The Vegas Golden Knights are the talk of hockey right now, and are becoming one of the rare NHL stories that breaks through into the larger sports world. They’ll open the Western Conference Final Saturday in Winnipeg, the latest chapter in a season-long story that’s seen them go from presumed bottom-feeder to Pacific Division champion and legitimate Stanley Cup contender. They’re already the greatest expansion team in pro sports history; now the question is whether they can actually do the unthinkable and win it all.
Well, that’s one question. Here’s another: Should we want them to win? Would seeing an expansion team win the Stanley Cup be a good thing?
Plenty of fans seem to think so; the Golden Knights bandwagon filled up quickly, attracting everyone from veteran fans to little kids to folks who’d never watched hockey before. But there’s a growing sense among others that this has all gone a little too far, and that seeing the Cup paraded down the The Strip might be the wrong ending to the story.
If you’ve been a hockey fan, you already know how this will go. We’ve already got the backlash. Next will come the backlash to the backlash. Then we’ll have a backlash to that backlash, and on and on, and by the time the Knights take the ice on Saturday we’ll all be fighting in the parking lot with tridents while stepping over pieces of the smashed conch.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe we can clear the air right now, with a good old-fashioned weighing of the pros and cons. Would that actually change anyone’s mind? The odds are against it. But then again, the odds don’t seem to mean much when it comes to the Golden Knights, so let’s give it a try.
Pro: This is an all-time underdog story that anyone should be able to enjoy
Everybody loves an underdog. There’s a reason that Hollywood doesn’t make sports movies about the best player or team just steamrolling over everyone on the way to an easy championship. Nobody would want to watch that. Instead, we want to see the also-ran or the never-was, who doesn’t have a chance right up until they prove everyone wrong.
Sound familiar? The Golden Knights aren’t just a team that was supposed to be bad. They’re a team made up from the outcasts of all the other, better teams. They’re a collection of misfit toys who were all told they were expendable. And now they might win the Stanley Cup. This is a clichéd Hollywood movie, only it’s playing out in real life right in front of us.
We’re watching the real-world version of Rudy. It’s the hockey world’s retelling of Rocky. You loved those stories for a reason. It’s the same reason you should love the Golden Knights.
Con: This is not how underdog stories are supposed to work
The original Rocky was a great movie. It won Best Picture, launched careers, and set the template for every underdog story that was to come.
Do you remember how it ends? Not with Rocky winning.
That’s because even though the underdog story was inspiring, having the no-name boxer win the championship would have been too much. It would have felt silly. They didn’t get to that until the sequels, because even the ultimate underdog with a room full of Hollywood scriptwriters behind him shouldn’t win it all right away.
We all loved Rudy. But that move ends with our underdog hero getting into the game for one play. He doesn’t become a star, get picked first overall in the draft and win NFL MVP in his first year. If he had, people would have left the theatre mumbling about how stupid the whole thing was.
Underdog stories are great – up to a point. We’ve reached that point with the Golden Knights. Save something for the sequel, boys.
Pro: The league is finally doing right by a new market
The NHL’s track record when it comes to welcoming new markets to the fold isn’t very strong. Until the Knights came along, the league’s standard operating procedure involved cashing the expansion check, showing up for the ribbon-cutting at the new arena, and then leaving a team to flounder for years before it’s ever worth watching.
Not surprisingly, that often didn’t work all that well. Markets from Oakland to Kansas City to Ottawa to Atlanta to Nashville to Columbus either struggled or failed outright in large part because the teams weren’t competitive until years down the line. Florida fell into that trap too after its early success, as did relocated teams like Carolina and Phoenix. Big-market fans would scoff at half-empty buildings, but really, what would we expect? Nobody wants to pay to watch a team finish last every year.
The league clearly didn’t want to see that happen in Vegas. They reworked the expansion draft rules to give the team a better initial roster, and served up an easy October schedule to make sure they’d get a few early wins under their belt. Nobody thought it would go like this, of course, but the Knights’ success has ensured that they’ll have a far better shot at building for the long term than just about any expansion team that’s come before.
Right now, Las Vegas is in love with hockey, and with its team. The franchise, and by extension the league, will benefit from that for years to come.
Con: Wait, is this good for the market?
In the short term, sure, the Knights are pulling in fans left and right. But if they actually win it all, what do you do for an encore?
Part of being a hockey fan is suffering through the bad. There’s a reason that drought-busting Cup wins like the Rangers in 1994 and the Blackhawks in 2010 resonate so much – their fans had paid more than their fair share of dues to get to that point. Losing is never fun, but sticking through the tough times is part of what builds the long-term bond between a team and its most loyal fans.
Vegas is skipping all of that. It’s fun now, but what happens when the team misses the playoffs for the first time? Are fans who’ve been spoiled by a championship in Year 1 going to patiently wait their way through a rebuild, or will they wander off to find the latest rush somewhere else?
We don’t know, because we’ve never had to face this question before in any sport. Maybe all these new Knights fans will turn out to be diehards. They sure look (and sound) the part right now. But tempering that bond with a little bit of adversity might do more to build a long-term fan base than skipping straight to the parade in Year 1.
Pro: It’s not just that they’re winning, but how they’re doing it
If someone had come up to you in June, 2017, and explained that they were bringing news from a future where the Golden Knights were contending for a Stanley Cup, you wouldn’t have believed them. But if they managed to convince you they were telling the truth, you probably would have assumed that the Knights were winning the way the Panthers did back in the mid-’90s: With strong goaltending, a defence-first mentality, plenty of clutch-and-grab, and a commitment to boring everyone to death if it meant a 1-0 win.
But apart from the goaltending, that’s not what the Knights have done here. Instead, they packed the team with plenty of speed and as much skill as they could cobble together, and they let it loose on the league. And somehow, it worked. They finished the season ranked fourth in goals scored, tied with the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins.
That could end up being important. Those mid-’90s Panthers were one of several teams of the era that helped shape the next two decades of NHL hockey. Suddenly, owners were wondering why they should pay big bucks for offensive-minded superstars when those players could be shut down by a third-line grinder playing the trap. Coaches adjusted, strategies changed, and the dead-puck era arrived. It’s still here.
Wouldn’t it be great if the Knights helped reverse that trend? We’re obviously not going to see teams abandon their defence-first philosophies overnight – they’re far too ingrained in how hockey is played today. But watching the Knights light up the scoreboard without any established stars up front might remind teams that just trying not to lose isn’t the only way. If William Karlsson can score 40 goals when you let him off the leash, what might some of the guys on your team be able to do?
We already saw a modest uptick in scoring this season; a Vegas championship might nudge us even further in that direction. And better yet, it might even have a few owners wondering why their team can’t be as much fun to watch as an expansion team.
Con: This is making the other 30 GMs look stupid
Each one of these guys had a chance to evaluate their roster, make any trades they wanted, and cut any side deals with Vegas to ensure things would go just right. And in the end they had to give up roughly their 10th best player. And then George McPhee took that crew of rejects and built what might be a Stanley Cup winner out of it.
That would seem to suggest that nobody in this league actually knows what they’re doing. Is that supposed to be funny?
Pro: This is making the other 30 GMs look stupid
Honestly, it is kind of funny, yeah.