The hype video that plays on the Jumbotron before every Las Vegas Golden Knights home game could pass for a low-budget remake of Lord of The Rings. The short film begins with a montage of play highlights, interspersed with title cards like, “THE (insert opposing team here) HAVE ENTERED THE FORTRESS TO CHALLENGE OUR KNIGHTS,” and, “THIS IS OUR CITY, THIS IS OUR HOME.”
Then the screen and the building both go completely dark, and a woman’s voice booms through the shiny, brand new T-Mobile Arena that sits at the south end of the Las Vegas Strip.
“A golden sword, legend passed down for generations,” she says, in a vaguely British accent. “A tale soaring above the desert and echoing through our red canyons. Protection of the sword has long been entrusted to an elite order, the Golden Knights…”
Before she continues, you should know that this is a Vegas lie. The Knights haven’t even existed for a full season yet, and the expansion team plays in a historically transient city where families who have been here for more than one generation are scarce. But even though most locals come from elsewhere, and there are so many other activities for tourists to choose from, the Knights are ranked fourth in the NHL in home attendance.
They’re also mind-blowingly good. They weren’t supposed to be. Vegas is the first NHL expansion team to finish its first season above .500, win its division, and head to the playoffs since the league expanded to 12 teams in 1967. And their prowess transcends hockey: Vegas has executed the most impressive first year of any expansion team in American sports.
Few things create chemistry like having something to prove. The Knights were cobbled together from players whose previous teams didn’t deem important enough to protect during the expansion draft. Guys like William Karlsson, who by Jan. 24 had scored 27 goals — three times the number he put up in three years with the Columbus Blue Jackets — and by the end of the season had the best plus-minus of any player in the NHL. Or Marc-Andre Fleury, who ended up with the highest save percentage of any goalie in the league after the Pittsburgh Penguins let him go in favor of shiny new goalie Matt Murray. Coach Gerard Gallant got the job after the Florida Panthers fired him and left him in North Carolina to get his own taxi home. His new team ended the regular season with a record of 51-24.
The faceless woman’s voice continues:
“Known for valor, honor, and strength, they are the epitome of the warrior class, their helmets a symbol of power,” she says. “Over the past 100 years, dark forces have spread across the land on a quest for this fabled blade. Now, after decades of advancement, these invaders are here, searching for the legend that lies within our city.”
The dramatic script accompanies bird’s-eye-view shots of people dressed in hooded, black robes carrying the flags of other NHL teams up one of the red, desert foothills outside the city. A soundtrack that could’ve been ripped from Game of Thrones plays as a montage of the Strip flashes on the screen: the fake Eiffel Tower, the faux Statue of Liberty, the real Bellagio. Then the camera cuts to a man suiting up in a coat of armor emblazoned with the Golden Knights logo.
The crowd loses its mind. The screams get even louder as a guy dressed as a knight, carrying a Golden Knights flag, skates out into the spotlight below the Jumbotron. Another knight, who waves the opponent’s flag, fails to pull a sword from a hunk of plastic sitting at center ice. The Golden Knight knight slays the other team’s knight. Then he reaches over and, with one swift movement, frees the sword from the stone. Techno blares from the speakers as the two knights skate away, the fake rock is removed, and the players finally take the ice.
The arena is as loud as an aircraft carrier operating at full swing. This video and its subsequent medieval play are pump-up gold. They make you want to go kick down a door.
About three-fourths of the crowd are Las Vegans. No matter what other industries come to town, tourism is always going to be central to the economy. Fans of the opposing team often travel to catch a game on the Strip, where the bright lights and signs for blackjack, keno, all-you-can-eat buffets, and girlsgirlsgirls flash all day and all night. Even the sun feels artificial here, like a spotlight on the soundstage of Las Vegas Boulevard.
To a visitor, this tacky game opener is that Vegas: The neon one where you pick your poison, select your sin, and leave with your tail between your legs. But to the Knights and local fans — who don’t normally gamble, but who pour in to the Strip from the sprawling suburbs to root for their new team — this is just another normal night in the city they call home.
