Vegas Strong: Golden Knights’ mission to heal through hockey

Posted at 8:38 AM, Oct 01, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-01 10:38:56-04

By Dan Kamal, for CNN

It was just nine days after the mass shooting in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017.

Deryk Engelland, captain of the Vegas Golden Knights, was standing in a spotlight at T-Mobile Arena, addressing the sellout crowd. It was his team’s first regular-season home game in its new city. The atmosphere was different than anyone could have or would have ever imagined.

“It’s first game in the franchise in Vegas, right? So it’s supposed to be a happy time, but no,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury recalled.

“It was on everybody’s mind. It was tough.”

Engelland finished his remarks that night with this pledge: “To the families and friends of the victims, know that we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal.

“We are Vegas Strong.”

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In Macbeth, Shakespeare suggested we give words to our sorrow. In Engelland’s address, he tried eloquently to give words, apply some hope and healing to the unfathomable sorrow being felt in the city, especially by those most affected by the senseless tragedy.

His speech — like the moment of silence requested at T-Mobile Arena — was 58 seconds long, a second for all 58 souls lost in the massacre.

His promise, and by extension, his teammates’ has no limits imposed by time; it is ongoing. What happened in the wake of that unspeakable violence, was transforming — for the team and for Las Vegas.

From the depths of the despair that hung in the arena that opening night was a bond forged between this team and its new city that transcended sport and gave the NHL’s latest franchise a mission that went far beyond wins and losses. The Vegas Golden Knights were playing now for their city. They played to heal.

“With October 1st, we all had to mature a little bit faster,” Golden Knights forward Pierre Edouard Bellemare told CNN Sport.

“It’s not about us, it’s not about the team, not about salaries, not about stats. It was all about our strength to defend our town, because it is our town now.”

Vegas centerman William Karlsson, who went from a previous high of nine goals to 43 — the third best in the NHL last season — added: “First of all it was pretty unbelievable that something like that could happen especially when you’re there, too.

“It kind of made the whole team come together. I mean the whole city come together — and they had a rally point in us, to come together at games, and I think that bond made us stronger. We had that connection with the city and the fans.”

Vegas won that first game at T-Mobile Arena and eight of the next nine at home. The march was on to the most successful season by a true expansion franchise in NHL history — it was a journey of Cinderella proportions that included most wins and road wins ever by a first-year franchise.

It also led straight to the Stanley Cup Final, all happening as the bond between team and city grew stronger.

Before Game Three of the final last June, CNN Sport asked George McPhee — the Golden Knights general manager — to look back on how the relationship between his team and the city of Las Vegas was shaped by their shared sense of profound loss.

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Clearly moved by the memories, McPhee offered this: “The unfortunate events of October 1 changed things, and sometimes in the wake of tragedy, you know, something more beautiful happens.

“And a beautiful thing happened in Vegas, the way that community came together, the way this team came together — as a team and for the city — was a really remarkable thing.

“If you were close to it, it was really something to experience.”

Engelland and his Golden Knights teammates lost their bid to become 2018 Stanley Cup champions, falling in five games to the Washington Capitals. But while they may have failed to win the right to lift the Cup, they achieved something that will live forever in the collective hearts of Las Vegas.

They lifted spirits in the city’s darkest times. They helped to bring some light, bring some healing. They are champions.