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Fans witness history at first full Golden Knights practice

Players greeted with cheers, whistles to begin inaugural training camp

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

LAS VEGAS -- To forward Keegan Kolesar and defenseman Jake Bischoff, it was another practice. They had reported to training camp with the Vegas Golden Knights rookies a week ago and were joining the veterans now. They weren't trying to be first. If anything, they were worried about being last.

"We honestly thought maybe, like, the pros were already going to be out there ripping around," Kolesar said. "We thought maybe we were a little bit late going to the ice. So we wanted to just get out there, stretch around, get the hands going, get the feet going."

 

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But the veterans were still in their dressing room when Kolesar and Bischoff emerged from the rookies' room a little before 9:30 a.m. PT on Friday. The stands at City National Arena were full of season-ticket holders waiting for the first glimpse of the first full-squad practice of the first training camp of the first professional sports team in Las Vegas.

Kolesar hopped over the boards, and as soon as his feet hit the empty ice, the fans cheered, clapped and whistled. Bischoff followed. They grabbed pucks and put them into an open net at about the same time, and the fans cheered, clapped and whistled for that too.

Video: Cotsonika reports in from Golden Knights practice

"We were having a good laugh at that," Kolesar said. "The fans were eating it up. It was pretty funny to see."

"Yeah, I was dying," Bischoff said. "It was funny. I shot, like, a lazy wrist shot into the net, and they started cheering."

You have to understand what this means to somebody like Kevin Yarnell, who sat in the front row with his wife, Christi, wearing a Golden Knights golf shirt. When Kolesar and Bischoff put those pucks into that open net, he said, "Good start."

Yarnell is originally from St. Louis. He grew up a Chicago Blackhawks fan because his family members were St. Louis Blues fans and he wanted to root against them. He moved to Las Vegas, where he couldn't have rooted for a pro team if he wanted to because there wasn't one.

When then-prospective owner Bill Foley did a ticket drive in 2015 to demonstrate to the NHL that there was local demand for hockey, within days Yarnell put down a $3,500 deposit to secure two seats for one season. There was no guarantee of a team, let alone a logo, a name, a general manager, a coach or players. There was only a chance.

"It was a no-brainer for us," Yarnell said. "When they first started talking about the team, they asked, 'Would you be willing to invest your own money to bring a pro sports team to Las Vegas?' 'Without question.' We paid as much of a deposit as we possibly could. We just knew it was hockey in the desert and hockey in Las Vegas, and we said, 'Absolutely.'

"And for me, hockey was important, but it was also more important to bring a pro sports team, because that's going to lead to other things. It's good for us to add legitimacy to the Las Vegas sports scene, having a pro franchise, bringing something other than gaming to our city, another industry."

The NHL awarded the franchise to Las Vegas on June 22, 2016, and Yarnell upped his commitment to three seasons. He went to Toshiba Plaza outside T-Mobile Arena for the unveiling of the logo and name on Nov. 21. He had to be at the first practice of the first camp.

"We wouldn't have missed it," he said.

It's great to root for a team like the Blackhawks, an Original Six franchise with a rich history -- Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, six Stanley Cup championships. But it's great to root for an expansion team too, a unique bond. You can say you were there at the beginning. You saw the first this, the first that.

"I look forward to telling generations that we were at the very first practice," Yarnell said. "We were part of when they did the ticket drive. We were at the naming of the team that is in Las Vegas. That's an exciting time. That's an exciting event."

After the first practice, the crowd thinned. Many didn't stay for the scrimmage. Even fewer stayed for the second practice and scrimmage. The second isn't as momentous as the first.

But this was a little moment to remember, and there are more firsts to come: the first preseason game at the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday (5 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports, ATTSN-RM), the first preseason home game against the Los Angeles Kings on Sept. 26, the first regular-season game at the Dallas Stars on Oct. 6, the first regular-season home game against the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 10, the first goal, the first win.

"It's awesome to see," Kolesar said. "It shows that the people here care, that they want hockey and they're hungry for a season. It gives a lot of incentive for the guys here to really push for not only just ourselves and the organization but the fans and the city as well."

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