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Golden Knights form bond with first responders on way to Cup Final

Firefighters, paramedics say Vegas has taken on 'spirit of city' following Oct. 1 mass shooting

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

LAS VEGAS -- Weeks after the worst mass shooting in modern American history, some Las Vegas firefighters needed help.

About 20 had been off duty at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on Oct. 1, enjoying a country music concert one moment, responding to an emergency the next. Others had reported to the scene on the Strip where hundreds were injured and 58 killed.

Eric Littmann, a captain in the Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Department and the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1285, spoke to Murray Craven, senior vice president of the Vegas Golden Knights, an NHL expansion team and Las Vegas' first major league sports team.

"It was just an unprecedented event with that many injuries and fatalities," Littmann said. "We had some guys that were still struggling. I basically asked him, 'Is there any chance we could have some of these guys meet the team?' It wasn't a hesitation."

 

[RELATED: Complete Golden Knights vs. Capitals series coverage | Stanley Cup Final schedule]

 

The Golden Knights invited them to City National Arena, their practice facility, on Dec. 13. The firefighters watched the team skate and had lunch in the locker room complex. They sat down with owner Bill Foley, general manager George McPhee, and players like forward James Neal and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

The firefighters asked for autographs, and the Golden Knights asked for autographs on fire department T-shirts the firefighters had brought for them.

"We were just, like, bewildered and awestruck by, 'You would want our signatures on the T-shirts?'" said Ben Kole, a firefighter paramedic. "They were that humble and that inquisitive also about our career and what we do. They don't consider themselves above us. They're just part of our community."

Littmann presented the Golden Knights with a yellow fire helmet. Not a replica. Not a new one. One that had endured fires and been condemned.

"I felt that it represented the hard work it had been through, along with the fact that it was thrown aside, similar to the guys on the team being left out and unprotected [in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft]," Littmann said. "To present Bill Foley and the team with that helmet gave it another chance and a new purpose, just like the guys on the team."

The Golden Knights mounted the helmet on a wall in their locker room complex at City National Arena during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After they won the Western Conference on May 20, defenseman Deryk Engelland said, "It all comes back to the city and the people affected by [the shooting]."

Publicly, privately, personally, the Golden Knights have inspired and been inspired by them throughout their inaugural season. They will continue to play for them in the Stanley Cup Final against the Washington Capitals, beginning with Game 1 at T-Mobile Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

"They've propped us up in our time of need, and obviously it's a great story that we're in the Cup Final in our inaugural year," said Scott Scherr, an emergency medicine physician. "I think the team has taken on the spirit of the city after this incident and has embraced the challenges that we've had and really kind of put that on the ice."

Video: Engelland on Vegas coming together, Stanley Cup Final

 

Eric Littmann

Littmann was on duty at a fire station the night of Oct. 1. He heard the radio chatter when the shooting started shortly after 10 p.m. When he was notified a union member and his girlfriend had been shot, he headed for the hospitals to make visits. He didn't get back to the station until 3 a.m.

By 5:30 a.m., he was at the union hall on the phone with local and national leadership, mobilizing resources to help members in areas like behavioral health.

That's when he received a text message from Engelland asking if he was OK.

Littmann had known Engelland since before the Golden Knights were born. Littmann and colleagues Gregg Burns and Chris Sproule had started the Las Vegas Firefighters Youth Hockey Foundation in 2012, raising more than $30,000 to help kids get into and stay in the sport. Engelland had played in Las Vegas in the ECHL from 2003-05, met his wife there, and lived there in the offseason. He had played in the foundation's annual charity game each August.

Engelland asked if he and his wife, Melissa, could stop by.

"I was pretty jammed up with stuff," Littmann said. "I basically said, 'We're OK. I appreciate the effort.' He really wasn't going to take no for an answer."

The Engellands showed up at the union hall an hour or two later with a load of food and drink. They sat down with the Littmanns and talked for a while, offering support, asking what they could do.

The Golden Knights visited victims, families, first responders and blood donors. They had reported to training camp in early September and were still getting to know each other and the city, but now they had gone through a shared experience with each other and their new home. 

"They didn't have to do this stuff," Burns said. "Nobody asked them to. They wanted to. And I think it's worked both ways as far as bonding them to this city. They're like our family now. It has endeared the city to them, because they went out in such a personal thing. It was such a personal thing for everybody who lived here."

The Golden Knights left for their first regular-season game, at the Dallas Stars on Oct. 6. After trailing 1-0 entering the third period, they won 2-1 when Neal scored the franchise's first goal with 9:33 to go and scored again with 2:44 remaining. Fleury made 45 saves.

