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Stanley Cup Final

Golden Knights' ride to Stanley Cup Final made special memories

Formed bond with Vegas during historic inaugural season

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

LAS VEGAS -- The bus pulled over in West Yellowstone, Montana, on Aug. 18. The Vegas Golden Knights had sent staffers on a promo tour through their TV territory in Idaho, Montana and Utah, and they'd let me come along for the ride.

We got off and gathered under a sign for a photo. It said, "Destination Adventure." We had no idea what was down the road.

 

[RELATED: Complete Golden Knights vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

My plan was to cover the Golden Knights through their home opener Oct. 10. They were a cool story. The NHL hadn't had an expansion team since the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild in 2000-01. Las Vegas had never had a major league sports team.

After that? Maybe I'd check in with them at some point.

Never did I imagine the story they would become -- the greatest expansion team of all time, helping unite and heal a grieving city in the wake of tragedy, turning a new NHL market into a rabid one, transforming hockey games into gotta-see-this spectacles.

After bussing from Coeur d'Alene to Whitefish to Bozeman to Salt Lake City, I made 11 trips to Las Vegas and saw the Golden Knights in 11 other cities across North America. It was perhaps the most surprising, inspiring and downright fun experience of my 20-year career.

This was a special group from the executives to the coaches to the players to the support staff. This was a special circumstance and a special season. I could write a book of all the memories, but here are a few:

Video: Looking back on Vegas' historic season

 

Sept. 14

First day of camp. One of the first questions.

"What's it going to take to win the Cup, Coach?" a TV reporter asked.

Coach Gerard Gallant laughed.

"That's quick," he said. "One day at a time."

The question seemed naïve and overly eager, not prescient. The Stanley Cup? Gallant said he hadn't met most of his players yet and would probably call them the wrong names on the ice a few times, and he set the bar low.

"For me, it's not about trying to win 40 games or 30 games or 20 games, whatever it's going be," he said. "It's about trying to get better every day and trying to compete and battle and win every night."

 

Oct. 6

The Golden Knights won their first game 2-1 at the Dallas Stars thanks to two third-period goals by forward James Neal and 45 saves by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. They'd been outplayed but found a way.

It didn't make my column that night, but I will never forget an exchange I had with forward Reilly Smith in the locker room. I asked Smith if this would be the formula: opportunistic scoring, great goaltending. I didn't mean anything by it, but I revealed my bias. I didn't expect the Golden Knights to be any good.

Smith was offended, in a good way.

"Let's hope not," he snapped.

Video: Neal, Fleury power Vegas to first franchise win

 

Oct. 10

I stood in a corner against the glass for the pregame ceremony at the home opener, so I could speak to first responders after they came off the ice. It was nine days after the shooting on the Strip that injured hundreds and killed 58.

The moment that got me was not the first responders being introduced with the players or the speech by defenseman Deryk Engelland. It was the 58-second moment of silence. The wait forced you feel the weight.

Then I spoke to Sheri Jones, a critical care paramedic on the scene Oct. 1. She gave me a different perspective.

"I'm glad it was only 58 seconds," she said. "It could have been a lot longer."

I still tear up thinking about it.

 

Oct. 27

My first unscheduled trip to Las Vegas. The Golden Knights had started 7-1-0 and had one game left on a homestand.

"We're the 31st team," Gallant said before the game. "We're an expansion team. Everybody's better than us."

Oh, really? The Golden Knights defeated the Colorado Avalanche 7-0, and Gallant had to say they weren't trying to embarrass anybody by running up the score. They had the best record in the NHL at 8-1-0. Nobody was better than them.

This said it all: Neal, a goal-scorer in a contract year, took a stick on the face in the first period and went off for repairs. Yet with a seven-goal lead with three minutes to go in the third, he blocked a shot, broke his stick, scrambled across the zone and dived trying to block another.

For the first time, I felt something special was happening. I wrote that the question wasn't whether they could make the playoffs but whether they could miss them. They had 16 points in the bank already.

 

Jan. 14

Fast forward to about the midpoint of the regular season. It seemed like a good time to go back to Las Vegas to take stock of the Golden Knights, who were first in the Western Conference and second in the NHL in point percentage (.726).

Oh, by the way, they were holding a fan fest downtown on a Sunday afternoon. Originally scheduled for Oct. 3, it had been canceled in the wake of the shooting. The Golden Knights had visited victims, families, first responders and blood donors instead.

Might be a neat little event, right?

Ten thousand people showed up. They lined the length of a city block at the Fremont Street Experience, six deep on each side of a red carpet, and packed an area in front of a stage. Fathers, sons, mothers and daughters. Wearing hats, shirts and jerseys. Holding signs, pens and phones. Cheering. Chanting.

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

Games were over capacity. So were practices. Merchandise was flying off the shelves. Kids were signing up to learn how to skate. So many people were stopping players for autographs as they tried to drive out of the practice facility, the Golden Knights had to stop it and set up an area for kids inside.

"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."

 

 

May 3

A colleague and I ordered an Uber after a practice at City National Arena. As we got into the car, the driver, Kathleen Craner, spotted her favorite player, forward Alex Tuch, pulling out in his truck. We struck up a conversation.

Obviously she knew a lot about the team. So I asked her how many games she'd been to. She said none, but she had gone to each practice since her niece brought her to her first one on Jan. 22.

"I didn't know what I was missing until I found hockey," she said as we pulled up to our hotel.

That got me. I grew up in the Detroit area but didn't fall in love with hockey until a friend had an extra ticket to a Detroit Red Wings game. I always felt that it didn't matter where you were from. If you went to a game, there was a good chance you would get hooked. And I had heard stories like this day after day, trip after trip, in Las Vegas. It was what this was all about.

I tweeted her quote. The Golden Knights saw it and gave her tickets to Game 5 of the Western Conference Second Round against the San Jose Sharks. She said she cried and kept checking her phone to make sure the tickets were still there.

Wait. It gets better. Guess who scored two goals in a 5-3 victory? Tuch.

Wait. It gets better. The day after that in San Jose, Tuch saw me in the hallway after practice. Dripping with sweat, he turned back to say something. He said he knew who the fan was because she always sat in the front row at practices, and he was happy she had a good time.

Wait. It gets better. Soon after that, Tuch ran into Craner at a restaurant in Las Vegas. He came over, gave her a hug, told her he scored the two goals for her, talked hockey with her and paid for her lunch.

This team, man.

 

May 20

After winning 51 games and the Pacific Division in the regular season -- not 40 or 30 or 20 games, as Gallant had posed the first day of camp -- the Golden Knights won the Western Conference with a 2-1 victory against the Winnipeg Jets at Bell MTS Place. Seven months after holding a microphone after a tragedy, Engelland held a trophy in triumph.

I ran into general manager George McPhee as I left the locker room.

In the summer of 2015, McPhee was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I live, because his son, Graham, was playing in the U.S. National Team Development Program there. We belonged to the same health club and ended up having a long conversation about life one day. He'd been let go by the Washington Capitals. I'd been let go by my former employer. Each of us wondered if we'd ever get another chance to do what we loved, but each of us was determined to turn a negative into a positive.

Well, I ended up at NHL.com, and he ended up with the Golden Knights, and I got to chronicle a lot of his team's incredible journey. I shook McPhee's hand and congratulated him that day in Winnipeg. He smiled.

"Long way from Ann Arbor," he said.

What a ride.

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