LAS VEGAS – Before driving to suburban Summerlin to watch the morning skate ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights’ first playoff game on Wednesday night, Kim Smith took a detour to T-Mobile Arena on the famous Strip and lined up with other fans to have her head shaved.
"I’m a huge Knights fan and I love Marc-Andre Fleury," she said of the expansion team’s goalie. "And Fleury means flower in French, so I got a flower shaved on the back of my head. Mostly, they were doing Vs, but I got a flower."
Later in the day, barbers on the T-Mobile plaza were joined by tattoo artists so Knights fans could get inked. Permanently, if they so desired.
So, let’s just say Las Vegans are all-in on the Knights, the National Hockey League team that won 51 regular-season games in the wake of last October’s mass shooting here and is helping the community heal.
The team sold out all 41 home games while smashing NHL expansion records.
By the far the biggest section in Wednesday’s Las Vegas Journal was the newspaper’s 36-page playoff supplement crammed with Golden Knights stories and photos and, yes, advertising. The paper reported that the average resale price for a Knights’ playoff ticket was $453 US, higher than in any other NHL playoff market except Winnipeg.
"T-Mobile Arena has become a community hub and on any given night, 90 per cent of the fans are locals," Knights general manager George McPhee told Sportsnet. "They’ve demonstrated tremendous civic pride in supporting this team. Sports teams can give cities an identity. Las Vegas already has an identity; it’s a world-wide brand. But now it has another identity. Vegas is more than The Strip."
The parking lot outside City National Arena, the Knights’ new practice facility in Summerlin, west of the city, was nearly full Wednesday morning and so were the stands inside.
All Knights practices and skates are open to the public and rare is the day there hasn’t been at least 500 fans watching and cheering. Wednesday morning, the lineup to purchase Knights gear in the team store was 30 people deep.
"Last Saturday, we had commemorative pucks and posters and we had 1,000 people lined up and wrapped around the building," arena general manager Daniel Patterson said.
"Not only was there 1,000 people," McPhee added, "they started lining up at 3:00 a.m. When (owner) Bill Foley called and I first talked to him about this job, he told me how many tickets they’d already sold and how many they expected to sell. And I found it hard to believe. It was a level that was way above many established teams.
"But then every time we did something in the marketplace, it was beyond capacity — no matter what it was. We dropped the puck at an outdoor rink and there were more fans than we had places for them. We had a meet-the-team night at a hotel and 10,000 people showed up. It has been extraordinary."
Forward James Neal, one of the Knights’ leaders, said the support for the team is reflected in Vegas’ 29-10-2 record at T-Mobile, its 109-point regular season and Pacific Division title. The Knights earned home-ice advantage for their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings.
"A lot of us live just right here (in Summerlin) and everywhere you go, whether it’s the grocery store or out for something to eat, people are coming up and saying hi, and saying thank you," Neal said. "It really means a lot to us. We try to do everything we can with what happened here. It has really brought the community and team together. I think every single guy would say it’s the best time they’ve had playing hockey."
"One hundred per cent," defenceman Shea Theodore agreed. "I wouldn’t have guessed any of this. It was a tough couple of days after I heard I was going to be traded (by Anaheim last June). There were so many things going through my head, like: How’s the team going to be? What are the guys going to be like? What is it going to be like in a city that doesn’t really know hockey? And it has just blown me away. The guys have been amazing and the city, the support we’ve had, has been incredible. You can’t even dream… the way the fans have been behind us."
First a nightmare, now the dream.
"Las Vegas only has two million people," Patterson, the arena manager, said. "It’s really got a small-town feel when you live here. This is the first time Las Vegas has had a team of their own. One of our slogans is Vegas born. That’s what this is: Vegas born."