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Golden Knights turning Las Vegas into hockey town

First-year franchise setting records on ice, giving fans team to call their own

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

LAS VEGAS -- The fans lined the length of a city block, six deep on each side of a red carpet, and packed the area in front of a stage. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. Wearing hats, shirts and jerseys. Holding signs, pens and phones. Cheering. Chanting.

Ten thousand people, according to an estimate by Patrick Hughes, president of the Fremont Street Experience, a seven-block entertainment district in downtown Las Vegas.

Ten thousand people. For a Fan Fest on a Sunday afternoon. For an NHL expansion team about halfway through its inaugural season.

"Uhhh … Unexpected?" goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said with a laugh. "It's crazy, you know?"

Video: The Vegas Golden Knights fan fest

Isn't that the story of the Vegas Golden Knights? Unexpected? Crazy?

The Fan Fest was originally scheduled for Oct. 3. It was meant to introduce the team to the city. But it was postponed after 58 people died on the Strip on Oct. 1 in the worst mass shooting in American history.

The Golden Knights visited victims, families, first responders and blood banks instead. They won their first two games on the road in dramatic fashion, then came home for their first game at T-Mobile Arena on Oct. 10. After an emotional pregame ceremony themed "Vegas Strong" that honored victims and first responders, rallying the community, they won again.

And they kept winning and winning, setting record after record for expansion teams. They're 29-10-3. With 61 points in 42 games, they're first in the Western Conference and second in the NHL in point percentage (.726).

Las Vegas was supposed to be excited for its first major-league professional sports team. The Golden Knights were supposed to be relatively good, considering the NHL Expansion Draft was designed to stock them with more talent than previous expansion teams.

But this?

"I don't think anyone thought we'd be where we are today," owner Bill Foley said. "I pinch myself."

* * * * *

The success has snowballed on and off the ice, giving Vegas an identity beyond the Strip, fans a team to call their own, parents a place to take their kids, kids a new sport to play. It is measurable and anecdotal.

The Golden Knights are playing to 103-percent capacity at T-Mobile Arena, where they're 18-2-2, and have started a "can't wait" list for tickets.

The bass booms so deeply during warmup, it rattles the water bottles off the tops of the boards at the benches. The fans are raucous. When visiting fans invade to watch their team and have a good time in town, it's even more electric.

There were thousands of Edmonton Oilers fans among the record crowd of 18,351 on Saturday night, and so there were dueling national anthems and team chants. "Let's go, Oilers!" "Go Knights go!" When the Oilers won 3-2 in overtime, there was a roar in the arena. Afterward, it looked like Edmonton South with all the orange and blue jerseys on Toshiba Plaza and in The Park outside.

"The games are insane," forward Erik Haula said. "I haven't been to a building that's consistently that loud. It's a great atmosphere. I didn't see that coming at all, and everybody loves coming here and playing. It's probably the biggest 'wow' moment."

Then there's practice. Yes, practice. It's open to the public at City National Arena, the Golden Knights' new facility in Summerlin, a community about 20 minutes west of the Strip. There are about 600 fixed seats and room to stand at one end of the rink.

Since about mid-December, practice has drawn capacity crowds routinely. On Friday, when the Golden Knights returned from their five-day break, the seats and standing room were full, so fans hopped atop benches in the vestibule to peer through the windows.

A few fans used to stand outside and ask for autographs as the players drove out of their parking lot. Then more and more fans showed up, until there were as many as 200 at a time. Players were stopping to sign, plugging the exit, and fans were unsafe in the street. So the Golden Knights set up an area inside for fans 14 and younger to catch players as they come off the ice.

There has been so much demand for jerseys that the Golden Knights have had to reorder multiple times, chief marketing officer Brian Killingsworth said. They've surpassed their revenue projections at the Armory and the Arsenal, the team stores at T-Mobile and City National, respectively. Not their projections for revenue to this point. For the entire season.

"It really is incredible," Killingsworth said. "And you see it. You see it out in the community. You see it everywhere."

You see Vegas gear all over town. You see it at watch parties when the Golden Knights are on the road, like the one at City National on Dec. 9. The Golden Knights held a public skate and showed their 5-3 victory against the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on a drop-down video screen. It sold out.

"Kids and families were skating, and then we'd score and the whole place would go crazy," Killingsworth said. "It was a lot of fun. So we're going to look to do more of that."

The Golden Knights are just beginning what they plan to be a significant investment in youth hockey, but their Learn to Skate Program has already exploded. It had 92 skaters for its first five-week session from Sept. 12-Oct. 14, Killingsworth said. The current one from Jan. 2-Feb. 24 has 600.

