Golden Knights strike balance between respect, celebration in opener

James Neal scored a pair of goals and the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Arizona Coyotes to become the first expansion team to start the season 3-0.

LAS VEGAS — The Vegas Golden Knights had done everything right to honour and tribute the many people affected by the atrocious events that took place in this city just nine days ago, and then Deryk Engelland removed his right glove, took hold of a microphone, and he skated to centre ice.

Around the Golden Knights defenceman, 18,191 people stood in silence, some with tears in their eyes, some with tears rolling down their faces, others with their hands over their hearts.

The most important moment of Engelland’s hockey career came next.

“Like all of you, I’m proud to call Las Vegas home,” the 35-year-old said, with an even tone. Engelland knows this city better than any member of this team, having played a couple seasons for the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers more than a decade ago.

“I met my wife here, my kids are born here, and I know how special this city is,” Engelland continued. “To all the brave first responders that have worked tirelessly … we thank you.”

The crowd at T-Mobile Arena erupted in cheers.

“To the families and friends of the victims, know that we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal,” Engelland said. “We are Vegas Strong.”

It was powerful. It was perfect. And then it was game time, for the first time in history, as Sin City officially welcomed the NHL.

And as head coach Gerard Gallant put it: “Tonight was a perfect night,” one that saw the Golden Knights get out to an early lead and earn a 5-2 victory over the visiting Arizona Coyotes.

For days, Golden Knights players have been saying they hoped to provide a happy distraction for a city still healing after being the site of the worst mass shooting in modern American history, when 58 lives were taken and some 500 others were injured due to a senseless act at a music festival.

And if you saw winger James Neal grinning on the bench, flashing those sparkly whites after scoring his second goal of the game in the first period, you’d know the team had achieved just that.

Because opening night really couldn’t have gone any better for the NHL’s 31st franchise, on the ice and off it.

On the ice, it took Vegas just 2:31 to get on the board. It took the Golden Knights just 6:15 to build up a 3-0 lead, and it was 4-0 when the first period was just a little more than half old.

“We couldn’t have had a better start,” Neal said. “I wasn’t sure how we were gonna be off the opening draw. We jumped on ’em right away.”

They did. And with the win, the Golden Knights made history, becoming the first expansion team in NHL history to get out to a 3-0 start. They’re tied for first place in the NHL, as the team’s Twitter account — the funniest in the league — will repeatedly point out.

Left-winger Tomas Nosek was the first in history to score in a regular-season game in this city, after he got a quick pass from Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and beat Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta five-hole, and made T-Mobile Arena go berserk. Soon after, Engelland made it 2-0 on a shot from just above the faceoff circle, for the 23rd goal of his NHL career.

Then the game-winning goal-scoring hero from Games 1 and 2 in franchise history got involved. Neal jumped on a puck that rebounded off a Coyotes shin pad, then turned and fired it past Raanta for his fourth of the year.

Vegas scored three goals on five shots, each celebrated heartily by the crowd here, each punctuated by a band banging on light-up drums and wearing light-up glasses while girls wearing a ton of glittery gold cheered in front of a castle replica on the second level of the arena. What else did you expect in Las Vegas?

Neal got his second goal of the night and the team’s first-ever power-play goal to make it 4-0, which gave him five of the team’s eight goals in franchise history to that point. Not bad for a guy who had major surgery on his right wrist in late July, who now has a plate and screws in there, who says “I was just surprised I was able to play” in the season opener.

Up 4-1 after the first period, the Golden Knights left the ice to a standing ovation.

It was one of many on the night. The team wanted to get this win for this healing city, but first the goal was to put on a respectful and dignified ceremony to honour the many people here affected by the tragedy. The NHL’s newest franchise did so beautifully.

As is custom for all home openers, the Golden Knights introduced each of their players — but they were secondary. First came the heroes of Oct. 1: the police officers, paramedics, doctors, fire fighters, nurses, sergeants. And those first responders got bigger cheers than many of the players did, some of them wearing their nurse uniforms, or police uniforms. It was the first responder introduced, then “accompanied by No. 21, Cody Eakin.”

