Day Five: Road's end
SALT LAKE CITY -- It was like the end of summer camp.
After coach Gerard Gallant and assistant Mike Kelly skated with fans and signed autographs at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex on Saturday, the final event of the Vegas Golden Knights Road Trip was over.
Staffers packed boxes and loaded the bus. They took a group picture in front of the huge inflatable jersey by the front door, then deflated it. Web video producer Tyler Pico and intern Brenden Russ stuffed it into the cargo hold, shut the door and celebrated with a chest bump.
Then it was time for another group picture in front of the bus.
And handshakes. And hugs. And back slaps.
Remember that this is an expansion team within an expansion team. The media, social media and marketing folks came from different places and must come together to execute their game plan, not unlike the players, coaches and executives. This was a great bonding experience for them, as well as an outreach mission for the Golden Knights.
To this point, they had spent about 38 hours traveling 2,272 miles together on the bus since leaving Las Vegas on Monday, taking naps, watching movies, eating snacks, playing games. They'd been up before dawn at times. They'd eaten on the run at times. They'd checked in and out of a different place each day. They had worked hard, and they had also had fun seeing new places and getting to know each other better.
And they couldn't have been nicer and more welcoming to a writer from NHL.com who wasn't on the team, just along for the ride. I can't thank them enough.
Now it was time to go home to Las Vegas, for more hard work before the veterans report to training camp Sept. 14 and the regular season opens Oct. 6.
The bus pulled out for another seven-something-hour ride over another 430-something miles, and I stayed behind to write and fly home Sunday morning.
The hope is that they will make the Vegas Golden Knights Road Trip an annual thing, a tradition, not a one-timer before the inaugural season. I think I should cover it each year, because, you know, I have experience now and NHL.com needs to be on this story. Right, boss?
Being part of it all
SALT LAKE CITY -- Erik Nystul drove 45 minutes from Heber City, Utah, to come to the Vegas Golden Knights public skate at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex on Saturday.
But he didn't bring skates, didn't rent skates, didn't step on the ice.
He wore flip flops, shorts and a Golden Knights T-shirt as he watched coach Gerard Gallant and assistant coach Mike Kelly skate with fans, say hello and sign autographs.
"Just here to feel part of the team and part of the fan base," he said.
It isn't every day an NHL team holds an event in this area, let alone his new favorite team.
Nystul was born in Minnesota but moved to Utah with his family. He buys NHL Center Ice to watch the Minnesota Wild. But now that the Golden Knights will be shown on AT&T SportsNet in Utah, he'll be able to watch them on local television.
"That's awesome," he said.
And if he wants to see a game live, T-Mobile Arena is less than six hours away.
"We go to Vegas often," Nystul said. "It's the closest big thing to us. If I want to go see NHL hockey, it's an easy drive. It's cool to have, like [Golden Knights owner] Bill Foley says, a team of the Rockies. That kind of makes me feel welcome."
Day Four: Rollin' into Bozeman
Making new fans
BOZEMAN, Mont. -- The drive to Bozeman on Friday was short by Vegas Golden Knights Road Trip standards, only about two hours.
There was time for breakfast before the street hockey clinic at 11 a.m. MT, so the bus pulled into a suburban shopping area and parked in front of a Home Depot and the staffers hopped out and went to IHOP.
Everywhere the bus goes, it attracts attention because of the Golden Knights logo and the message on the side touting the home opener: "PUCK DROPS OCT. 10." Drivers look over on the highway. People in line at Starbucks check it out.
While the staffers were eating, here came a family from Minnesota on vacation. Steve, Judy, Ryder and Dylan Klopp stopped to check out the bus.
"Saw the Golden Knights," Dylan said. "I know it's their first year and [they're the] first sports team in Vegas. So pretty exciting. Just wanted to take a picture of that."
The Klopps are Minnesota Wild fans. Any chance the Golden Knights could become their second-favorite team?
"Yeah, why not?" Dylan said.
"Fly into Vegas …" Steve said, as if considering the idea of his own road trip for a game.
"Yeah, fly into Vegas," Dylan said.
The scouting report on Wild-turned-Golden Knights forward Erik Haula?
"Speedy," Dylan said. "Goal scorer. I'm going to miss him as a Wild fan. Wish him the best, though."
One rockin' cattle company
DEER LODGE, Mont. -- We pulled out of Golden Knights owner Bill Foley's Rock Creek Cattle Company about 6:30 a.m. MT on Friday, headed for Bozeman and a street-hockey clinic at 11 a.m. MT. To tell you the truth, I didn't want to leave.
It's a 30,000-acre working cattle ranch where they raise beef to take to market. The cattle are serious business for Foley.
But the Rock Creek Cattle Company is more than that. It's also a members-only luxury resort in a spectacular setting with a world-class golf course, a gorgeous pool, a lodge-like clubhouse and not-so-rustic cabins scattered along the creek and the hillsides. You need to take a golf cart on dirt roads to get around, the place is so vast.
The water rushes over the rocks of the creek. The trout jump and splash in the fishing holes. The cattle, including longhorns, graze on the grass. The wild elk bugle in the distance. It's an outdoorsman's paradise.
Louis Bartoletti, the general manager, was kind enough to drive me around in his Jeep before sunset Thursday. Let me share just the best part: He pulled off the road and through a fence. As the sun set behind a mountain ahead, there were specks on the grass in the foreground.
He handed me a pair of binoculars.
There were the elk, a herd of maybe 300, a movie scene come to life.
Day Three: Side trip
Refueling for rest of journey
DEER LODGE, Mont. -- Another four-hour ride. Another four hours of photos. Only this time, we rode as the sun rose over the mountains, and we rode on two-lane roads instead of interstates the whole way.
Well, almost the whole way. At the end, we took dirt roads.
