A Bandwagon Well Worth the Ride

The date was October 1, 2017.

As a senior hockey writer for RotoWire, I had been eager to start penning post-game wrap notes for the preseason finale between the Golden Knights and Sharks. While it’s often said that exhibition games are meaningless, I was smitten by the idea of an expansion team breaking ground in my happy place. At this point, sports gambling and its associated controversies were largely confined to Vegas, so I had a profound interest in knowing how that would all shake out. Plus, my childhood adoration for the film series “The Mighty Ducks” — which has deeply rooted ties to Anaheim’s NHL franchise — has fostered a personal affinity for expansion teams.

But just as I emptied my thoughts on Marc-Andre Fleury’s substandard 28-save tuneup in goal, news broke that a gunman had opened fire on a crowd of concert-goers a little over a mile away from T-Mobile arena, killing 58 people and leaving many more wounded.

My heart sunk to the ground as I digested the news. To this day, I can’t even begin to fathom the mental and physical anguish experienced by the victims and their families following this horrific tragedy. As an American living in this country, I desperately hope we can put politics aside and find better mental health solutions.

#VegasStrong will always mean more than hockey itself, but it’s through the medium of sports that the great city of Las Vegas continues to heal. Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland, a Vegas native, delivered an incredible speech ahead of the Oct. 6 regular-season home opener against the Stars. Fittingly, the expansion team won that one, 2-1.

As derived from NHL.com:

“Like all of you I am proud to call Las Vegas home. I met my wife here, my kids were born here, and I know how special this city is. To all the brave first responders that have worked timelessly and courageously throughout this whole tragedy, we thank you. To the families and friends of the victims, know we will do everything we can to help you and our city heal. We are Vegas Strong. – Deryk Engelland.”

Admittedly, Engelland wasn’t speaking to me. I’ve been a Red Wings fan my entire life, born and raised around 40 miles northwest of the Motor City. However, with the Original Six franchise snapping a streak of 25 consecutive playoff appearances two years ago, I needed a secondary outlet to keep my interest in hockey at a high level — you know, where it should be as someone who gets paid to write about (fantasy) sports.

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I appreciate how much hockey means to Canadians, and it wasn’t a surprise to witness the “Sea of Red” in the Stanley Cup Finals. Furthermore, it makes no difference to me if you hadn’t been pulling for the expansion club that defied the odds to become Western Conference champions right away. But what’s unfortunate is knowing that I’ve come across plenty of folks who wanted Vegas to fail at every stop; not lose a game or series … completely fail. Here’s hoping that group (however small) consists of apologists for one or more of the 12 teams that have never beared witness to the Stanley Cup. Otherwise, it would mean they’ve missed Engelland’s humanitarian message.

Honestly, the only way the “Golden Misfits” could have impressed me more is if they had overcome a 3-1 series deficit in the Cup finals to win it all. Instead, the Capitals won their first championship in 44 years of existence with Alex Ovechkin, one of the most popular athletes of all time, also taking home the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP. It was a tremendous series and a win-win for the NHL and NBC, which — according to the Las Vegas-Review Journal — reported the highest viewership figures in 28 years.

It’ll certainly be interesting to see what next season holds for the Golden Knights. Netminder Marc-Andre Fleury is the backbone of the club and he has already expressed interest in finishing his career in Vegas, whereas 11 players on the season-ending roster will be looking for new contracts.

Every summer, during the MLB’s All-Star break, the RotoWire gang takes a trip out to Vegas to unwind before the coverage ramps up in the fall. I will not be attending this year in order to spend time celebrating a birthday that I share with my father-in-law in the “Northwoods” of Wisconsin, but I’ve already suggested to my work buddies that they check out the birthplace of one of the hottest teams in the NHL — after all, there’s no shame in riding this bandwagon. This is only the beginning of Vegas’ incredible run.

A non-exhaustive list of the Golden Knights accomplishments in Year 1:

  • Defeated the Canucks 9-4 in their first preseason game
  • Most wins (51) by an expansion team in its first season
  • Most points (109) by an expansion team in its first season
  • Led Pacific Division in goal differential (plus-44)
  • Advanced to the Stanley Cup Final
  • Named 2018 Western Conference Champions