Commentary: Golden Knights, and Their City, Are Deserving of a Happy Ending

  • The Vegas Golden Knights mob goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) after defeating the Winnipeg Jets during NHL Western Conference Finals, game 5, in Winnipeg, Sunday, May 20, 2018. (Trevor Hagan/The Canadian Press via AP)

  • Vegas Golden Knights' Deryk Engelland (5) accepts the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl from Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly after defeating the Winnipeg Jets during Western Conference Finals, game 5, in Winnipeg, Sunday, May 20, 2018. (Trevor Hagan/The Canadian Press via AP)

  • FILE - In this June 19, 2017, file photo, Vegas Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee speaks during a news conference in Las Vegas. While the expansion draft gets most of the attention in attempts to explain the unusual success of the expansion team, the moves made by McPhee in late February, when the trade deadline came along, have proven just as important.(AP Photo/John Locher, File)

  • FILE - In this July 28, 2005, file photo, an electric company worker changing ballasts and lamps on the "Welcome to Las Vegas," sign in Las Vegas. Many players on the Vegas Golden Knights didn’t know what to expect of their new city. They have found it is much more than bright lights, casinos and shows on the Strip. The Vegas hosts Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night, May 28, 2018, against the Washington Capitals. (AP Photo/Joe Cavaretta, File)

Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2018

Las Vegas — The Vegas Golden Knights have beaten the Kings on land, the Sharks at sea and the Jets in the skies. Now, they look to conquer a nation.

Let me explain how and, perhaps, make the case that the Golden Knights are one of the best sports stories ever.

A year and a half ago, I moved from the tiny town of Vershire, Vt., to Vegas. Culture shock doesn’t begin to describe what I experienced. But there was one shred of the North in my new home that eased the transition — hockey.

Before I left Vermont, my father-in-law introduced me to the sport. It took but one Norwich University Cadets game to hook me on a game that was at once both beautiful and brutal. I was all-in.

So it was fortunate that I arrived in Las Vegas shortly before an NHL franchise — the city’s first major professional sports team — did. I was prepared to root for the Knights, even though by all accounts they were going to be terrible.

And make no mistake, every sportswriter, host and fan said they would be terrible. To put it into Vegas terms, some calculated the team’s odds at 500-to-1. (Let me put it in terms that the non-wagering population can grasp: I got two Golden Knights hats on sale before the season even started because the retailer figured they wouldn’t sell at full price.)

I have to say I agreed with the skeptics, but I shrugged it off because I knew expansion teams are historically awful. I was prepared to root for a dumpster fire of a team.

Most fans recognized only a single name called during the expansion draft — goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. For anyone thinking the draft was rigged and the team rode their way to the Stanley Cup Final on the smiley Quebecer’s coattails, he was injured in the fourth game and missed nearly half the season.

The Knights ended up using four goalies in their first 10 games. Still, they managed to win eight of those matches.

The naysayers remained unconvinced. “Unsustainable,” the analysts said. But the Knights kept winning without their one star.

The as-yet-captainless team ran all four lines every night. Five players scored more than 20 goals, and four had 60 or more points this season. Fourteen Golden Knights set a personal scoring record this season. They didn’t draft a team of stars. These boys share the load and the spotlight.

The team went on to win the extremely competitive Pacific Division, breaking the 100-point mark with some to spare.

Now that the Knights have proved the naysayers wrong, those same critics are trying to retroactively hedge their bets. They’re saying the expansion draft was rigged.

Sorry, they can’t have it both ways.

Even if the expansion draft was rigged — which it wasn’t — the only top-tier talent they managed to land — Fleury and James Neal — were just a small piece of their success. The team got to the finals on their own merits, their own blood, sweat and spit.

And the city of Las Vegas had to wait 113 years to even get a team. If anything, the sports world has been rigged against it.

Vegas wasn’t allowed to have a major professional sports team because of the improbable chance that games might be rigged in this betting city. More than 15 smaller cities (Vegas, with more than 2.2 million residents, is the 28th largest metropolitan area in the U.S.) have received major league teams before us. Why? In part because no one believed Las Vegas would sustain, or even cheer for, a team.

The Washington Capitals have paid their dues, there’s no disputing that. The Caps and their fans have suffered more than their fair share of heartbreak over the years, and the hockey gods know that Alex Ovechkin deserves his name on the face of that chalice.

But that doesn’t mean the Golden Knights aren’t equally deserving or that a Stanley Cup in Las Vegas wouldn’t deliver a different form of justice. Just because it’s an inaugural season doesn’t mean it can’t be Vegas’ turn.

For one thing, the Caps will get another shot. They have made the playoffs in 10 of the last 11 seasons and won their division eight times.

Moreover, the Knights have, in fact, paid their dues, albeit it in a different fashion. Cast aside by former teams, left vulnerable in the draft, each Knight, and even the coaches, have individually paid their dues. Most have bounced around various leagues and teams and spent considerable time riding the bench.

Heck, even head coach Gerard “Turk” Gallant was literally left to hail a cab after the Florida Panthers dumped him off the team bus. General manager George McPhee, who played an integral part in putting together the team, came to the Golden Knights after being dismissed by the Knights’ Stanley Cup Final rivals.

This is my team’s chance to create history, to do the impossible.

On a more serious note, the Knights are playing for something more special, more important than what the Caps hope to achieve. The Knights have played a key role in helping a city recover from an unspeakable horror.

I was at a concert on the Strip on Sept. 30, the night before a gunman killed 58 concertgoers there. In fact, I was on the Strip just a few hours before shots were fired into a crowd from the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Virtually every Las Vegan has a story like mine. They were there, their child was a few blocks away, their friend was killed.

Golden Knights players have the same stories. Several of them were on the Strip, having dinner. And while people were being rushed to hospitals, residents of Vegas responded. Blood banks turned people away from eight-hour-long lines. Food and water donations created towers in front of emergency response tents.

And the Golden Knights were there.

The self-proclaimed “Golden Misfits,” a team of castaways, brought together this city of castaways. They played a key role in helping this community heal after the worst mass shooting in modern history.

To tell the story of this team without including the tragedy of that day and the way the team brought the city together would be to ignore a fundamental piece of the team’s history. It’s what solidified the bond between the team and the city of Las Vegas.

Every team deserves the chance, at least once, to hoist the Cup. Yes, the Caps deserve that chance, and they’ve more than earned that chance. But no team is playing for more this year than the Vegas Golden Knights.

Why not now? There’s no redo for this kind of story.

Jeralyn Darling can be reached, after screaming her head off tonight in T-Mobile Arena, at jdarling@vnews.com.