Remembering the Vegas Golden Knights’ ridiculous inaugural season

NHL


The Vegas Golden Knights opened the 2017-18 season with 500-to-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup. Not only did this team come closer than anyone could have predicted — losing in the Stanley Cup Final to the Washington Capitals — but their season was one of catharsis and inspiration.

The 2017-18 Golden Knights season galvanized a legion of new fans, and redefined success for an expansion team — across all sports. Here is a look back on that season.

June 18, 2017

The NHL’s first expansion draft since 2000, when the league added the Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild. Not only was the rest of the league a bit green when it came to maneuvering an expansion draft, but the rules were more favorable for Vegas than any other in history. Vegas GM George McPhee orchestrated 10 official trades ahead of the draft, collecting 10 draft picks and six additional players on top of his 30 expansion draftees.

Much attention was paid to the abundance of defensemen (the Golden Knights selected 13). What observers couldn’t forecast was the type of players Vegas assembled. “I think a lot of teams got in their own heads,” a Western Conference GM told ESPN in March. “In reality, you just need to suck it up and lose one player. But a lot of teams wanted to protect certain assets and got fancy making side deals or trades, and it kind of nipped them in the butt.”

Aug. 15, 2017

The Knights embark on a four-stop, three-state tour to engage with its budding fan base. Players such as then-backup goaltender Calvin Pickard and winger Alex Tuch board a 45-foot bus slathered with Golden Knights logos and head out to towns like Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Whitefish, Montana, to host free skating sessions and meet-and-greets.

The entire states of Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — and even slivers of Arizona and California — comprise authorized distribution areas for Knights television broadcasts. Says 11-year-old Clayton Yates, at an event in Idaho: “The reason I wanted to come so bad, and the reason I’m now a Vegas Golden Knights fan, is because then I could say I’ve been a fan since the start.”

Sept. 18, 2017

The team holds a celebration for the opening of its practice facility in Summerlin. Almost all players bought or rented homes in Summerlin, a community on the edge of Red Rock that is dotted by cul-de-sacs, a Whole Foods and an Apple store. “We can go to the strip whenever we want,” alternate captain Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. “But our whole life out here, it’s separate from what you think of when you think of Vegas.”

The facility would become a hub for suburban fans, and an accessible way to follow the team. By mid-season, some practice sessions would be standing room only and as Vegas neared its playoff push, City National Arena would be so crammed that staffers had to put up signs outside saying, “Thanks for your support, the arena is at capacity.”

Oct. 1, 2017

A week before the home-opener, a gunman opened fire on a country music festival at Mandalay Bay on the strip, killing 58 and wounding nearly 500. Several Golden Knights players were in the vicinity that night, many eating dinner on the strip. “That was an extremely emotional time when you’re close to something like that,” McPhee said. “You worry about your players’ safety first, and then all the other things that go on around it. And then it’s hard to fathom, when you sit back and realize that you lost 58 people.”

The tragedy would loom over the season as the community continued to cope. “We don’t talk about it a whole lot, but we think about it a whole lot,” coach Gerard Gallant said.

Oct. 3, 2017

The Golden Knights hold a practice, two days after the shooting. Afterward, several players loaded into SUVs and went out to the community. They met with first responders, stopped by a police station, helped out at a blood drive and visited victims who were still in the hospital. “Monday was a pretty gloomy day,” defenseman Nate Schmidt wrote in an essay for ESPN. “A cloud was over the city. The air was sucked out of the city. But on Tuesday, it felt like the city was getting back on its feet.”

Schmidt noted the bond his teammates were beginning to create with the community. “Vegas has been so good to us for the first couple weeks that we’ve been here,” he wrote. “The moral support and the welcome and how excited people are to see us in town, it has been incredible. This is a part of who we are now, and we are a part of this. It’s not like a situation where you hear about it on the news and send your thoughts and prayers. The actions of the people in this city — whether it’s us coming out or people at the blood drive where they had to turn people away because there were too many volunteers — are what make Vegas the city that it is.”

Oct. 10, 2017

The Golden Knights host the Arizona Coyotes for their home opener. During a 15-minute pregame ceremony, the team introduced first responders — doctors, EMTs, firefighters, nurses and police officers — by name. A 58-second moment of silence honored the 58 people killed in the shooting.

