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Golden Knights reconnect with community on second anniversary of tragedy

Players sign autographs, take photos with survivors, first responders, medical personnel at luncheon

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

LAS VEGAS -- Shortly after the shooting started Oct. 1, 2017, Jesse Gomez went from off duty to doing his duty as a member of the Clark County Fire Department.

He had been enjoying country music with family at the Route 91 Harvest festival when a gunman opened fire from the Mandalay Bay across South Las Vegas Boulevard. As he tried to get his family to safety, he found a woman on the ground who had been injured. He helped carry her out, made sure his family was OK and went back in to help more people. He stayed to the end.

On the second anniversary Tuesday, he was one of about 500 people affected by the shooting, including survivors, first responders and medical personnel, who attended a private practice and luncheon at City National Arena at the invitation of the Vegas Golden Knights.

"For me personally, it means a lot that you don't forget," Gomez said. "I always hope that we don't forget those that have been affected, the ones that have lost their lives. … I'm glad that we're all here to remember."

The Golden Knights, an NHL expansion team and Las Vegas' first major league professional sports team, were preparing for their inaugural season at the time of the shooting. Starting the next day, they reached out to the community in many ways, in public and private, with the theme "VEGAS STRONG." Meanwhile, Vegas rejoiced as they went to the Stanley Cup Final.

"Everything happens for a reason," Gomez said. "I'm glad the Golden Knights just happened to be here. It seemed like the community rallied around them, and that was great to see. It was a tragic event, but it really brought the community together."

At City National Arena, the Golden Knights practice facility, a fire helmet that was presented to the team hangs in a hallway outside the locker room. A banner with 58 stars honoring the 58 people killed, like the one in the rafters at T-Mobile Arena, hangs over center ice.

The Golden Knights wanted to honor the second anniversary the day before their regular-season opener against the San Jose Sharks at T-Mobile Arena on Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS).

"We were like, 'Why not invite the community to our home?'" said Carley Sisolak, senior manager of marketing and community relations. "They've been so welcoming to us."

Natalie Anderman, director of events and guest services at City National Arena, is one of about a dozen employees who were at the concert that night. She wore a Route 91 Harvest T-shirt on Tuesday.

"It marks a lot of harsh memories, and it marks a lot of things you want to forget about," said Anderman, who escaped the shooting unscathed except for a piece of glass in her hand. "But it also marks a day of survival and feeling thankful and blessed for what you have."

When the guests arrived, they walked through lines of cheerleaders waving pom-poms and saying, "Good morning!" They received "VEGAS STRONGER" T-shirts and filled the stands. TV broadcasters Dave Goucher and Shane Hnidy welcomed them with a few words.

"I think this community has become family," Hnidy told the crowd.

The guests cheered when the players appeared; the players tapped their sticks in return. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, Carley's father, led a "Go Knights Go!" chant.

"It's so terrific," he said. "They always think of somebody else first. That's what makes them Vegas' team."

Scott Nicholas, vice president of Las Vegas Police Protective Association, the police union, stood against the glass in uniform taking photos with his phone.

"The way the Golden Knights responded to our police department was never expected and just so appreciated," he said. "This relationship is going to go on for a long, long time."

At the end of practice, the players raised their sticks to the guests. Afterward, they put on the same "VEGAS STRONGER" T-shirts given to the guests and met them in the arena restaurant. They shook hands, took selfies and signed autographs.

"It's great to see them," said defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was having dinner at the Cosmopolitan with some of his teammates and was locked down during the shooting, then visited hospitals and blood banks the next day. "It's chilling to know the things that they've been through are much worse than anything we've ever been through in our lives. But I'm so excited to be able go up today and have lunch and sit and chat with people.

"You lose faith that night in what people are capable of doing, and then you regain the faith in seeing how much people rally around other people they don't know, giving blood to people they don't know, donating time, food, water, anything they can. That was probably the single most important thing of maybe my whole life, being able to see how people can come together after something like that."

Vegas has stayed together.

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