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Celebration of heroes, hockey helps Las Vegas heal after tragedy

Golden Knights honor victims, first responders of mass shooting before inaugural home opener

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

LAS VEGAS -- Fifty-eight seconds. That was the length of the moment of silence at the Vegas Golden Knights' inaugural home opener Tuesday.

Fifty-eight seconds, one for each person killed at the Route 91 Harvest Festival of country music on Oct. 1 by the gunman on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay, just down the Strip from T-Mobile Arena.

The wait forced you to feel the weight. As the scoreboard counted, you were confronted by how much was lost in the worst mass shooting in American history. But as you looked around, you were comforted by something else.


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"1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 …"

The names of the dead were projected on the ice with the words "VEGAS STRONG."

"11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 …"

First responders stood on the blue line -- firefighters, police officers, paramedics, nurses, doctors. Standing behind them were the Golden Knights. Standing behind Vegas were the Arizona Coyotes, opponents in the game only. Standing behind them were the officials. Heads bowed.

"21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 …"

The 18,191 fans stood in front of their seats, so quiet you could hear the air conditioning.

"31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40 …"

The boards had no advertising, only the words "VEGAS STRONG" and the hashtag "#VEGASSTRONG" alternating over and over, all the way around the rink. The light boards ringing the arena said only "VEGAS STRONG."

"41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50 …"

The scoreboard kept counting, and counting, and counting.

"51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57 …"

And then …


"VEGAS STRONG!" a fan yelled.

Video: Golden Knights hold 58-second moment of silence

The fans cheered and twirled white rally towels with the hashtag "#VegasStrong."

"These individuals will never be forgotten," the public address announcer said. "May their light long shine."

Sheri Jones was on the blue line in front of Golden Knights forward Brendan Leipsic. A critical care paramedic, she was first on the scene on the south side of the Tropicana that night. She set up triage, assisted the wounded and tried to get people to safety before ambulances were able to arrive.

"Just standing out there, just the length of it, the amount of people we lost …" she said, her voicing trailing off, her mind shifting. "But we saved so many."

First responders rescued people. Ordinary people rescued people, putting their bodies on top of others to shield them from bullets, putting victims in their own vehicles to get them to the hospital. Four hundred eighty-nine were injured.

The worst in humanity brought out the best. Vegas was strong indeed.

"It was a very bad event, but it could have been a lot worse," Jones said. "I'm glad it was only 58 seconds. It could have been a lot longer."

Video: Golden Knights join first responders on ice

* * * * *

This was supposed to be a celebration of Las Vegas' first major league professional sports team. The Golden Knights were supposed to have a pregame show that fit the entertainment capital of the world, with a knight pulling a sword from a stone, the ice lighting up and cracking with special effects.

But then came the shooting. It happened after the Golden Knights' preseason finale at T-Mobile Arena. Some players were at The Cosmopolitan nearby and locked down until about 2:30 a.m. Others had gone home and watched events unfold on local TV news.

The Golden Knights canceled a promotional event and visited victims, their families, first responders and blood banks. They had come from other places to join this NHL expansion team and been here but a few weeks. But now they had gone through something terrible with everyone else in their new home.

After they won their first two games in dramatic fashion on the road, defeating the Dallas Stars 2-1 on Friday and the Coyotes 2-1 in overtime Saturday, they heard from first responders who were happy to focus on something else.

"I think it's crystal clear that the Vegas Golden Knights not only have embraced the community, but have been embraced by the community," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.

Video: Survivors of the tragedy in Vegas drop puck

This was still a celebration of Las Vegas' first major league professional sports team. Along with Blue Man Group, the Golden Knights walked a gold carpet lined with hundreds of fans in Toshiba Plaza outside T-Mobile Arena, as a DJ played music, kids played street hockey and fans visited exhibits at the NHL Centennial Fan Arena.

Fans marched from the New York New York to the T-Mobile Arena doors to mark their opening. A video before warmups featured the comedian Carrot Top. Cirque du Soleil performed during the first intermission.