Hugo Hernandez puts his white pick-up truck into park and hops out, crunching through the dormant, brown Bermuda grass that surrounds the graves of Davis Memorial Park.
Hernandez is the cemetery superintendent here. He’s a beefy guy wearing an old Chargers windbreaker and beanie from before the team moved up I-5 from San Diego to Los Angeles. His eyes crinkle when he smiles, which he does a lot when he talks about the amazing grass beneath his feet. He loves this grass. He wishes you could see it in the summer, because once the temperatures are consistently above 78 degrees, the grass comes alive again. It turns bright green.
Paved roads snake through the cemetery. You never have to walk very far to find the grave you’re looking for.
Hernandez grew up in Mexico and Southern California, but came to Vegas in 1993 with his wife Carmen. They’ve been here since then, and he considers himself a local.
“We are one of a kind,” he says. “The Vegas community, Las Vegans, there’s nobody like us. We came from a cesspool of different areas and made our lives here. It united us into our own town with a lot of pride, and the Vegas Knights coming here? That right there gives us another boost.”
Although he’s tried doing other jobs, Hernandez always comes back to the graves. He says he’s worked at every burial ground in the city, and once even took a pay cut to return to Davis Memorial. Caring for people at their worst moments makes him proud, because he’s had hard times himself. He grew up running with gangs, contemplated suicide at the age of 10, and was addicted to meth for four years, starting when he was 16.
“I was a statistic,” he says. “I wasn’t supposed to be anything. I was a tatted up, gang-banging cholo who thought he was a badass. My family thought I’d end up in jail or dead.”
Hernandez credits Carmen with getting him clean and saving his life. He’s also grateful for the community he found here; his son’s pee-wee football league, his neighbors, the families who still come by to bring him lunch years after he arranged the funerals of their loved ones.
“’I’m very thankful for Las Vegas,” he says. “I’m very happy that I’m in Las Vegas now. We’re not the best thing in the world, but we’re very united.”
Even though he’s decked out in Chargers gear today, Hernandez — like a lot of locals — dropped his previous allegiances to put the Knights first. He was so excited about the team that he took his son to a preseason game the afternoon of October 1. Hours later, a man named Stephen Paddock shot fully automatic weapons out of a Mandalay Bay 32nd-floor window onto the Route 91 country music festival as Jason Aldean was playing his closing set.
Hernandez and his team helped get the bodies home to grieving families. There’s so much paperwork that goes along with death — “there’s always another T, another I,” he says — but he tried to be as helpful as he could.
That’s why we had a good start. We weren’t just playing for ourselves. We were playing for a city. — Luca Sbisa
The Knights did, too. A week after the shooting, they ditched the King Arthur on Ice shtick that was planned for the home opener against the Dallas Stars and held a memorial instead. T-Mobile stripped the boards of all its ads and projected the names of those who died onto the ice. First responders stood with the players before the puck dropped, and there was one second of silence for each of the 58 people who were killed.
Vegas won that night, and then went on to win eight of their first 10 games. A few weeks later, they won eight in a row. Now, no one in Vegas talks about the team without mentioning October 1.
“As players, we didn’t know much about Vegas,” Knights defensemen Luca Sbisa says in the locker room one night after a game. “But we saw and realized pretty quickly that this is a pretty close city. We’d go to the hospitals after what happened on that October day, and we talked to so many people. They didn’t know much about hockey, but what they were all saying was, ‘Go out there and get that win. Be a distraction for us. Put a smile on our faces in this hard time.’ That’s why we had a good start. We weren’t just playing for ourselves. We were playing for a city.”
The majority of the people who died in the shooting were visiting from out of town. But five of them were locals. Erick Silva, a 21-year-old security guard who graduated from Las Vegas High School, was stationed at the front of the stage when the bullets started raining down. He died helping concert-goers climb to safety over a barricade. He was training to become a police officer.
