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Showtime finally arrives for Golden Knights, fans

Expansion team plays first home game; players impressed by crowd

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

LAS VEGAS -- The lights went out, and the fans cheered. Warmups had ended before the Vegas Golden Knights' preseason home opener against the Los Angeles Kings at T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday. It was showtime.

The scoreboard screen showed black-and-white footage of the birth of the NHL 100 years ago. It showed a map of North America and logos of franchises popping up over a century, from the Original Six to the first expansion teams to the later ones.

And, finally, to the latest one.

"VEGAS BORN," the screen said.

The fans cheered louder.

The screen showed a quote from Golden Knights owner Bill Foley, who attended the U.S. Military Academy, home of the Army Black Knights, and wants his team to embody its values and give Las Vegas an identity beyond the Strip.

"THE KNIGHT IS THE EPITOME OF THE WARRIOR CLASS," the screen said.

The screen showed footage of the Golden Knights playing preseason games in their road whites, set to dramatic music.

And then ...

"THE BATTLE BEGINS NOW," the screen said.

The fans roared as the players took the ice in their home grays for the first time.

Video: LAK@VGK: Eakin blasts one-timer past Campbell

Yes, the battle begins now. For the hearts and minds of fans in another new, nontraditional market. To be competitive at first. To contend for the Stanley Cup Playoffs next. To contend for the Cup one day.

It was not a great start on the ice. The Golden Knights dressed a strong lineup; the Kings left their regular lineup home to recover from the 2017 NHL China Games. Vegas lost 3-2 when forward Brooks Laich scored 12 seconds into overtime.

But the atmosphere? 

"If I have one thing to take away, it was a great atmosphere," Golden Knights goaltender Calvin Pickard said. "Coming out for warmups, I had goose bumps. It was a lot of fun, great fans. They were electric all night."

Video: LAK@VGK: Carrier ties game at 2 with rebound goal

The attendance was announced at 17,101, a couple hundred short of capacity. There were some empty seats in the lower bowl, but T-Mobile Arena was filled to the top of the upper bowl with people eager to catch a first glimpse of Las Vegas' first major league sports team. The regular-season home opener is against the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 10 (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV).

"It felt great," Golden Knights forward Cody Eakin said. "It didn't feel like preseason. It felt like regular season. The crowd was into it. They were having fun, and it was nice to see."

Fans strolled to the game through The Park, a tree-lined pedestrian walkway with bars and restaurants between the New York New York and the Monte Carlo. They gathered in Toshiba Plaza, listening to music.

Video: First glimpse of Vegas Golden Knights at home

A few wore gear from other teams. A lot wore Kings gear, no surprise considering the proximity of L.A. and the following the Kings built playing the "Frozen Fury" preseason series here in previous years. But most wore Golden Knights gear -- or bought it and put it right on.

It was a mix of visitors, people who moved here from elsewhere and natives eager to have a major league team.

Bradley Roberts and his 5-year-old son, Justin, were first through the doors at 5 p.m. PT. They had tickets up high but went to the glass for warmups so Justin, in his brand-new Golden Knights jersey, could see the players up close.

"I was a Kings fan," said Roberts, originally from Southern California. "This is very hard to give up the Kings. I did love the Kings. I still do love them. They'll be my two teams. But first game, I'm all Golden Knights. During the season, I'll be rooting for a good game.

"I'm just excited. As soon as we heard about the expansion, we've been excited. We've been waiting for this."

Is Justin playing hockey?

"Not yet," Roberts said. "The Golden Knights have skate programs we've been looking into. One day he will be. I would love for him to play."

Barry Davis was in his seat in a brand-new Golden Knights jersey more than an hour before faceoff. He grew up in New Jersey as a New Jersey Devils fan but lives in Las Vegas and has converted. A hotel concierge, he works odd hours. So he took vacation days to make sure he could see the Golden Knights' first few games.

"I'm just happy to get to a hockey game," Davis said.

Calvin Banks, Alvaro Barraza, Jeff Dunn and Nick Verderame stood in the concourse, each wearing at least two pieces of Golden Knights gear. They are union carpenters from Local 1977 who helped build T-Mobile Arena from the ceiling to the locker rooms, and now they were about to see a Vegas team play a home game here.

"We've done a lot of work here in Las Vegas, but this was kind of like a special project for all of us," Verderame said. "We're all big hockey fans. We're all proud to have a professional team here. Building it, it was fun to be here. And now to see it open? And live? It's special."

"People are really jacked," Banks said. "Very, very jacked. I know I'm jacked. Super jacked. This is the start of something super big here in Vegas."

"I'm just super excited to have hockey here, period," Dunn said. "Greatest sport ever. I'm just glad it's here in the desert. There's a huge following for it here, bigger than anybody knows."

The most remarkable part, though, was how unremarkable it was in many respects. It was an NHL game.

The arena and game production would have fit in any other NHL city. The fans cheered when they were supposed to cheer, booed when they were supposed to boo, taunted the opposing goalie. They were prompted at the start to chant "Go Knights go!" They didn't need prompting again. They chanted it naturally, as if they had been doing it for years.

"The crowd was going," Golden Knights forward David Perron said. "At one point they were chanting, 'YMCA!' It almost felt like a playoff game. Even talking with Eakin on the bench, we were laughing, like, 'Wow, that's kind of cool to see this in a preseason game for Vegas.' You could tell people were really enjoying it."

There are hockey fans here, have been, and now they have an NHL team in their city.

"It was a heck of an atmosphere to be a part of," Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt said. "Can't wait for the regular season."

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