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Golden Knights ready for emotional home opener

Will honor Las Vegas shooting victims, first responders at inaugural regular-season game in city

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

LAS VEGAS -- The message is all over the Las Vegas Strip, writ large, all caps, on signs and billboards and marquees. It stretches across the video board outside T-Mobile Arena, home of the Vegas Golden Knights.

"WHEN THINGS GET DARK, LAS VEGAS SHINES. #VegasStrong"

It will be the theme for the Golden Knights' inaugural home opener against the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN360, TVA Sports, NHL.TV).

 

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The Golden Knights will still walk a gold carpet and stage a fan march from the New York New York to T-Mobile Arena before the doors open. They will still highlight pride in Las Vegas in their pregame show, because they are the city's first major league pro sports team.

But they also had planned to play up their brand with medieval imagery, a knight pulling a sword out of a stone, the ice lighting up and cracking with special effects. That will now wait until their next home game, against the Detroit Red Wings on Friday (10:30 p.m. ET; ATTSN-RM, FS-D).

A little more than a week ago, on the night of Oct. 1, the worst mass shooting in American history happened just down the Strip. Fifty-eight people died at the Route 91 Harvest Festival of country music, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Four hundred eighty-nine were injured.

The Golden Knights will honor the victims and heroes with a ceremony and moment of silence. A member of the Route 91 Harvest Festival team will lead the national anthem. He will be joined by 14 of his teammates who helped the injured and first responders.

Video: Vegas Golden Knights set to honor victims and heroes

"It's going to be a moving experience," owner Bill Foley said. "There's going to be a lot of tears shed."

The Golden Knights don't want to exploit the tragedy. They don't want to presume they are Vegas' team when they haven't played a regular-season game here yet.

But they want to provide a rallying point and give people a reason to smile.

"We have a unique responsibility and opportunity to give 17,000 people this group hug and celebrate all the strength and goodness that is here too," said Jonny Greco, vice president of entertainment production, who oversees the game presentation. "This is a moment we don't take lightly."

Barry Lieberman will be there. He's originally from New York, where he was a New York Rangers season ticket holder. But he has lived in Las Vegas since 1982. He had season tickets to the Thunder of the International Hockey League and the Wranglers of the ECHL.

"Sports teams galvanize communities," said Lieberman, wearing a Golden Knights jersey in the front row at practice on Monday. "It is a relief for people. That's what it is. Sports is a release. I think it's really great for the community. I think the community will get around and support this team."

Las Vegas is a city full of people who came from elsewhere. The Golden Knights are a team full of people who came from elsewhere, from the business side to the front office to the locker room. The players had been here only a few weeks at the time of the shooting.

Suddenly, everyone had a shared, awful experience. It was personal.

The shooting happened not long after the Golden Knights' preseason finale at T-Mobile Arena. Some players had gone to their homes in Las Vegas and saw events unfold on local TV news. Others were having dinner at The Cosmopolitan nearby.

"I had thought about maybe going to the concert if we got out of dinner quick enough," defenseman Nate Schmidt said.

Video: E.J. Hradek calls into the show live from Vegas

They were locked down until about 2:30 a.m. Schmidt said he got home about 4.

"What the players have experienced is what everyone else around here has experienced, a very, very difficult time in their life that no one wanted and no one ever wants," general manager George McPhee said.

Defenseman Deryk Engelland played for the Wranglers in 2003-04 and '04-05 and has lived here in the offseason for about 14 years. He does a charity hockey game with the fire department in the summer.

He had friends at the concert who ran for their lives, friends among the first responders. He knows UNLV hockey assistant Nick Robone, who took a bullet to the chest, and Anthony Robone, the brother who helped drag him to safety and stabilize him. Nick Robone is recovering.

"After it happened, the next day, guys were asking, 'What can we do?' " Engelland said. "You feel helpless with what happened. You're just trying to get out there and do anything, any little thing you can."

Engelland and his wife bought groceries and brought them to the firefighters' union hall. 

The Golden Knights canceled a promotional event and visited victims, their families, first responders and blood banks. They partnered with the NHL and Foley Family Charitable Trust to donate $300,000 to victims and first responders.

"I think every guy thinks the same way," Engelland said. "We can't do enough. We'd love to do more. We've got to try to do whatever we can to help the people and the victims and everyone who was involved, and the city."

 

[Get #VegasStrong Gear]

 

The Golden Knights left town Thursday. They won the first two games in their history with late-game comebacks, defeating the Dallas Stars 2-1 on Friday and the Arizona Coyotes 2-1 in overtime on Saturday.

Engelland heard from his buddies at the firehouse.

"They were texting me after the Dallas game about how much spirits lifted after the win," Engelland said, "and how it's got them talking about the game and the team instead of all about that."

Video: Rupp and Bylsma discuss the Golden Knights' start

After the Golden Knights returned home, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury drove by the iconic Las Vegas sign. You know the one. It says, "Welcome to Fabulous LAS VEGAS Nevada."

Its star inspired the Golden Knights' secondary logo. On June 22, the day after the NHL Expansion Draft, Engelland, Fleury and defensemen Jason Garrison and Brayden McNabb took a picture in front of it, all smiles. Fleury had it painted on his goalie mask.

It is now a memorial. At its base sit flowers, candles, pictures, signs, flags. Out of tragedy, an outpouring of love.

Welcome to Las Vegas, Nevada. It is fabulous.

"That's where I live," Fleury said. "That's where my house is. My family's here. Obviously I care a lot about people here. It's my town now.

"We can't undo what happened. It's very tragic. Hopefully with the way we play we can make people in Vegas proud of their team and maybe change their minds a bit a few hours when we play at night. It's not going to heal anybody, but if we can get their minds a bit away [from it], I think it would be good." 

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