Despite Stanley Cup defeat, Vegas finishes a winner after miracle season

Alex Ovechkin scored in the Capitals’ 4-3 win over the Vegas Golden Knights, getting the franchise its first Stanley Cup victory.

LAS VEGAS — Skating off the rink for the first time as a Stanley Cup champion, Alex Ovechkin raised the gleaming object of his obsession high over his head, gave it a 44th kiss, and said three words we should all be echoing after the most unpredictable final in 101 years:

“Thank you, Vegas.”

We will never again witness anything like the expansion Vegas Golden Knights of 2017-18, the only team that can let the Cup slip from its hands in four straight games and still be undisputed winners.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is a black man from France doing everything in his power to win a hockey championship in a scorching American desert. He thought back on a misfit journey you couldn’t script.

“Unbelievable,” Bellemare said. “The only thing I can say is for all the kids who watch hockey, it’s possible.”

During their 102-game miracle run, the Knights made fools of pundits, and believers of heartbroken citizens. They shed egos and gained followers. Best of all, they made hockey — a sport so clung to tradition that it frequently falls victim to self-seriousness — ridiculously, deliriously fun.

Skip back from Ovechkin’s last skate in Vegas to his first time experiencing the dancing showgirls, the luminescent marching band, the Game of Thrones Lite theatrical opening, the fans so relentless with their rooting, and all that bass. So. Much. Bass.

“It’s like you’re in a nightclub. It’s like a party. Everybody dancing over there,” Ovechkin said at All-Star weekend. “It’s like, ‘Holy Jesus, are we in a hockey game or is this like a pool party out there?’”

Vegas proved we can have it all: a hockey game and a pool party, a feel-good story in both the winners’ and losers’ dressing rooms.

As a hockey writer, this has been my luckiest spring. I’ve witnessed the Whiteout in Winnipeg, the noise in Nashville, a come-from-behind Game 7 thriller that rocked Boston, and all of downtown D.C. unleash the fury.

By not trying to mimic the culture of other hockey hotbeds, by doing things their way — the supersized, over-the-top Cirque du Soleil way — Vegas wasted no time crafting its own identity. And the buy-in, from players to fans, was nothing short of a phenomenon.

You couldn’t walk half a block in this 24-hour town without seeing locals decked out in Knights gear, flags and decals on cars, and billboards and signs screaming Knights.
Panic! At the Disco kicked off Thursday’s Game 5 with a live show jammed out from the middle of the Bellagio pond, fountains spraying staccato behind the band. Imagine Dragons performed on the ice before Game 2, and Lil Jon rocked a crammed plaza outside T-Mobile before Game 1.

“We’re in the entertainment business. Sometimes you forget about that. We’re in sports and entertainment,” Caps coach Barry Trotz said post-handshakes.

“What Vegas has done is the gold standard. Them and Nashville, for me, are the top two teams when it comes to that. They get it. They’re unique cities. Just be yourself.”

A line a dozen people deep queued up to get Knights logos permanently tattooed on their bodies under a tent set up by Revolt Tattoos. Three artists were needling away, but they couldn’t ink quick enough to keep up with the demand.

Three dudes cut up empty, goldish cardboard cases of Coors Original, fashioned them into knight helmets and walked around like kings. An Elvis impersonator chirped Ovie before his glory. Between periods, a group juggled rolls of toilet paper standing inside a fake castle.

And, oh, the celebrity cameo hodgepodge. Carrot Top, Floyd Mayweather, Michael Buffer, Willie O’Ree, Manon Rheaume, Criss Angel and Kurt Busch. Gladys Knight belted out “God Bless America” on her birthday at T-Mobile, then cut into an enormous chocolate cake. Baseball icons-turned-Knights supporters George Brett and Bryce Harper cheered their club on in D.C.

Of them all, Thursday’s final familiar face most symbolizes the Vegas story. Richard Dean Anderson, the actor who played MacGyver, revved the siren before the Knights’ final period.

