LAS VEGAS -- Two miles. That's all you had to travel to see how far Deryk Engelland has come.
He's 36 years old now, a defenseman for the Vegas Golden Knights, who have made the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. They play the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of the best-of-7 series here Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
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Not only is he playing the best hockey of his career, he's a finalist for the Mark Messier Leadership Award for his work in the wake of the mass shooting on the Strip on Oct. 1. At Media Day on Sunday, he sat upon a podium, behind a microphone, in front of a picture of the Stanley Cup, surrounded by reporters.
"If you go back 10 years and said I would be sitting here right now," he said, "I would have laughed at you, for sure."
Video: Engelland on Vegas coming together, Stanley Cup Final
If you hopped in a cab 10 minutes later, rode west on Tropicana Avenue, turned into The Orleans Hotel & Casino, and went around back, you would have found one of the places he used to play: Orleans Arena. Unlike the new, sleek T-Mobile Arena, the old, New Orleans-style building was hosting a high school graduation ceremony.
The first time Engelland played for an expansion team in this city, he played for Las Vegas of the ECHL. It was 2003-04. He was 21 years old then. He went to training camp with Lowell of the American Hockey League, got demoted to Las Vegas, and started the season there. He ended up shuttling between Nevada and Massachusetts, playing 35 games for Las Vegas and 26 for Lowell. His home in Las Vegas was whatever apartment he was in.
"You live in one and then get called up and come back and go to another one," he said.
How many to an apartment? Two? Three?
"Depends on the night, I guess," he said, smiling.
The team didn't have a real weight room, so the players would work out at Gold's Gym up the street, Engelland wrote in The Players' Tribune on Oct. 24. They'd walk to an Irish bar called McMullan's after games because they were making $500 a week and the team had worked out a deal: free meal with a $5 tip. He wrote he probably ate 500 shepherd's pies there.
Nicknamed the Wranglers, the team had what it called a "Midnight Roundup," a 12 a.m. game designed to draw casino workers who worked odd hours.
"Thought it would be a little different, but once you got in the rink, it's Vegas," Engelland said, smiling. "You can't tell the time."
It was a great time. The Wranglers were eighth in the 31-team league in attendance, averaging 4,981 fans per game. He was living in Las Vegas and getting paid to play hockey.
"You're just happy you're still playing," Engelland said. "You go back to the summer before. You're starting to think about what the heck you're going to do after hockey, after junior, and just to have the opportunity to play at 21 anywhere was pretty special. So you're just trying to do what you can to keep it going."
Engelland kept it going the next season in Las Vegas. Then the following season with South Carolina of the ECHL and Hershey of the AHL. Then the following season with Reading of the ECHL and Hershey of the AHL. Then the following three seasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL.
It wasn't until 2010-11, when he was 28 and had played 148 games in the ECHL and 338 games in the AHL, that he established himself in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It wasn't until this season that he averaged as much as 20:17 of ice time and produced as many as 23 points (five goals, 18 assists). It hasn't been until now, after 548 regular-season NHL games and another 43 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, that he's had the chance to play for the Cup.
Funny how life works sometimes. Engelland met the woman who would become his wife, Melissa, at McMullan's while playing for Las Vegas in the ECHL. They had their kids in Las Vegas and lived there in the offseason. No more apartments. They have a four-bedroom house with a pool. The NHL awarded Las Vegas a franchise, and the Golden Knights selected Engelland from the Calgary Flames in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft.
Engelland works out in the summer with Ross McMullan, the son of Brian and Lynn McMullan, the owners of McMullan's. Ross is a defenseman for Wheeling of the ECHL. Once in a while in the summer, Engelland and his workout group will stop by McMullan's. Once in a while this season, the Golden Knights have stopped by too. Behind the bar on Sunday was a Golden Knights jersey, a #VegasStrong rally towel and other Vegas items.
"We were just back there a couple nights ago for some music and stuff," Engelland said.
So far, yet so close. It's the NHL, and it's the Stanley Cup Final, and it's still the same guy in the same place: home.
Video: Follow the story of Vegas native Deryk Engelland
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