The night also featured some signature Vegas pizzazz: a Cirque du Soleil performance before the second period, a glow-in-the-dark drumline perched in the concourse, an outdoor festival where fans could (and did) get temporary tattoos reading “#VegasStrong.”

Defenseman Deryk Engelland — who called Las Vegas his offseason home ever since playing for the Wranglers in the ECHL in 2003 — took a microphone and addressed the 17,500 fans before the game. He and his wife, Melissa, had written the speech together. Engelland had condensed the speech and rehearsed it over several days. Previously, the largest group he had ever addressed was a group of 20 guys in the locker room.

“We will do everything we can to help you and our city heal,” Engelland told the crowd, to roaring applause. “We are Vegas strong.”

Coach Gerard Gallant told his players in the dressing room that it would be the most important game they’ll ever play. The Golden Knights defeated the Coyotes, 5-2, behind a dizzying, four-goal first period, to improve to 3-0.

Dec. 28, 2017

Coming out of the Christmas break, the Golden Knights were in first place in the Western Conference. And yet, many around the league struggled to accept the team’s legitimacy. High shooting percentages, extreme puck luck and the “Vegas Flu” (more on that later) were oft-cited as rationale for the Golden Knights’ initial success. Vegas was beginning to see its players over-perform compared with how they played at their previous homes. Among the early surgers were William Karlsson (who finished the season with 43 goals, after a previous career high of nine), winger Jonathan Marchessault (75 points, with a previous career high of 51) and winger David Perron (66 points, with a previous career high of 57).

Frustrated after a 3-2 overtime loss on Dec. 28, Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty told reporters: “They just forecheck you and they frustrate you with their forecheck. You make turnovers, they get chances out of it, but there’s no way they’re going to be a better team than us by the end of the season.”

The end of the Doughty quote was screened onto the ice during the playoffs, after the Kings were eliminated … by the Knights.

Jan. 14, 2018

The Golden Knights hold a fan festival on Fremont Street. The team was scheduled to have the festival at the beginning of the season, but it was postponed after the shooting. An estimated 10,000 fans showed up, and the event had a pep-rally vibe. Owner Bill Foley led the crowd in a “Go Knights Go” chant as the players were introduced one-by-one to shrieking fans.

Foley told ESPN before the season that he had no interest in marketing to out-of-town fans. “We’re focusing on our core fan base. The Detroit Red Wings fans, the Chicago Blackhawks fans — we welcome them to Las Vegas,” Foley said. “If those fans want to buy tickets, they’re going to pay for them. Because we’ve already sold so many tickets, we’re going to be selling those tickets at premium values. They can come to Vegas and have a good time and enjoy themselves, then hopefully see their team lose.”

For the season, Vegas would sell out at a 103.9 percent capacity, the fourth-best mark in the NHL. By the end of the season, the team introduced a third-period video-screen segment where it asked fans to cheer if they were tourists. After, it asked fans to cheer if they were locals, and those cheers were maddeningly loud.

Jan. 20, 2018

Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella, whose team purposely traveled to Las Vegas days early for a road game, tells the media he encouraged his players to go out in Sin City, because he wants them to “play guilty.” The comments highlight a quandary all NHL teams were working through: How real is the Vegas Flu? En route to clinching a playoff berth, the Golden Knights would finish with a 29-10-2 record at T-Mobile Arena (compounding issue: their road record wasn’t shabby either) and the rest of the NHL was trying to sort through potential distractions.

A handful of teams stayed at the Bellagio, but there are gaming tables downstairs, let alone a nightclub tucked into the lobby and a lingering scent of cigarettes. So, many teams preferred the Mandarin Oriental — one of the strip’s few casino-less and smoke-free luxury hotels. The Calgary Flames organized their first-ever moms trip when they visited on Feb. 21. The Stars brought their dads in December.

“It was smart,” said veteran Dallas forward Jason Spezza. “Get the dads in trouble out there, instead of us.”

Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog reports his entire team was in bed by 10 p.m. on the eve of their game in Vegas. The Avalanche lost, 7-0. “Maybe we should’ve gone out after all,” Landeskog surmised.

The Toronto Maple Leafs stayed nearly 30 minutes away, by Red Rock Canyon, the national park with a 13-mile scenic drive that entices visitors looking for a gasp of fresh desert air. The Anaheim Ducks called an audible in February and flew into town the day of the game, just hours before puck drop.

