Vegas Strong: Golden Knights’ mission to heal through hockey

Published 10:26 AM EDT, Mon October 1, 2018
The Dallas Stars stand behind the Vegas Golden Knights on the ice during the National Anthem at American Airlines Center on October 6, 2017 in Dallas, Texas.
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PHOTO: Tom Pennington/Getty Images North
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Editor’s Note: Dan Kamal is a CNN World Sport contributor and former play-by-play announcer of the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers.

(CNN) —  

It was just nine days after the mass shooting in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017.

Deryk Engelland, captain of the Vegas Golden Knights, was standing in a spotlight at T-Mobile Arena, addressing the sellout crowd. It was his team’s first regular-season home game in its new city. The atmosphere was different than anyone could have or would have ever imagined.

“It’s first game in the franchise in Vegas, right? So it’s supposed to be a happy time, but no,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury recalled.

“It was on everybody’s mind. It was tough.”

Engelland finished his remarks that night with this pledge: “To the families and friends of the victims, know that we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal.

“We are Vegas Strong.”

READ: Las Vegas hockey team retires No. 58 to honor concert victims

In Macbeth, Shakespeare suggested we give words to our sorrow. In Engelland’s address, he tried eloquently to give words, apply some hope and healing to the unfathomable sorrow being felt in the city, especially by those most affected by the senseless tragedy.

The Vegas Golden Knights and the Dallas Stars stand at attention during the national anthem.
The Vegas Golden Knights and the Dallas Stars stand at attention during the national anthem.
PHOTO: Tom Pennington/Getty Images North

His speech – like the moment of silence requested at T-Mobile Arena – was 58 seconds long, a second for all 58 souls lost in the massacre.

His promise, and by extension, his teammates’ has no limits imposed by time; it is ongoing. What happened in the wake of that unspeakable violence, was transforming – for the team and for Las Vegas.

From the depths of the despair that hung in the arena that opening night was a bond forged between this team and its new city that transcended sport and gave the NHL’s latest franchise a mission that went far beyond wins and losses. The Vegas Golden Knights were playing now for their city. They played to heal.

“With October 1st, we all had to mature a little bit faster,” Golden Knights forward Pierre Edouard Bellemare told CNN Sport.

“It’s not about us, it’s not about the team, not about salaries, not about stats. It was all about our strength to defend our town, because it is our town now.”

Vegas centerman William Karlsson, who went from a previous high of nine goals to 43 – the third best in the NHL last season – added: “First of all it was pretty unbelievable that something like that could happen especially when you’re there, too.

“It kind of made the whole team come together. I mean the whole city come together – and they had a rally point in us, to come together at games, and I think that bond made us stronger. We had that connection with the city and the fans.”

Names of the 58 victims of the October 1, 2017, mass shooting in Las Vegas are projected on the ice at T-Mobile Arena on March 31, 2018 in Las Vegas.
Names of the 58 victims of the October 1, 2017, mass shooting in Las Vegas are projected on the ice at T-Mobile Arena on March 31, 2018 in Las Vegas.
PHOTO: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Vegas won that first game at T-Mobile Arena and eight of the next nine at home. The march was on to the most successful season by a true expansion franchise in NHL history – it was a journey of Cinderella proportions that included most wins and road wins ever by a first-year franchise.

It also led straight to the Stanley Cup Final, all happening as the bond between team and city grew stronger.

Before Game Three of the final last June, CNN Sport asked George McPhee – the Golden Knights general manager – to look back on how the relationship between his team and the city of Las Vegas was shaped by their shared sense of profound loss.

READ: How NHL plans to grow in China ahead of 2022 Winter Olympics

Clearly moved by the memories, McPhee offered this: “The unfortunate events of October 1 changed things, and sometimes in the wake of tragedy, you know, something more beautiful happens.

“And a beautiful thing happened in Vegas, the way that community came together, the way this team came together – as a team and for the city – was a really remarkable thing.

“If you were close to it, it was really something to experience.”

The ceremonial first puck is dropped between Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes and Jason Garrison of the Golden Knights before the Golden Knights
The ceremonial first puck is dropped between Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes and Jason Garrison of the Golden Knights before the Golden Knights' inaugural regular-season home opener against the Coyotes at T-Mobile Arena on October 10, 2017.
PHOTO: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Engelland and his Golden Knights teammates lost their bid to become 2018 Stanley Cup champions, falling in five games to the Washington Capitals. But while they may have failed to win the right to lift the Cup, they achieved something that will live forever in the collective hearts of Las Vegas.

They lifted spirits in the city’s darkest times. They helped to bring some light, bring some healing. They are champions.