Hernandez buried Silva in a plot near the back of the cemetery. Five months later, the grave still looks fresh; the resilient Bermuda grass hasn’t yet erased the outlines of the casket-sized rectangle. A picture of Silva in his event staff shirt, as well as a photo of his face next to an American flag, rest among the many plastic flowers that lie on the raw, desert earth. There’s no plaque yet, but there’s a piece of cardboard wrapped in plastic and blue painter’s tape. It reads:
In loving memory of Erick Silva
8-19-1996 to 10-1-2017
To one great hero
And great friend
You will be missed
“It was a stunning day,” Hernandez says. “We were stunned.”
A man approaches Hernandez. He’s visiting from out of town and needs help finding where his sister is buried. Hernandez smiles. Yes, of course. He tells the man to follow in his car as Hernandez climbs into the cab of his truck. They drive to a plot a couple hundred yards away.
“Here it is,” Hernandez says.
“Oh,” the man pauses and kneels down. “Wow. Thank you.”
It’s hard to find physical history in Vegas. Everything is new, and everything that isn’t new is eventually destroyed to make way for what soon will be. T-Mobile Arena sits on what used to be the golf course of The Dunes, a resort demolished in 1993. The Bellagio soon took its place. Landmarks here get torn down, built up, torn down, built up. Like the grass under Hernandez’s feet, Vegas is all about reinvention.
But one thing you can’t tear down — or rip up, rather — are the graves.
The famous boxer Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champion of the world who twice lost to Muhammad Ali, is buried a few hundred yards away from Silva. Liston moved to Vegas in the 1960s after his fighting career ended. He’d mingle with the Vegas elite during the day and sell drugs in the poor parts of town from his pink Cadillac at night. This was back when the best casinos were downtown, not on the Strip, and when Frank Sinatra ate at the Golden Steer. The singer’s favorite steakhouse is one of the only establishments from that era that still exists. Now, though, there are touch-screen slot machines sunken into the bar, and TVs above them showing hockey games.
Hernandez points to a plaque that looks like all the others. Fake flowers and an American flag sit in a bronze vase on top of it. All it says under Liston’s name is, “A Man.”
Vegas can humble you. It was also one of the first places imaginative enough to realize that professional sports could be a multi-billion dollar industry. While the city used to have a monopoly on casinos, 18 other states have legalized them now, and 30 allow legalized gambling of some kind. But there’s nowhere else in the country where you can bet on a game in person.
The Bellagio, the Monte Carlo, Treasure Island, Circus Circus — year round they’re filled with people slumped over at slot machines, taking sips of complementary Bud Light between drags of cigarettes, pulling the levers over and over. On the huge sporting weekends of the year, though, these places practically overflow. The city has always imported fights and big games, and it still plays host to the most important boxing matches and UFC events.
But it never had anything to call its own. Not until the Knights showed up, that is.
Kim Huff sits next to the rink at the Knights’ new workout facility. She’s one of at least 50 people — most of who are wearing Vegas jerseys — watching Fleury block his teammates’ shots the day after a Monday night game in February. The slap, slap, slap of the puck echoes around the cavernous space. Judging by the crowd, you’d think there was something much more important than a standard NHL practice taking place here. But there isn’t. Fans just care that much.
“I’m a second gen B.A.R., which means born and raised,” Huff says. “It means you’re a unicorn. Most people from here are actually implants. There’s a few of us that are second- and third-generation, and we’re very rare.”
Huff is a founding member of The Vegas Knights Click, the team’s biggest fan club. She’s the director of attractions at the Stratosphere, that huge, space-needle-y-looking thing that rises above the Strip. Her parents both came to Vegas for jobs — her mother was a cocktail waitress and her father was an engineer, “and that’s all she wrote.”