One day, Peter Neal, the father of forward James Neal, was so inspired that he went into the team's dressing room, put on his son's skates and went out to teach the kids. He coached his kids when they were growing up in Toronto and still coaches today.

"It was funny," James Neal said. "A few of the guys texted me. They're like, 'Your dad's out in the Learn to Skate.' I was like, 'What?' It's crazy the impact we have in the city when kids come to the game and see the fun that we have doing it, the excitement we have on our faces. It goes a long way."

* * * * *

The Las Vegas metropolitan area is home to 2.1 million people, many from elsewhere. There were hockey fans here already who rooted for local minor league teams or other NHL teams, but others have been exposed to the sport because of the Golden Knights.

Farhan and Ellie Naqvi moved to Las Vegas from Toronto. They weren't fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs. They never went to a Maple Leafs game. But Farhan went to the Golden Knights' home opener, and something changed.

"I was so moved by that first game that I was hooked," he said.

He told Ellie they had to go to with their sons Shawn, 11, and Daniel, 7.

"I'm like, 'No, we don't watch hockey. We never watched in Canada,'" Ellie said. "He's like, 'Let's go to one game.' So we went to one game the four of us, and we said, 'We have to get season tickets.' The energy was unbelievable."

Now they have four season tickets. Shawn and Daniel are in the Learn to Skate Program. They play basketball, but now Daniel especially wants to play hockey.

"It's just been our obsession," Farhan said. "I mean, we love it. We love taking the kids. I've never seen such an outpouring of support as I've seen for this, so it's pretty cool. And it helps that they're winning too, right?"

Pamela Salvador moved to Las Vegas from Southern California. She wasn't a fan of the Anaheim Ducks or Los Angeles Kings. But she and her husband, Ed Sidenstricker, went to a Golden Knights game. Then they brought their 6-year-old son, Rylan Sidenstricker.

They have season tickets. Rylan is in the Learn to Skate Program too. He was on the ice in a Neal jersey on Saturday morning, but he needs a Fleury jersey now. He wants to be a goalie.

"If it wasn't for the Knights, we wouldn't be here," Salvador said. "He had no idea what hockey was."

Kelvin Marzan is originally from Honolulu. His wife, Valerie, is originally from Chicago. He didn't grow up with pro sports; she did. Now they can root for Vegas together with their 2-year-old son, Aden.

"This is our opportunity to support our local team," Valerie said. "It's exhilarating. We went to our first game. I mean, it was goosebumps. Just the energy and the amount of support that we have from our city is amazing."

They brought Aden to the Fan Fest.

"Aden, what team is this?" Valerie asked, pointing to a Vegas logo.

"The Knights!" Aden said.

Ryan Leavitt, 7, has gone from wanting to be the Dark Knight to wanting to be a Golden Knight. His mother, Katie, said he changed his future profession from "Batman" to "hockey player" and asked for hockey gear for Christmas.

He looked like a hockey player at the Fan Fest. He wore a Golden Knights hat and jersey. Thanks to a high stick from a cousin in the driveway on Saturday, he had three stitches in his lower lip.

* * * * *

The Golden Knights need no introduction now. Rescheduled for Sunday, the Fan Fest became a celebration of everything that has happened over the past three-plus months, of the bond between the team and the city.

Foley, coach Gerard Gallant and the players entered the gauntlet at the corner of Casino Center Boulevard and Fremont Street. They walked down the red carpet on Fremont Street to 3rd Street as Chance, the mascot, flew overhead on a zip line. They signed autographs, took selfies, gave hugs, shook hands. Whether they were first- or fourth-liners, veterans or rookies, they were rock stars.

"You hear your name on both sides -- left, right, left, right," forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. "People are just so happy about us being here, and they're so supportive. It's been unbelievable."

Foley took the 3rd Street Stage outside the D Las Vegas, the official downtown casino partner of the Golden Knights, and addressed the crowd.

"I mean, this is so impressive," Foley said. "The team feeds off all of you just as the town feeds off the team. I'm so proud of the team, and I'm so proud of Las Vegas for supporting this great franchise."

Then the players were introduced one by one, tossing T-shirts and lining up across the stage, and the fans chanted "Go Knights go!" The fans were loud and proud. The players looked dumbfounded.

"I wanted to take some kind of video or something to remember that, because it was unbelievable," Bellemare said. "This is a one-of-a-kind experience."

This is just the beginning.

"It's been a really cool story so far," Neal said. "Hopefully we can keep it going. This city's going to be one crazy hockey city."

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