All of this seems to amuse the Golden Knights. “It’s kind of hilarious,” Schmidt told ESPN. “You hear of teams doing this and that. Sure, stay off the Strip, but you’re just adding time to your Uber trip. Even if guys just want to go to dinner or a show, that’s an hour of your life they’re not getting back. And no matter what, I don’t think anything anyone is doing is helping them play any better against us.”

The Blue Jackets, for the record, lost their game in Vegas, 6-3.

Feb. 26, 2018

Still atop the Pacific Division, GM George McPhee doubles down on this team and is active at the trade deadline. Remember, the initial plan was that the team was going to be a seller at the deadline; pending free agents like James Neal would have been prime bait. McPhee bought high for Detroit Red Wings winger Tomas Tatar — a 2018 first-round pick, a 2019 second-round pick, and a 2021 third-round pick — then strangely got involved in the Derrick Brassard-to-Pittsburgh Penguins deal, acquiring gritty fourth-liner Ryan Reaves in the process while surrendering a fourth-round pick and absorbing part of Brassard’s salary.

If anything, these moves proved that the chemistry the original Golden Knights had forged was special — and how difficult it is to tinker with. Reaves was a fine addition, giving the team toughness in the playoffs, while contributing some surprise offense. Tatar, the team’s highest-paid skater at $5.3 million, struggled to mesh with a team already in stride. Tatar tallied only six points in 20 regular-season games, and was regularly a healthy scratch in the postseason.

March 26, 2018

With a 4-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche, Vegas becomes the first NHL team to clinch a playoff berth in its inaugural season since the Edmonton Oilers and Hartford Whalers did in 1979-80. The Oilers, whose roster included Wayne Gretzky, and the Whalers, featuring Gordie Howe, came from the WHA following a merger.

By this point, the Knights had 103 points, and were only four points back of the Nashville Predators in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best record. Their Stanley Cup odds had improved to 7-1. Of 64 expansion teams among the four major U.S. sports leagues since 1960, Vegas was the first to have a winning record.

April 17, 2018

Vegas becomes the first franchise in NHL history to sweep a postseason series in its inaugural season when it defeated the Los Angeles Kings. The series was defined by stingy defense; the Knights scored just seven goals in the series. No matter; this is when goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury began flexing a serious Conn Smythe case. Including the next round (a 4-2 series win against the San Jose Sharks), the former Pittsburgh Penguin goalie posted an absurd .958 even-strength save percentage on 248 shot attempts in 10 games.

May 20, 2018

The Golden Knights drop the first game of the Western Conference finals to the Winnipeg Jets. They then never trail again in the series, rattling off four straight wins.

“We call ourselves the Golden Misfits for a reason,” said winger Ryan Reaves, who scored the game-winning goal in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. “We’ve proven everyone else wrong all season.”

Engelland not only accepted the Clarence Campbell Trophy, but he picked it up and skated around with it. That came at the suggestion of Fleury, who had told Engelland that Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby had no problem touching the Prince of Wales Trophy, yet still won the Stanley Cup three times. “All season long we haven’t been superstitious,” Marchessault said. “Why stop now?”

May 28, 2018

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The team has captured the imagination of hockey fans, and peaked the interest of casual fans for entertainment value alone. The pregame introductions have become known for over-the-top kitsch, and for the NHL’s biggest stage, the production team does not disappoint.

A narrator sets the scene for the crowd as a Golden Knight — taking the ice as if he were at Medieval Times — must defend the fortress from invaders of the East: five character actors carrying Capitals flags. After a mock battle on the ice, a large trebuchet “fired” its payload onto the ice, and the invaders are defeated by CGI flames.

Rapper Lil Jon performed in a packed plaza outside the arena before the game; a lively drumline conga line served as a pep rally as it snaked through the casinos across from the arena; and Michael Buffer announced starting lineups, including his signature “Let’s get ready to rumble!” tagline. Yeah, this was a little different from other pregame shows across the league.

June 7, 2018

The Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup, after the Golden Knights endure their longest losing streak of the season (four games). It’s a bitter finish, though after a few days players have time to reflect on their many successes of the past year.

Consider the comments of defenseman Brad Hunt, who did not see any action in the playoffs. “It was the greatest experience of my life,” Hunt told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “To be part of this with this group of guys, it’s something I’ll remember forever.”



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