It had been 17 years since a new team was added to the NHL- the longest interval of time without an expansion team since 1967.
The 21st century edition of the NHL has been marred by a lockout in 2004-05, and a shortened season in 2012-13. The crowds relentless 'boos' during the Stanley Cup presentation at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville this past June didn't just reflect disappointment to the opposing Pittsburgh Penguins defeating the hometown Predators. These remarks were targeted more specifically at the man bringing the coveted trophy onto the ice.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is perhaps the least popular person to oversee any of the North American professional sports leagues.
In spite of his reputation, it was Bettman who pushed for the next hockey team to go to the desert: Las Vagas. Other sports leagues had considered planting a team here, but backed out due to fear of being in the gambling mecca. Only in March did the NFL finally approve moving the Oakland Raiders to Vegas, but this transition isn't expected to carry out out until 2020.
On June 21st the NHL had an expansion draft; teams could only protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie or eight skaters (forward/defensemen) and a goalie. These small limits enabled the Las Vegas Golden Knights to draft a stronger crop of players than many previous expansion teams. Proven NHL stars like Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal highlight the newly formed roster.
As the Golden Knights prepared to make their inception into the NHL, in the week leading up a different history unfolded.
Gun shots fired. Chaos erupted. Country singer Jason Aldean was in the middle of a routine closing song at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas when spectators abandoned in panic. A gunman fired hundreds of rounds from his hotel suite on the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay hotel.
The demise left 58 people dead and 546 injured: the largest mass shooting in US history.
The people of Las Vegas were devastated. Hidden in the aftermath of this tragedy was the start of the Golden Knights. Many of the players new to the city were suddenly wearing letters that represented far more to them than just a hockey team.
The Golden Knights played their first-ever game against the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Centre on Friday, October 6th. Both teams stood together on the same blue line rather than opposite ones for the national anthem and moment of silence.
The following Tuesday Vegas hosted the Arizona Coyotes at the T-Mobile Arena for their first home game of the season. The opening ceremony was filled with emotion and extra sentiment beyond just the beginning of a new franchise. Players from both teams wore #VegasStrong stickers on their helmets.
Division had rifled through Las Vegas in the week prior, but these displays demonstrated just the beacon of unity that sports can be. The Golden Knights helped residents to find solace.
It's rare for a sports story to ever be the lead in a newscast, the results and upcoming events are shuffled to the bottom because ultimately they're a form of entertainment. As professional athletes these entertainers are on big stage, their actions are monitored closely. Every loss is amplified, every win is amplified. Yet, compared to government decisions, business crashes, and natural disasters, there's less at stake.
Hockey is inviting and that's why fans so freely jump on the bandwagon. There's extra incentive when you're wining, which the Golden Knights have been doing lots of. They're surprising teams around the league with a 9-4-1 record.
Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher called them "probably the hardest working team in the league" (NHL.com).
If the playoffs started tomorrow, the Golden Knights would be competing for the Stanley Cup.
The Golden Knights' arrival was timely. In spite of a horrendous tragedy, the team has given the people of Las Vegas a renewed sense of mission with an outlet that is inclusive.