Golden Knights help prove NHL hockey can thrive in the desert

Updated April 9, 2018 - 10:15 pm

It was the middle of January when colleague Ed Graney referred to the love affair between Las Vegas and its Golden Knights as a perfect storm. This was right after the local purveyors of pucks had edged in front of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the NHL’s best overall record.

Say it again. An ice hockey team based in the desert that had no players in the middle of the previous June had the best record in the NHL in the middle of the following January. Hell may not have frozen over, but they were sending the salt trucks out.

And now, back to the movie.

“One, you’ve got Hurricane Grace moving north off the Atlantic Seaboard … huge … getting massive.

“Two, this low off of Sable Island, ready to explode.

“Look at this … three … a fresh cold front swooping down from Canada …

… You could be a meteorologist all your life and never see something like this … it would be … The Perfect Storm.

It has become cliche to classify events so preposterous as to defy logic as “perfect storms.” But how else would one describe the Vegas Golden Knights qualifying for Lord Stanley’s playoffs and winning their division in their inaugural season?

Only the names were changed

Revise some of the proper nouns, and one almost could have used the same movie script.

Change Hurricane Grace to William Karlsson, the Atlantic Seaboard to the Pacific Division, Sable Island to T-Mobile Arena. The part about swooping down from Canada? Given Canada was the birthplace of James Neal and Jonathan Marchessault and a bunch of other guys with gap-toothed smiles proficient at swooping down wings and filling slots — just leave it.

As it was for George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg at Gloucester Harbor, there were clouds of optimism and doubt when the Knights steamed into the NHL’s open sea. Minor league predecessors had set the table and shown there was an appetite for pro hockey in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Thunder and Wranglers were successful on the ice and off, due in no small part to modest payrolls and sustainability margins.

Those would be multiplied with an NHL team, wrote the skeptics. Much harder to sustain over the long haul.

What would happen here when the novelty of pro sports wore off? When the Knights began to lose? When all those season-ticket holders started putting their seats up for sale on StubHub to try to recoup their considerable buy-ins?

The Knights would begin their first season on Oct. 5.

On Oct. 1, the roster still was being trimmed when the first shots rang out.

Tragedy to triumph

It was a only a couple of hours after the Knights had lost to the San Jose Sharks in their final preseason game that a madman went into the bell tower down the street and started shooting people.

There were no words to describe the despicable act, which occurred nine days before the Knights were to play their first home game. Those walking to T-Mobile Arena could see the madman’s perch. A grim pallor enveloped the team’s debut, and every other aspect of normal life in Las Vegas.

The lights were dimmed in honor of the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting victims. And then Deryk Engelland, the Knights’ captain and one of us — he had skated for the Wranglers and met his wife and built his home here — stepped to the microphone and said all the right things.

And then he went out and did something that he only had done 22 times in 469 previous NHL games.

Engelland scored a goal.

The Knights beat the Arizona Coyotes, 5-2. People cheered and chanted owner Bill Foley’s name. The healing had begun.

So that’s what occurred during the first home game. If you were there, you will never forget it.

It was during the last home game that a 25-year-old forward from Sweden with fair features and soft hands named Lars William Karlsson — who had scored but nine goals with the Columbus Blue Jackets in his first full NHL season, and but six in his second — put the dilly dilly on San Jose goalie Martin Jones.

It was the 42nd goal of Wild Bill Karlsson’s third full NHL season.

It clinched the Pacific Division championship in front of the biggest crowd to witness a pro hockey game in Las Vegas.

If you were there, you will never forget that one, either.

Steaming toward the playoffs

These were the bookends of the Knights’ first home season. It was like having “Anna Karenina” on one side, “The Great Gatsby” on the other. And a whole lot of “The Sun Also Rises” and “To Kill A Mockingbird” on the shelf in between.

This was an expansion team that refused to lose (unless it was to the Minnesota Wild), an expansion team that won 51 games, an expansion team that made the playoffs and won its division and averaged 18,042 paying spectators, which was more than a sellout.

This was Miracle on Ice II. It was Mike Eruzione scoring off the wrong skate to beat the Russians in Lake Placid, and Al Michaels asking if you believed in miracles, and 18,042 answering with a resounding “Yes, we do!”

It was preposterous.

It defied logic.

It was The Perfect Storm.

To paraphrase the movie, you could be a Zamboni driver all your life and never see something like this.

Go back to read Part IV: Golden Knights are Pacific champs.

More Golden Knights: Follow all of our Golden Knights coverage online at reviewjournal.com/GoldenKnights and @HockeyinVegas on Twitter.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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