Yes, there was the bus with the Vegas Golden Knights logo winding through the mountains and kicking up dust.
There were no public events Thursday. For the staffers, most of whom had been on the bus for some 35 hours since leaving Las Vegas on Monday, this was a day to recharge and have fun before events in Bozeman on Friday and Salt Lake City on Saturday. They took a private tour of owner Bill Foley's Rock Creek Cattle Company, a 30,000-acre working cattle ranch and luxury resort.
The bus parked in front conspicuously to remind visitors of the Golden Knights' home opener.
"PUCK DROPS OCT. 10."
In the lodge, the television was tuned to NHL Network, which was showing a Stanley Cup Playoff game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. On the menu, one item stood out: the "Golden Knights burger."
Boosting hockey in Rockies
WHITEFISH, Mont. -- We woke up before dawn and left Golden Knights owner Bill Foley's ranch about 6 a.m., a crescent moon in the sky over the mountains, the lake and the horses.
Before we move on, a word about hockey in Whitefish: Former NHL player Murray Craven has had a place here for a long time. Not only did he know Foley before becoming senior vice president of the Golden Knights, he knew Foley before Foley even thought about bringing an NHL expansion team to Las Vegas.
Other former NHL players have places in Whitefish too, including Hockey Hall of Fame member Lanny McDonald, Geoff Sanderson and Doug Houda.
Craven has been involved heavily in supporting in minor hockey in Montana. So has McDonald, who has grandsons playing hockey in the area and has coached some of the kids who were at the Golden Knights' hockey clinic at the Stumptown Ice Den on Wednesday.
McDonald came to the event and watched Craven work with kids, along with Vegas forward Alex Tuch and defenseman Jake Bischoff.
"I've known Murray Craven for the longest time, and it's perfect to be able to come up and have the Vegas Golden Knights be a part not only of this community but come up and promote the game," McDonald said. "It's great to see him be a big part of Vegas and this new organization and to come back here, where he's been forever, it's awesome."
[RELATED: Golden Knights begin bus tour across region]
Day Two: On to Montana
Taking picture after picture
WHITEFISH, Mont. -- For four hours we drove, east on I-90, then north on two-lane roads. For four hours, I took pictures.
Never could I take enough. Each time I thought I had the shot, along came a better one.
The scenery from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to Whitefish, Montana, is everything you'd imagine it'd be.
Hills. Pines. Rivers. Mountains. Lakes.
Greens and blues and yellows.
Signs for huckleberries and a Huckleberry Fest and huckleberry milkshakes I've got to try. Small towns and farms and openness. Big sky.
It took us an hour on winding roads to reach Montana, where the hills rose into mountains and were shrouded by smoke for a while.
After we turned north, we hugged the Clark Fork River. This is the kind of country where you can see straight to the bottom of the water and see the rocks, even from a rolling bus.
The green pines gave way to yellow grass, and we passed Hot Springs, where Paul got into trouble gambling in "A River Runs Through It."
We hugged Flathead Lake, drove through Kalispell and reached our destination, where Golden Knights owner Bill Foley lives on a ranch by Whitefish Lake.
When the staffers disembarked, they were greeted by horses. If only we had time to saddle up before the hockey clinic to come.
Up and at 'em
COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- The bus sits in front of the hotel like a billboard. On each side, it shouts a message in all caps about the Vegas Golden Knights inaugural regular-season home game against the Arizona Coyotes.
"PUCK DROPS OCT. 10."
Well, the billboard is leaving.
It's 8:50 a.m. PT, and we're off on 222-mile, four-hour journey to Whitefish, Montana. We'll head east through the mountains and then wind our way north, skirting along the western shore of Flathead Lake and through the town of Kalispell.
The Golden Knights will hold a hockey clinic at the Stumptown Ice Den at 6 p.m. MT. Scheduled to appear are owner Bill Foley, senior vice president Murray Craven, chief marketing officer Brian Killingsworth, forward Alex Tuch and defenseman Jake Bischoff.
Day One: Welcome to Idaho
Just getting started
COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- After about 1,100 miles on the road and 20 hours on the bus -- 13 hours from Las Vegas to Idaho Falls on Monday, seven the rest of the way on Tuesday -- the Golden Knights finally made it.
The bus picked up goaltender Calvin Pickard at a local hotel and pulled into the parking lot at Frontier Ice Arena about 3:30 p.m. PT.
Pickard, who flew in from his home in Winnipeg just for this, stepped off the bus carrying his goalie skates, ready to participate in a public skate from 5:45 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The staffers scurried off, opened the cargo compartments and got to work. Within minutes, a huge Golden Knights jersey was inflated by the front door. Greeting tables were set up in the lobby with Vegas logos. Merchandise was ready to be sold. Giveaways were ready to be given away.
Pickard did an interview with a radio station in Spokane, Washington, about 30 minutes west, and sat down with ESPN.com, as he waited for the fans to arrive and the event to start.
The first flag was planted.
'Great' way to start trip
COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- So I'm walking down Sherman Avenue on Tuesday afternoon, exploring downtown while waiting for the Golden Knights event in a few hours, when I spot a guy wearing a gray "Gretzky Hockey School" sweatshirt.
Ty Gretzky, son of Wayne Gretzky, founded the Gretzky Hockey School in Coeur d'Alene in 2014. It has expanded to Nashville; New York; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; St. Albert, Alberta; and Simi Valley, California.
"Great," I think. "A hockey fan. Someone I can talk to about the Golden Knights."
Video: The Vegas Golden Knights kick off their road trip
The guy came closer, and I realized it wasn't just some guy. It was The Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky.
He wasn't here for the Golden Knights event; he spends time here in the summer. He said a friendly hello and strolled on.
Small world. Beautiful place.