I wanted this team because I wanted my daughters, who I’m raising here, to have something to be proud of. — Season ticket holder Justin Watkins
“There was a sense of loyalty to the Knights immediately for me,” Huff continues. “The city’s excited, we love them. I think [the players] are kind of star struck, because everywhere they go, they’re getting recognized. On Facebook, it’ll be, like, ‘Deryk Engelland got his hair cut here today, here’s pictures!’ It’s so bad in Summerlin, it’s so bad.”
Summerlin, where the practice facility is located and where many of the players live, is one of the first suburbs you hit when you escape the Strip. Drive west, and the garish, pulsating temptations give way to beige, stucco houses with red-tiled roofs. Clark County has the third-fastest growing population in the country. As tech businesses move to town, transplants are staying here and having children. Exterminator businesses are booming, because construction on a new subdivision can only begin after the earth has been cleared of termites and scorpions. And construction is always beginning.
The suburbs go on forever until they don’t. The end is abrupt. One minute a development, with its rows and rows of identical houses, flashes past your car window, and the next there’s only desert. The sand stretches for miles until it meets the ring of red, ragged mountains that encircle the valley as if to say, even here, there are limits. Drive north, and the warehouses of big-box companies, from Amazon to Zappos, suddenly give way to scrubby vegetation and gravelly flatness.
Justin Watkins, a personal injury lawyer and Las Vegas assemblyman, is having lunch at the restaurant overlooking the practice rink on this February day. Watkins’ wife Marni works for Fidelity National Financial, the company that belongs to Knights owner Bill Foley. Foley moved the company to Vegas from Jacksonville in 2015. He pulled together a core group of influential Las Vegas business people, and the “Founding Fifty” networked within their circles to convince locals to put down deposits for season tickets. The NHL hadn’t even promised the city a team yet.
People outside of Vegas laughed at Foley’s grand vision. Hockey in the desert? It made no sense. But within two days, more than 5,000 of the 16,000 possible packages had been spoken for. The rest were snatched up by September 2016, a full 13 months before the first game was played.
“Growing up in Boston or New York, that meant something,” Watkins says. “What it meant is subjective, of course, but it had meaning. Growing up here, it was the void of that. The lack of meaning.”
Once Vegas was awarded a team on June 23, 2016, Watkins’ firm solidified its seats at center ice. The bougie tickets are a long hike from the house Watkins grew up in on the outskirts of Vegas, where the yard was full of chickens and cows. He says this city used to be a “hick town” with only the Rebels — the University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball team that was led by legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian in the early 1990s — as something to rally behind. If you didn’t leave Las Vegas when you had the chance, you were doing something wrong.
“It used to be that everybody wanted out,” Watkins says. “But the city has changed a lot in a 30-year time period, to where I don’t hear that now from people. I wanted this team because I wanted my daughters, who I’m raising here, to have something to be proud of.”
He looks around the restaurant. It’s filled with businessmen and women from the surrounding office park, a normal set of buildings that you could easily mistake for Scottsdale or Houston if it weren’t for the huge pyramid, ferris wheel, and fake Eiffel tower looming in the distance as you get onto the highway.
“T-Mobile is this little part of the Strip that’s ours, that’s for locals,” Watkins says. “Every other part of the Strip is for them. It’s made for them and for tourism. That part is made for us.”
Mary Haesloop claps in her wheelchair inside T-Mobile Arena as the Golden Knights mascot pulls the fabled sword out of the plastic stone before Vegas takes on the Anaheim Ducks. It’s a Monday night in late February, and it’s colder than usual outside. It’s perpetually chilly in here, though, so Mary, 83, always wears her Golden Knights scarf. Her husband Bill, 82, has on a Golden Knights hat. He sits next to her on one of the arena’s folding chairs. They try to make every game, but it’s getting harder as Mary has more trouble walking and Bill’s knee-replacement surgery looms.
