’s volunteer efforts in the days after Oct. 1.

Uniformed players are shown streaming into United Blood Services, hoping to brighten the days of donors who waited in lines that wrapped around the building. During a visit with first responders, a Metro officer tells Engelland, “I don’t know anything about hockey, but we just wanna thank you for coming. It’s pretty cool of you guys.”

“Seeing it again, it really hits home,” Engelland said of that footage. “For us as hockey players, you’re trying to get out there and help. But to see the effect and impact you’re having on people … it really hits you hard in the heart. You’re just extremely happy that you could go out there and have that impact with those people.”

That impact culminated with the defenseman’s “We are Vegas Strong” speech — which he admits he was “a little iffy about” — at the team’s home opener nine days after the shooting.

“I didn’t think it would hit home to a lot of people like it did,” Engelland said. “It was a very proud moment that I was able to get up and speak those words. I’ve said it since then that it’s probably going to go down as the biggest thing I did in my career.”

‘The best of people’

“Valiant” is more than a collection of grief. There’s still plenty of time devoted to celebrating that remarkable first season.

The glory of the fast start. The string of goalies — Subban, Oscar Dansk, Maxime Lagace — who stepped up after Fleury suffered a concussion in just the fourth game. The day the Knights leapfrogged the Tampa Bay Lightning to claim the best record in the entire NHL. The explosive growth of Karlsson and that ridiculous, between-the-legs shorthanded goal.

It’s a lot to ask of any movie.

“That’s a major, major project to put that into a coherent narrative that’s entertaining and interesting,” Price said. “This is a hockey movie, but it’s so much more than that, because it touches on human emotion, touches on a terrible tragedy. But it also touches on the best of people when they come together in the face of the worst tragedy we ever could imagine.”

‘Talking smack’

The filmmakers faced one potentially tough room when they screened their finished product for the team and staff in the film room at City National Arena, the Knights’ practice facility.

Angeles was sitting next to then general manager George McPhee, gauging his reaction, while Price was beside Foley, watching him watch the movie. The anxiety the duo entered with proved unfounded.

“The players were just chuckling, making fun of each other,” Angeles said of the lighter “Valiant” moments. “It was like showing it to a classroom, because they were just talking smack to each other.”

One of the movie’s final scenes is of Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin skating around the T-Mobile ice, hoisting the Stanley Cup.

“All of a sudden, over my head flies a cap that smacks into the screen,” Price recalled. “To make a long story short, it’s Marc-Andre Fleury’s cap. He threw it at Ovechkin.”

The producer said he “can’t quite conceive” how Sunday’s screening will go in front of that many fans. It’s the only public screening scheduled before the film’s Dec. 13 release on home video, and he’s thrilled locals finally will be able to see it.

“This,” Price said, “is more Las Vegas’ film than it is mine.”

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

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