Back at the station, the firefighters had the game on television.

"Everybody was just going nuts that they had won, even if they didn't know the difference between a red line and a clothes line," Littmann said. "It was the first time that I certainly felt, I guess, real again. I don't know exactly what term I'm trying to use, but I felt normal again."

Littmann sent Engelland a text message.

"Man, you wouldn't believe the spirits you're lifting here at the fire department," Littmann wrote, according to an article by Engelland in The Players' Tribune. "We were all watching. Keep it going."

Engelland read the message to his teammates on the bus after the game. Players stood and cheered.

"I've never seen anything like that energy," Engelland wrote. "It felt like, in some very small way, we could give people something to feel good about."

 

Ben Kole

Kole was off duty at the concert the night of Oct. 1. When the shooting started, he had trouble processing what it was, even though a friend knocked him to the ground and they took shelter in a bar nearby.

"You know it's gunshots, but you don't believe it," Kole said. "You're like, 'It couldn't be. There's no way this is what it is.' So we thought they were fireworks."

Once his head cleared, his first thought was his daughter, Rachel, who was on duty at the concert working for Community Ambulance. His friend tried to stop him, but he ran through the crowd to find her.

He found her treating people. They hugged for a moment, then saw other people being carried away. In his frantic search for his daughter, he had tuned out the gunshots. They were still coming from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay across Las Vegas Boulevard.

Knowing firefighters would not be allowed on the scene until it was secured, he called dispatch from his phone and said he wanted a "second medical alarm" to the Tropicana and Reno intersection, because it was farther from the Mandalay Bay and would be safe.

A couple of other firefighters saw he was setting up something and asked what he needed. He told them to stop all vehicles on Giles Street behind the concert venue.

"They were packed with people," Kole said. "We told them to get out to put injured people in, and we told them where to go to deliver the injured so they could get to the hospital as quick as possible."

Kole and his daughter did triage on the spot until about midnight, treating the wounded, prioritizing them and loading them into cars. They waited until about 1 a.m. to make sure no one else needed help, then walked about a mile, bloody, their car locked down, to a place where a family member could pick them up.

On Oct. 9, Kole received a call from Dave Bray, a captain in the department, asking if he'd like to go to a hockey game. Kole was not a hockey fan. He had never been to an NHL game before. But the Golden Knights were playing their home opener against the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 10, and his daughter was going. He said he'd love to.

When he arrived at T-Mobile Arena, Bray asked if he'd like to go on the ice.

"I go, 'What do you mean go on the ice? What's going on?'" Kole said. "He said, 'They're honoring Oct. 1 people.' I said, 'I can't comprehend that. That would be the biggest honor of my life. That would be awesome.'"

Video: Golden Knights join first responders on ice

Next thing Kole knew, he was first in line when the public address announcer introduced a first responder with each player during the pregame ceremony. He walked out with defenseman Brayden McNabb and stood behind the blue line. He stood through the 58-second moment of silence and the national anthem, as the Golden Knights and the Coyotes stood behind the first responders. He listened to Engelland give a speech.

"I know how special this city is," Engelland told the crowd. "To all the brave first responders that have worked tirelessly and courageously through this whole tragedy, we thank you. To the families and friends of the victims, we'll do everything we can to help you and our city heal. We are Vegas Strong."

Kole said his heart nearly leapt out of his chest. The Golden Knights roared to a 4-0 lead, defeated the Coyotes 5-2 and became the first NHL team to win its first three games. Nine days after the shooting, people were cheering to the Elvis Presley song "Viva Las Vegas."

"I was on the verge of tears, just because it was something that brought our community together," Kole said. "I never imagined how much support from the community we would ever have like that. … It's a night that, I mean, I relive all the time. It's something that is a big [part of the] healing process for me."

Kole filled a shadowbox with mementos from Oct. 10: a puck, a pin, a poster, his ticket and his lanyard. He has an autographed pennant hanging at home. He has been to several games since, including two playoff games, and calls himself a lifetime fan now.

Meanwhile, a picture of Kole from Oct. 10 hangs in the locker room complex at City National Arena, next to the fire helmet. Each day the Golden Knights pass the image of Kole, hand over his heart, McNabb behind him, and the words "VEGAS STRONG."

"It gave, I think, a lot of us something to hold onto, something to be proud of our home," Kole said. "Vegas is a very transient town, and what's neat about what's going on is that this is the first time I've ever really heard, in the 40 years that I've lived here, people say, 'This is my town.' And that means a lot to me, because I do love Vegas."