In 1954, the Haesloops met at a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute hockey game in upstate New York. Mary was hit in the face with a puck and had to go to the bathroom to clean up the blood dripping from her mouth. Even then she was a dedicated fan, so she came back to the game, and found Bill sitting in her seat — he’d arrived late and figured it was available. She told him he better get up, so he did. They married a few years later.
“I’m glad you got to see this,” Mary says, gesturing at the plastic castle in the nosebleed seats. A group of drummers are standing in front of the turrets. They beat their light-up drums to the rhythm of the techno song that’s blasting while the teams warm up.
“It’s so…” she pauses. “Vegas-y.”
The Haesloops moved to town 17 years ago for Bill’s engineering job. They were among the few fans who had season tickets to the Las Vegas Wranglers, the minor league hockey team that folded in 2015.
“Oh wow, we lived and breathed the Wranglers,” Mary says. “We were so sad when they left. But I was so overjoyed when I heard we were going to have an NHL team. I’m thinking, ‘Is that really going to work?’ But look! It’s just unbelievable.”
She pauses, shakes her head at the crowd, this rollicking success.
“I’m wondering what’s going to happen when the Raiders come into town,” she says.
A lot of people are. It’s hard to imagine that any other team could get the same reception here that the Knights have. Especially the Raiders, who are using a record-setting $800 million in public funds to build their stadium off the Strip. At best, only 50 percent of Las Vegans support the NFL coming to Vegas. It doesn’t help that the team is moving from Oakland, after leaving Oakland for L.A., and then leaving L.A. again for Oakland. The location-fickle football franchise has belonged to many people in many places.
The Knights’ arena was built with zero public dollars, and the Golden Knights have never belonged to anyone else.
The Ducks score. There’s considerable cheering. It’s safe to say that 25 percent of the crowd is Ducks fans, which isn’t a knock against it. Vegas is, after all, still a destination. The NFL estimates as much as half of the Raiders stadium here will be filled with out-of-town fans coming for a Sin City weekend and to root for their teams. But the majority of those here tonight, and every night, are still overwhelmingly Knights fans.
Shane Theurer, a one-year-old wearing protective headphones, is one of them. The gold sign his father Jeremy holds for him says, “I may be tiny, but I’m your biggest fan.” The last time they came to a game, Shane’s sign said, “I’m Vegas born, too.”
Two of the Knights collide, and the Ducks score again to go up 2-0 in the third quarter.
“Come on, boys!” Mary yells. “Oh yeah, run into each other, that’ll help.”
She rolls her eyes. Hockey frustration is very specific. Either team can score at any moment, which makes this graceful and brutal sport so compelling. But when moments repeatedly aren’t the moment, the game can be maddening.
The Knights lose.
It’s just a blip. Two days later, Vegas will bounce back to beat the Calgary Flames and secure their 40th win of the season. And on March 31st, they will beat the San Jose Sharks to become Pacific Division Champions. That night, the team will hang a banner from the rafters of T-Mobile that bears the names of all 58 people killed on October 1. They will also retire jersey No. 58 — no Knight will ever wear it.
After the mid-February Ducks game, fans decked out in Knights gear stream to nearby bars for drinks. They finally have a logo that tells people where they’re from without having to say it. The striking helmet resembles their home, an ordinary town with a wicked streak running through it. Parts of Las Vegas are rotten; it’ll pick your pocket if you aren’t careful, and still might even if you are. But mostly, it’s a cheap city with a lot of good jobs, where locals live normal lives in what the rest of the world still sees as an abnormal place.
That could change in time. Now that Knights games are broadcast nationally, Las Vegas could come to be associated with excellence as often as depravity. As one bartender at the Golden Steer put it, “The Golden Knights legitimize being from Vegas.”
Locals are finally beginning to feel like the identity of the city is coming from the inside out. And with preventable tragedy as a catalyst that no one wanted, a brand new hockey team has become intertwined with a sense of civic pride in the desert.
“A golden sword, legend passed down for generations,” says the voice over the loudspeaker at Knights games.
An invented Vegas myth that’s starting to come true. Imagine that.