LAS VEGAS — On the most emotional night of their season, which was not their last one at home but their first, it took defenceman Deryk Engelland five seconds to say the 12 words that became the Vegas Golden Knights’ mission statement.
Before the expansion Knights’ first National Hockey League home game on Oct. 10, just 10 days after a gunman with semi-automatic weapons murdered 58 people at a concert a short distance from where Engelland stood inside T-Mobile Arena, he told the crowd: “We’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal.”
Then, in a strong, clear voice, Engelland declared: “We are Vegas strong.”
Engelland is a transplanted Las Vegan. Born in Edmonton, he met his wife, Melissa, when he played here 14 years ago in the East Coast League. Their boys, Cash and Talon, were born in Las Vegas. This is Engelland’s home now.
He was the only Golden Knights player who could deliver that speech to fans with authority and authenticity, because he was the only one who truly felt their grief.
“It was emotional,” Engelland recalled after Thursday’s practice. “You never want to be in that situation, but to be able to stand up there and speak those words to people were a huge honour for me.”
Teammate Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said: “In that situation as a hockey player … we are not good. I know he was nervous for it. But he was perfect. Goosebumps were everywhere. He was the right person to put in front.”
Maybe Knights’ general manager George McPhee and his staff knew this when they claimed Engelland from the Calgary Flames in last June’s expansion draft.
It was natural that he would become the Knights’ leader in the community and help bind the team to its new city. The amazing part is that, at age 35 (he turned 36 last month), he became their leader on the ice, too.
A stay-at-home defenceman who appeared in recent years to be losing speed in the twilight of his hard-earned career, Engelland managed to blend perfectly into one of the fastest-skating teams in the NHL. He has helped lead them to a 2-1 Western Conference Final lead over the greatly-favoured Winnipeg Jets — within two more wins of playing for the Stanley Cup in the Knights’ first season.
The 194th player selected in the 2000 entry draft, Engelland has battled as a pro for 15 years but only this season surpassed in the NHL the 486 minor-league games he played to get here. Yes, he is the perfect Knight.
“Deryk’s a little better than I thought he was, to be honest with you,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said before the Knights beat the Jets 4-2 on Wednesday. “He skates pretty good for a big man. He’s an older guy. He’s great. We re-signed him halfway through the season because we liked what he had, what he brought. He’s a big part of our group. He’s a big leader for us.”
“He’s the foundation for our team,” Bellemare said. “He was the guy everybody went through, the guy that wanted to connect with everybody before they ever arrived in Vegas. When he talks, you listen. He’s an older player, been around the league long enough, and he does more often the right stuff than the wrong stuff. That is the way you command respect.”
He’s not their best defenceman but Engelland anchors the Vegas blue line. He plays hard minutes, often against the opposition’s top forwards, and never coasts through a shift.
“The game is getting faster and younger and you’ve got to tweak your training in the summers to try to get faster yourself,” Engelland explained. “If you get quicker in the gym, you’ll be quicker on the ice. But at lot of it goes with opportunity. When you play more, you’re more confident.”
After his career looked in Calgary to be winding down, Engelland averaged a career-high 20:16 of ice time on Vegas’ second defence pairing. He also had a career-high 23 points and a career-low 24 penalty minutes despite defending his net as fiercely as ever.
His 23 points included five goals and of course — because this is what happens in Vegas in the Knights’ miraculous season — Engelland scored one of them the night he stood at centre ice and told all those in mourning that the players were with them.
The Knights have honoured both survivors and first-responders every home game since then. And every game has been sold out.
For those elsewhere who begrudge the Knights’ success and deem fans here undeserving of a Stanley Cup run, you should remember the monstrous event that preceded their season and how much Vegas players, cast off by other teams, have done to help the healing.
“Coming to games allowed people to shut off for a few hours and not think about what happened,” Engelland said. “That built the fan base and got the community involved. A lot of this goes back to Oct. 1 and what the game is doing for them and the city.
“I still get told how exciting it is and how much they appreciate what we’re doing when we’re just going out and playing a game.”
They really are Vegas strong.