And it was the first responders who stood on the black carpet along the blue line, with the players standing in behind. When the Coyotes skated onto the ice, they got some hearty boos that quickly turned to cheers once fans watched them skate in behind the Golden Knights, joining them behind the first responders on the Vegas blue line.

Fans observed 58 seconds of silence, one for each of the lives lost, and all 58 names were displayed on the ice. As soon as those 58 seconds were up, a fan yelled “We are Vegas Strong!” and the crowd erupted. Later, during the national anthem, tears ran down some cheeks.

“It was so meaningful,” said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who was once again exceptional, making 31 saves in the win.

It isn’t easy to strike a perfect balance between respect for a tragedy and celebration for the start of something exciting, but the Golden Knights did. The team promised the opening-day festivities would be toned down in light of the tragedy, and if this was toned down, you have to wonder what it’ll look like in full force. The day was plenty celebratory. Between the first and second periods, Cirque Du Soleil performed on the ice. Pre-game, you’d find six well-adorned Clydesdales pulling a Budweiser carriage — with a Dalmatian in tow. Because, why not?

It was a sight to see, the pre-game procession on the sparkly gold carpet, commissioner Gary Bettman posing for pictures with fans who actually weren’t booing him, Blue Man Group guys taking selfies with fans and giving them Polaroids, centreman Jonathan Marchessault introducing himself to fans and asking “Do you know me?” (they didn’t), Cirque performers walking all artsy, a band drumming in a parade of fans to open the doors of T-Mobile Arena, an Elvis impersonator wandering around. This is hockey in Vegas, after all. It was bound to be a little different.

In many ways, the way the Golden Knights approached this opening game mirrors the feeling in the city. If you walk around here, Las Vegas feels much like it did before that deadly shooting. It remains a friendly place where strangers smile and say “Hello” as they walk by. The Strip is still overrun by tourists snapping photos and grinning for selfies backed by the Bellagio or a picture of Cher, and take even a short walk along on Las Vegas Ave. and at least a couple people will attempt to sell you something.

There are also signs of grief, signs of what happened here on the first day of this month, like the 58 white wooden crosses to honour each of the victims by the world famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign. At the Mandelay Bay Hotel, a board covers a broken window on the 32nd floor, where Stephen Paddock was staying on Oct. 1 when he fired those deadly shots.

You might order breakfast to go and see Vegas Strong written in black Sharpie on the container. There are signs of Vegas Strong everywhere — around the rink boards instead of advertisements, on the backs of Vegas players’ jerseys during warmup, on players’ helmets (both teams), hanging outside businesses, on the rally towels distributed at the game.

A hockey game has never felt like this, and it never will again. Not just because it was played in the wake of a massive tragedy. Not just because of the Cirque element, the Clydesdales, the Elvis impersonators, the fact there’s a rollercoaster next to the rink, the fact fans walked up to the doors with beers in hand, that Carrot Top and his orange hair figured big in in-game entertainment.

Sin City, a place long known for entertainment, a place for the last 10 days also known for tragedy, is now also carving a reputation as a hockey town. Tuesday marked the first big step here at home.

“It went unbelievable,” Gallant said. “The script went—it was perfect.”

Engelland will remember a lot about tonight’s game, the feeling of standing near the first-responders, the way the crowd reacted, how nervous he felt delivering that pre-game speech.

“It was the first time I’ve spoken in front of probably more than 20 guys at once,” he said. “Honestly, I was just trying to block everything out and get through it.”

Neal joked that he saw Engelland practicing the speech in front of the mirror, pre-game. “That’s tough, grabbing the mic like that in front of that many people and focusing on a hockey game and what just happened,” Neal said, grinning. “I don’t know how he did it, it was impressive. He got us off to a good start.”

Indeed it was a good start for this new franchise. It was historic. It was poignant. It was heartfelt. It was victorious.

The Golden Knights nailed it.

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