An ’80s TV favourite, MacGyver could fashion a bomb out of chewing gum, table salt and some pipe cleaners. He could take your scraps and whip them into something dangerous and unexpected.

MacGyver is George McPhee, the general manager who essentially built both halves of the NHL’s climax. The ones in white gloves were the ones the other 30 teams didn’t want.

“We did the very best to try to find those unknown surprises, get a younger team, a player that may develop into names you’ll recognize now but didn’t then,” McPhee said.

“We didn’t want to be a doormat. We didn’t want to be an embarrassment. We wanted this to work. The league needed it to work. We needed it to work. This community needed it to work. This community’s got this great identity as being an entertainment town, but it has another identity now, and it’s a great — it’s a fantastic sports town.”

New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello has constructed three Stanley Cup champions. This week on Prime Time Sports, he applauded McPhee’s masterpiece.

“Incredible,” Lamoriello said. “One of the greatest managing jobs in all of sports, in my opinion.”

You can’t tell the Knights tale without mentioning the class — nay, the love — the franchise showed in the wake of Oct. 1, 2017 and the worst gun massacre in U.S. history.

Their season opener began with 58 seconds of silence, one for every person murdered in Las Vegas.

“That 58 seconds felt like forever,” McPhee said. “Sometimes beautiful things follow something like that, and the way that this community came together and these people helped each other really was a beautiful thing to witness and experience.”

Vegas native Deryk Engelland delivered a heartfelt speech that night, and all of the players have committed to building relationships with their fellow Las Vegans since. A first responder is honoured at every sold-out home game.

“I still talk to some of them. They still text you how much it means to them and how much it’s helping them,” Engelland said. “After you get past the losing here, you can look back and be pretty proud of the group in here and what they’ve done getting into this community and the city after what happened, and the run we went on.

“Everyone had us pegged to not make the playoffs. To be standing here today, as bad as it feels, you got to be proud of the group in here.

“It gave people in the community a few hours a night to shut off and maybe not think about it.”

But it’s not just during the games. They’re obsessed. The Knights open up their practices to the public and turn them into pep rallies.

Locals are quick to debate Fleury–Holtby, and one group of season-ticket-holding friends with blue-collar jobs told me they sold their tickets to a couple of final games and earned enough to pay for the entire 2018-19 package.

Opening the door to my cab upon return to Las Vegas from Washington, the first words the hotel doorman said to me, a stranger, were, “Can you believe James Neal hit that post?!”

The difference between the noise in, say, Winnipeg or Washington and the noise here is that Vegas doesn’t hush up when their team falls behind. Maybe they don’t understand hockey as well. Maybe they don’t know what underachieving feels like.

Either way, it’s glorious.

“The fans are right on top of you,” Neal said. “They’re cheering for 60 minutes straight. That makes it tough on other teams. I know right from the get-go, when you talk to other players on other teams that you’re friends with, the first thing they said to you after the game was, ‘Wow, that building is hard to play in. That’s a fun atmosphere.’”

The Golden Knights did the unthinkable. They saw a coach stranded on a curb trying to hail a cab and made him a Jack Adams winner. They took your discarded Tomas Noseks and William Karlssons and Reilly Smiths and became the first expansion team in 50 years from the NHL, MLB, NBA or NFL to even reach the championship in its inaugural season.

“Trying to fight back emotions, it’s really hard,” David Perron said. “We gave our heart out to this city, to this team this whole year. You never even expect to even have a chance at the Stanley Cup. We did.”

In defeat, head coach Gerard Gallant admitted Vegas was the second best but couldn’t be prouder that the Golden Misfits showed the world what they were made of, what Vegas is made of.

“In a few days it will feel a lot better than it does tonight,” said Gallant. A hockey man in, yes, a hockey town.

“We had a great time this year. We had an unbelievable home record. We had unbelievable fans. Every day was fun for us.”

Us too, Turk.

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