 

Scott Scherr

Scherr was off duty at home the night of Oct. 1. He was the medical director at Sunrise Hospital and the regional medical director for TeamHealth. When the shooting started, his phone lit up with calls and messages.

He put on his scrubs and drove to Sunrise. Normally, it takes him about 25 to 30 minutes. This time, he made it in about 15. Initial radio reports were of two dead and multiple people injured. He had no idea what was to come.

The ambulance bay was crammed with trucks and taxis and Ubers and wheelchairs and gurneys. Thirteen area hospitals treated patients that night, but Sunrise treated the most, even though it wasn't the highest-level trauma center in the area. Eighty percent of patients were transported by private vehicles. Internet searches told drivers to go there.

Sunrise's emergency department has about 45 beds. It received 212 documented patients within a span of about 60 minutes, and 30 were admitted to intensive care.

"If it wasn't for all the resources and all the staff that came in, those 30 patients that were saved could have easily been 30 more deaths," Scherr said.

Doctors performed 27 of what they call "damage-control surgeries" that night. They did 53 surgeries in the first 24 hours and more than 80 within the first week.

Scherr worked the first 21 hours straight after not sleeping the day before.

"Part of my job was to make sure that the emergency department was able to function the next day, because we still had a city to take care of," Scherr said. "The ER wasn't going to close its doors. We had a great response of people that came in that night, but we also had a tremendous response of nurses and physicians that came and took over for those of us that were just beat and tired."

Afterward, Scherr and his wife, Rebecca, a pediatric gastroenterologist, went on a planned vacation to Maui. They watched the Golden Knights' pregame ceremony and home opener on television.

"Man, we were on the couch in tears," Scherr said.

The Scherrs had bought season tickets, but they weren't big hockey fans and thought they might go to half the home games, maybe even fewer, thanks to two physicians' busy schedules. After all this, if they were in town and the Golden Knights had a home game, they were there.

On Dec. 3, when the Golden Knights defeated the Coyotes 3-2 in overtime, Scherr was honored as the "Vegas Strong Hero of the Game." The Engellands helped develop the program and bought tickets to home games for people affected by the shooting. Melissa Engelland met Scherr and his wife beforehand and gave them a gift bag that included a Deryk Engelland jersey and a Vegas Strong T-shirt. Scherr was introduced on the scoreboard screen during the game.

"When you're on the Jumbotron and 18,000 people stand up and applaud …" Scherr said, his voice trailing off. "Wow. Absolutely amazing. Amazing experience. Amazing night. It helped emotionally with not just myself but with my wife, because she's had to live through some struggles and things that I have had since Oct. 1."

Engelland met with the Scherrs after the game. He signed the jersey and other items, then asked if there was anything else he could do. Scherr asked if the rest of the players could sign the jersey too. Engelland got it done. The jersey is framed and hanging in Scherr's office. Scherr and his wife wear No. 17 "VEGAS STRONG" jerseys to games.

Like Littmann, Burns, Kole and many like them, Scherr keeps in touch with Engelland.

"The fact that during the playoffs I'm able to text him and talk to him and congratulate him on his victories and things like that, it makes the community of us feel part of the team, and it's not fake," Scherr said. "It's totally real what this team, and especially what Deryk, has done for this community. It's totally genuine and totally from his heart. It's awesome."

 

'Pretty amazing'

These are just examples. Think of all the others the Golden Knights honored Oct. 10 -- firefighters, police officers, paramedics, nurses, doctors. Think of all the others they have honored at games all season -- victims, families, first responders. Think of all the others they have touched directly and indirectly.

Burns, Littmann and Sproule used to be the only ones watching hockey at fire stations. Now Golden Knights flags fly from the backs of fire engines, and Golden Knights games are on televisions.

"We always have NHL Network on," Burns said. "When there's a game, everyone's in the kitchen howling and hollering. I have so many friends whose kids have started skating."

Something has changed across town.

"Prior to Oct. 1, if you asked people where they were from, and they would say Boston or New York or California or wherever," Scherr said. "Now everybody says, 'I'm from Las Vegas.' Even folks that grew up watching the Boston Bruins or the Chicago Blackhawks and all that kind of stuff, they've stripped those jerseys and put on the black and gold and red. Pretty amazing."

The impact will last a long, long time.

"It's just an amazing, amazing experience," Littmann said. "I told my wife, Julie, we're going to tell our grandchildren one day about the positive things that happened in one of the worst tragedies in this country."

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