LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee isn’t certain whether Tuesday’s home opener is more important now than it was nine days ago, before the city became the site of the worst mass shooting in modern American history.
All the 59-year-old from Guelph, Ont., can say is that the team’s success sure isn’t hurting a city that could use some good news.
“Certainly, winning two games over the weekend was a nice thing for the community that is still grieving,” McPhee told Sportsnet on Monday, on the eve of the team’s home opener. “This community will grieve and heal and persevere. But we’re just a hockey team. We’re a small thing in relation to what happened, but the Vegas team won a couple hockey games.
“This community needed something to smile about.”
It did. It does. This city, home to the world-famous entertainment strip, where just eight days ago a gunman killed 58 and injured some 500 others. Today, you’ll see #VEGASSTRONG signs hanging outside a lot of businesses here — breweries, belly dancing establishments, you name it.
There have been signs of support for Las Vegas across the hockey world, too. On Friday night, ahead of the first regular season game in Vegas franchise history, the Dallas Stars stood behind the Golden Knights along the blue line for the national anthem, and both teams wore #VegasStrong stickers on their helmets. Players across the league spoke out in support of Las Vegas in a video, and the Dallas Jumbotron displayed “Viva Las Vegas.”
But, without a doubt, Tuesday’s home opener is the most important game in the very short history of the NHL’s 31st franchise, and it has nothing to do with the fact that the 2-0 Golden Knights could become the first expansion team in NHL history to open a season at 3-0. It’s the first time this city will play host to a regular season NHL game, its first chance to honour and remember the victims and all those affected, right here at home.
The Golden Knights’ T-Mobile Arena is just west of the Las Vegas Strip, a little over a mile away from Mandalay Bay Hotel, where 64-year-old Stephen Paddock was staying when he shot and killed 58 people, before killing himself.
McPhee, the former Capitals GM, got word of the shooting via a text message. He was at home, in the suburbs, at the time.
“You first think about the people closest to you — our players and staff,” he said. “And then when they’re all accounted for, you hope there isn’t a lot of loss of life.
“Unfortunately, there was.”
Before the tragedy on Oct. 1, Golden Knights staff were planning a home opener that would feature an entertainment-filled evening full of fan engagement and surprises to officially welcome NHL hockey to the place they call Sin City. You have to figure there’d be horses and Knights, maybe even a tiger in the building, or some Cirque Du Soleil acts. This is Vegas, after all.
But Tuesday’s opener against Arizona will look a lot different, now. “Everything changed last week,” McPhee said. All the festivities originally planned for Tuesday, he noted, will now happen on Friday when the team plays host to Detroit, for its second home game.
“It’s not about us,” McPhee said. “We’ll have a different home opener on Friday, but [Tuesday] night it’s about honouring and remembering the victims and supporting the families and recognizing the first responders. It will be quite a platform to provide some support and love for all the people that were affected.”
McPhee says the team’s staff has been working overtime to ensure it’s an evening “that is respectful and dignified.”
And if the night ends with a third straight win, keeping that undefeated streak alive for the NHL’s newest team, that won’t hurt, either.
“We’re delighted we won two games — we’d sure like to win a lot more,” McPhee said. “It’s been quite an uplift for the community. It’s still grieving, and any kind of good news helps.”