The fans cheered when the players first appeared, cheered as the Golden Knights took a 4-0 lead, cheered as they wrapped up a 5-2 victory and the first 3-0-0 record for an expansion team in NHL history, cheered as they raised their sticks in salute to the Elvis Presley song "Viva Las Vegas."

T-shirts were tossed. "Sweet Caroline" was changed to "Sweet Golden Knights" and sung with joy. "Go, Knights, go!" was chanted with gusto.

Fun was had.

"We wanted to put on a good show tonight and win a big game, win it for the city, win it for everyone affected, and we did that," said forward James Neal, who scored twice after scoring three times in the first two games. "So it was a special night."

Video: Golden Knights erupt for four early goals

Yes, it was.

"I think the team is feeding off the city, and I think city is feeding off the team and the players and coming together behind this team," owner Bill Foley said. "This is just terrific for Las Vegas to have its own professional sports team here."

But this was part party, part memorial.

As the players signed autographs on the gold carpet, people signed banners spelling "S-T-R-O-N-G" and wrote messages, some about hockey, some about the shooting.

"Stay strong, Vegas."

"Stronger together."


"Stronger than 1 person."

The Golden Knights warmed up in practice jerseys with "VEGAS STRONG" on each player's back instead of a nameplate. They changed the pregame show. The knight did not pull the sword from the stone. The ice did not light up and crack with special effects. That will wait until the next home game, against the Detroit Red Wings on Friday (10:30 p.m. ET; ATTSN-RM, FS-D, NHL.TV).

"It obviously changed the focus and the tenor," Bettman said. "But it also shows what a major league professional sports team can mean to a community in terms of bringing people together, uniting them, helping them heal from a tragedy."

* * * * *

The pregame show began with a video message from players on every other team in the NHL repeating the same lines.

"We're with you, Vegas."

"We're all on your team."

"Your team is our team."

"Vegas strong."

It continued with messages from celebrities like country singer Keith Urban and the group Imagine Dragons, and a video montage of the Golden Knights' first victory. The lights went out. Another video montage, this one with images of first responders, set to Imagine Dragons' "Warriors."

"We are the warriors that built this town …"

The fans rose to their feet, and first responders were introduced with the Golden Knights, one for each player. Each first responder walked down a black carpet along the boards, shook the corresponding player's hand in front of the bench and walked with the player down the blue line.

The first was Ben Kole of Las Vegas Fire Rescue, who set up triage on the east end that night and walked with defenseman Brayden McNabb.

"It's nice to see the community come together, especially that night, but also during this," Kole said. "We have a lot of division in our country, and to see us come together and honor fire, police, EMS, all first responders, it's not something we look forward to or we want, but it's nice to know the community has our back."

The Coyotes came out to boos. But when they stood behind the Golden Knights standing behind the first responders, the boos turned to cheers.

"I've watched hockey for years," Jones said. "I admire what they do, and it was kind of nice to see the tables turned a little bit. For the community as well as the NHL and the Vegas Golden Knights to come behind us, it was actually very fantastic."

After the moment of silence came the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police honor guard. The honor guard had practiced earlier in the day for the funeral of officer Charleston Hartfield, who was at the stage that night. When the shooting started, Hartfield directed people to safety. He got hit.

Video: Engelland gives rousing speech to hometown fans

"This is the first time I've pulled rank and said, 'I want to carry that American flag,'" said captain Rich Fletcher, holding the flag in his hands. "These guys are kind of burned out, but we would not miss this for the world. …

"The Golden Knights, they did a phenomenal job. Those boards out there? No advertisement. It's just 'VEGAS STRONG,' and that's really what this community's about. And I hope that we never lose that feeling, because I'm seeing so much love and care for one another right now."

A member of the Route 91 Harvest Festival team led the national anthem with 14 of his teammates. Yes, led. The fans stood and sang along together, united. Survivors dropped the first puck. Defenseman Deryk Engelland, who once played here in the minors and has lived here in the offseason for about 14 years, took the mic and gave a speech, saying, "We are Vegas Strong."

"Thank you for the Knights and the NHL for doing this for us," Jones said. "It was more than any of us could ever expect."

No, Sheri. To you and all the other heroes, thank you.

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