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Getaway pulls Golden Knights even closer

For eight Vegas players, Mexico trip enjoyable respite for 'tight knit group'

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

LAS VEGAS -- The picture speaks 1,000 words -- or perhaps 60 points, the number the Vegas Golden Knights have earned halfway through their inaugural season.

It is on the Instagram account of forward Brendan Leipsic. Hanging out on a boat off the cost of Mexico during their five-day break this week were eight members of the Golden Knights (from left to right): Reilly Smith, James Neal, Alex Tuch, Erik Haula, Leipsic, Nate Schmidt, Colin Miller and Shea Theodore.

What makes it significant is they were all in the same boat in another sense a few months ago. They had come from established teams to join an expansion team in a new city. For the most part, they hadn't played together. They didn't know each other.

Now they're second in the NHL standings entering their game against the Edmonton Oilers at T-Mobile Arena on Saturday (10 p.m. ET; CBC, SN, ATTSN-RM, NHL.TV) and tight enough that they want to spend their free time together. The bonding is both a cause and effect of winning.

"It's awesome how we came together as a group here," Haula said. "We're close, close guys, and we get along well, and it shows."

Usually when players report to training camp, there is a hierarchy. There are veterans and new guys. Often the veterans are trying to keep spots, the new guys trying to take them.

When the Golden Knights reported to training camp, there was little to no hierarchy. There were players with varying levels of experience, but everyone was a new guy in Vegas.

"It's not your typical, 'Come in to training camp, say hi to the guys that you've been around for the last few years, get back to work,' " Neal said. "You're honestly saying hi to them for the first time and trying to come together to become a team. We've come a long way from that day."

Video: NYR@VGK: Neal capitalizes on turnover to beat Pavelec

Owner Bill Foley also wanted no egos in his organization, and general manager George McPhee built his staff and roster with that in mind.

"I've heard it over the past 10 years, 'Leave your ego at the door,' " Tuch said. "But I've never seen it like this, honestly. No one's treating someone like a lesser human because they're a lesser player."

The players came together because of the mass shooting on the Strip on Oct. 1, some locked down in a restaurant nearby, some watching the news on television at home, all helping in the community in the days afterward.

They continued to come together, becoming the first NHL expansion team to start 3-0-0, and their success snowballed.

As their break approached, players started talking about their plans. Some NHL players spend their break in Las Vegas. Where do players who live and work in Las Vegas go?

Tuch said he and Leipsic were talking about going to Arizona or California. Then Miller wanted to come. Then Schmidt wanted to come. Well, some teammates were going to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, with their significant others. What if they went to Cabo too?

"I think guys wanted to spend more time together," Schmidt said. "Genuinely, guys really want to be around each other in the room. I think that's what makes such a successful group in any sport or any competition, any company."

The younger guys flew and stayed together; the older guys stayed separately with their significant others. They didn't spend every moment together. But they got together in small groups at times and in one group for the boat trip, going out from 3-7 p.m. one day to swim, relax and watch the sunset.

"The girls get along," Haula said. "The guys get along. It's a good environment to be around. It's not like, 'What am I going to do, or who am I going to talk to?' We're all together, and we all like to spend time with each other."

Video: VGK@LAK: Leipsic buries the rebound off Tuch's shot

Look at that picture again: There is a mix of players from Neal, 30, who has scored as many as 40 goals in a season and has played 673 NHL games, to Tuch, 21, who started this season with Chicago of the American Hockey League and has played 43 NHL games.

"It honestly does show kind of like the bonding we've had right away, the chemistry not only on the ice but off the ice," Tuch said. "It's been one of the most fun years of hockey I can ever remember, honestly. I love playing in the NHL, but with this group of guys, they make it a lot easier.

"I don't feel like crap being a rookie, I guess you could say. It's not like you're picking up dirty towels and stuff like that. You have some duties and stuff, and you have to be the last one off the bus and stuff like that. But they're not really hard on me. They treat me with a lot of respect."

That helps make it a team.

"We really didn't have much of a choice," Leipsic said. "We had to come together quickly and jell with each other. But we're a tight-knit group. We've got a good dressing room, a lot of leaders. Everybody's pretty good friends. I think we've got a good thing going."

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