The Vegas Golden Knights, the newest team in the National Hockey League, started their season last October as Las Vegas was recovering from the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
As Western Conference winners, the Knights are now competing for the Stanley Cup, the top award in professional hockey. They squared off against the Eastern Conference winners, the Washington Capitals, Monday evening in Las Vegas, winning the opening game 6-4 to continue a season of unlikely success that has boosted their city’s spirits.
On October 1, a shooter opened fire from a Las Vegas hotel room, killing 58 concertgoers at an open-air venue, and injuring more than 700. Police have never identified a motive.
The Golden Knights reached out as the city struggled to recover, said Bill Bradley, assistant managing editor for sports for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
They “went to blood banks, went to food banks, went to meet with first responders … (and) people felt like they cared,” Bradley said.
The Knights were the first expansion team in the NHL since 2000, and as they shattered record after record for an expansion team, they brought healing to a shattered city, he added.
The team’s season got off to a blazing start as the Knights won eight of their first nine games. Some losses and injuries followed, but the team had connected with its fans, with “600, 700, 800 people showing up for practices every day,” Bradley said.
WATCH: Knights win first game
At a recent practice, fan John Laubhan said supporters began to think the unthinkable, that the team could win a first-season championship.
“Everybody started to believe that this could happen,” Laubhan said, adding, “as the season went on, they proved it could happen. And look where we are — Stanley Cup finals!”
As the Knights accumulated wins, the city’s spirits lifted, said Laubhan’s son Brandon, who had also come to watch the Knights practice. “To have the team come at that time to lift the spirits of everybody, it was truly indescribable,” he said.
Energized the city
Las Vegas is energized, thanks to the team that beat the odds, Anthony Valdovinos said.
“People are happy, shaking hands, (saying) ‘Oh my God, you’re a Knights fan? I’m a Knights fan.’ It’s good for the city,” Valdovinos added.
Las Vegas is a city of transplants, said Camille Gabel, a former Chicago Red Wings fan who moved here from Michigan.
“Everybody moves here,” Gabel explained with only slight exaggeration, “so the Knights have really given the community something to band around.”
As the Golden Knights earned wins against the LA Kings, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets, they nabbed the Western Conference trophy and won admirers like Jennifer Swenson, an immigrant from Ireland.
“They’ve just been amazing. The way they’ve just become a part of the community. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Swenson said of the team. Pointing to her family, she added, “So we’re diehard fans now.”
The Golden Knights are good, but can they win the Stanley Cup?
“Definitely,” Kevin Lewis said while attending a Knights practice with his wife, Ashley, and two young children. “We’ve got the momentum, baby. We’re going to win it.”
Heading into the finals, Las Vegas oddsmakers gave the team a slight edge, a dramatic shift from their 500-1 odds at the start of the season. Fans say whatever happens now, the Vegas Golden Knights are already champions in this city.