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Ruthless people? Golden Knights remain dogged in pursuit of title

Updated October 10, 2021 - 11:00 am

As one of the moderators for the Facebook group Vegas Golden Knights Nation, Samael Roundpoint is exposed to a range of opinions about the team.

The fan club boasts more than 28,000 members on the social media platform, and Roundpoint pores over the comments posted to the message board, responding to various threads and removing anything inappropriate.

In the past two months, he and his fellow mods have taken on a new role within their community.

“Recently, we’ve become counselors,” Roundpoint said. “We’ve had to remind people we love the crest in front and what it represents, and it will be OK.”

The Knights begin their fifth season Tuesday when expansion Seattle visits T-Mobile Arena, and they enter as the co-favorites at Las Vegas sportsbooks with Colorado to win the Stanley Cup.

But for a vocal section of the team’s fans, none of that matters.

The offseason trade of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the face of the Knights’ franchise since its inception, was a heartbreaking blow and the cruelest reminder yet to a young fan base that professional sports is a business.

Some turned in their season tickets. Others jumped ship all together.

“I know it’s tough,” captain Mark Stone said. “You have your pro sports team, you fall in love with the players, and when changes get made it’s difficult to understand.”

Much of the lingering resentment is fueled by the narrative that Fleury and others in the past were treated poorly on their way out.

It’s a hurtful charge for an organization that prides itself on being first class in every way.

While their methods don’t always go over well with everyone around the NHL, the Knights will not apologize for their ruthless pursuit of a Stanley Cup.

“Our job is to win. And the team comes first, and the players are a close second,” owner Bill Foley said. “I believe people will start to understand that as we start moving through the season. And there will be tough decisions in the future, too. This is not the last of them.

“That’s the reality. We’re here to do anything we can to improve the team. It’s not always going to be perfect, but that was our pact when we got together five years ago was we’re going to do what it takes to win and bring a Cup to Vegas.”

‘First major heartbreak’

This past offseason wasn’t the first time Knights fans saw the harsh side of hockey. Well-liked forwards James Neal and David Perron left as free agents after the first season, and other favorites such as Erik Haula and Nate Schmidt were later traded away.

But Fleury’s departure July 27 to Chicago for $7 million in salary cap space hit differently, even though the writing had been on the wall since the end of the 2019-20 season.

“This is their first major heartbreak,” said Karlo Gonzales, the moderator for the Official Vegas Golden Knights Subreddit with more than 33,000 members.

“You know when you have a relationship and you have breakups before? I feel like this is the long-term relationship that you thought was going to end up forever. Maybe the first ones were just boyfriend-girlfriend, but this one you were married.”

Fleury’s impact on the expansion team’s fan base went beyond his acrobatic saves and philanthropy following the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting on the Strip.

For many, he was the gateway into Las Vegas’ first major pro sports franchise. And while they found closure with Deryk Engelland’s retirement in 2020, the way Fleury left made the trade even more difficult to accept.

“The forum holds all types of opinions, but the most heard that I’ve seen so far is that Fleury was not treated fairly by the organization,” Roundpoint said. “It was a really big news story within our forum and within our community the fact that he hadn’t had much communication.”

Social media leaks

Fleury found out on Twitter the trade was about to be completed rather than receiving a courtesy call from the team, according to his agent, Allan Walsh.

The Knights do not dispute that assertion, but counter that general manager Kelly McCrimmon was in contact with Fleury and his camp leading up to the deal.

That communication stopped when president of hockey operations George McPhee said Walsh started working behind the scenes to “sabotage the trade” by telling teams Fleury would retire.

Walsh did not return multiple voicemail and text messages seeking comment.

“Kelly couldn’t have handled it better,” McPhee said. “They knew they were being traded. If you’re doing what’s right for the organization and you’re honest with the players, you’ve got nothing to apologize for. Ever. And again, we’re telling the truth.”

While never ideal, athletes in all of the major pro sports leagues now learn about trades from a source other than the front office or their agent.

In 2020, NBA.com published a story featuring several current players sharing how they found out on social media they had been traded.

Stone said he was parked in his car and scrolling Twitter on his phone when he saw he had been sent from Ottawa to the Knights in 2019. But the deal wasn’t finalized, and the official trade call hadn’t been made.

“If I don’t sign a contract, that trade gets axed and everybody who posted those tweets looks a little off,” Stone said. “I understand why teams wait to make sure that the trade goes through before they tell a guy that he’s traded.”

To a number of observers and Fleury’s devoted fans, that’s no excuse.

In their eyes, Fleury deserved to be shown more respect, especially after winning the Vezina Trophy in 2021 as the league’s top goaltender.

“I can understand both sides of it, but I would have liked to have seen that handled differently, the player in me,” former Knights broadcaster Mike McKenna said. “It’s something that goes a long way toward your people, your players, when they know they’re going to at least have an opportunity to soak things in rather than find out in ways via Twitter. That’s how people want to find out.”

Too cutthroat?

McKenna’s own departure from the Knights came when he was notified in July during a videoconference call that his contract wasn’t being renewed.

While he was grateful for the opportunity to go straight into broadcasting after a 14-year playing career, McKenna said he didn’t always feel part of the team and was “on an island” at times working for the Knights.

“It was surprising, but I felt like they ended it in a fair way,” said McKenna, now a content creator for hockey website Daily Faceoff. “If they didn’t want me anymore, that’s just business.”

There are several examples of the Knights communicating with players before they left, including popular forward Ryan Reaves and defenseman Nick Holden this offseason.

Engelland was presented the option to be traded or remain with the club in 2020 after being supplanted by Zach Whitecloud. Defenseman Brad Hunt was accommodated with a trade to Minnesota in 2019.

Other exits haven’t been communicated as smoothly by the organization.

Former goaltending coach Dave Prior was relieved of his duties in February 2020, but coach Pete DeBoer and McCrimmon each made misleading statements about his status with the organization.

“The comments that were made regarding Dave was just an attempt to protect him because we had made a decision to move on and didn’t want it to look like a firing,” McPhee said.

After Schmidt was traded to Vancouver in October 2020, he spoke to McCrimmon but said there was no communication between himself and McPhee, with whom he’s had a long relationship dating to their time together in Washington.

According to McPhee, Schmidt didn’t answer his calls and the two spoke within 24 hours of the hastily done deal. Schmidt, who has since moved on to Winnipeg, declined to be interviewed through a Jets spokesperson.

“The people in our organization know that we care about them,” McCrimmon said. “They know that they’re treated well, and they know that we’re trying to win.”

But at what cost?

One agent previously described the Knights’ front office as “punitive.” McKenna called the team “cutthroat” in its quest to construct a Stanley Cup champion.

“I think playing in Vegas and for this team, every year is a contract year,” alternate captain Reilly Smith said. “When you have a standard that is so high, you have to try to win the Stanley Cup every year. And if you don’t, there’s going to be changes.”

That reputation and win-now culture is well established with players across the league. McKenna believes free agents will continue to sign with the Knights and risk being shipped out if they underperform for the chance to be treated well while they’re here and contend for a championship.

It’s not easy to accept for fans, though, some of whom cling to the belief the Knights should be more loyal to the players who laid the foundation and helped the team reach the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural season.

“The truth of the matter is, this happens all the time with players. It’s not just Fleury,” Gonzales said. “Hopefully, the fans realize it’s business and they’re trying to win. Vegas is in the playoffs every year, the final four three of those four years. It’s not like they’re losing. So, management deserves the benefit of the doubt with the decisions that they make.”

Repairing the relationship

The best metric to measure the effect of the Fleury trade and whether the Knights need to win back their fans is attendance at T-Mobile Arena.

Is it a vocal minority — “The Cult of Flower,” as they’re called by Knights goalie Robin Lehner — who were upset? Or did the deal do irreparable damage to the relationship between the club and its fans?

The Knights averaged 17,092 fans for their four preseason home games, about 1,000 fewer than their regular-season average in 2019-20. But the large swaths of empty seats at Thursday’s game against Arizona were impossible to ignore.

“There has been a lot of comments like, ‘I don’t know how to get excited for this new upcoming season now,’ ” Roundpoint said. “I think in some capacity the organization could court the fans in that space a little, especially with a situation like this. It’s not going to be business as usual and they’re going to be a bit disillusioned.”

The best way for the Knights to help fans move on from the loss of Fleury and others is by winning.

Since entering the league for the 2017-18 season, the Knights have the fourth-best points percentage (.636) and have played in 11 postseason series. Only two-time defending champion Tampa Bay has appeared in more.

Should the Knights get over the hump and parade the Stanley Cup down the Strip, all will be forgiven.

Well, maybe not everything.

“I think we win back fans by winning and continuing to win and continuing to perform on the ice and have it play out that the decisions we made were always in the best interest of the club,” Foley said. “The Golden Knights are always going to do what they believe is best for the organization and the best way to win. That’s what we’re all about.”

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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