LAS VEGAS -- #VegasStrong
It was impossible to walk or drive around Las Vegas this week and not have that hashtag engrained in your mind. It was everywhere. On billboards, hotel exteriors and hand-written signs taped to fences. It has become a common hashtag for a community to rally around following adversity, but Las Vegas isn't your typical community, as a tourist oasis for many.
Most people who pass through for the weekend view it as a lovable punchline, a place where you quote lines from "The Hangover" and "Swingers" and promise yourself you'll never return -- before you invariably do a few months later.
In the aftermath of the mass shooting on Oct. 1, however, the world is discovering the part of Las Vegas that is a real city, with real locals who call this place home. They are the first responders, the police officers, the firefighters, the doctors, the nurses, and the men and women who lined up for hours to donate blood because they wanted to help out in any way they could. They don't live on The Strip. They live in North Las Vegas, Summerlin, Boulder City, Henderson and all over Clark County. The impact a sports team can have on a community can, at times, be exaggerated, especially when public funding is involved, but Tuesday night was an example of what a team can do for a city looking for a reason to smile and have fun again, even if just for one night.
This wasn't the home debut Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley envisioned when he was awarded the first major professional sports team in the city's history last year. All of his grand-opening plans were postponed until the team's next home game on Friday. Tuesday wasn't about them; it was about remembering the victims, honoring the first responders and recognizing the city they call home. The team covered all the advertising on the boards around the ice before the game and replaced it with one simple message -- #VegasStrong.
"We want to show that we're part of the Vegas community," Foley said. "We want to recognize first responders and show them that we appreciate everything that they've done. They're the ones who went out there and risked their lives and saved lives. We're trying hard to represent them."
Before Tuesday's game, police officers, firefighters, doctors and nurses who were called into action after the shooting were introduced alongside Golden Knights players. When the Arizona Coyotes took the ice, they didn't stand across from their opponent as usual; they stood behind them. A 58-second moment of silence was held to recognize the 58 lives lost during the tragedy; a capacity crowd at T-Mobile Arena sung the national anthem along with Keith Dotson, a member of the team that plans the Route 91 Harvest music festival; and Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland, who has lived in Las Vegas for 14 years, addressed the 18,191 in attendance.
"I'm proud to call Las Vegas home," he said. "I met my wife here. My kids were born here. I know how special this city is."
Nothing ever feels permanent in Las Vegas. The first major sporting events that took place in Las Vegas after the shooting were a UFC pay-per-view on Saturday and an NBA preseason game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings on Sunday. After those events were over, the fighters and the players, much like the tourists that pack the city's 120,000 hotel rooms, boarded flights back home and went back to their normal lives.
There was something different about Tuesday night. This was a local crowd cheering for its first local professional sports team. The Golden Knights became a part of the fabric of Las Vegas on Tuesday. They weren't heading to their hotel afterward and to the airport in the morning. They were heading home to their families and back to their new practice facility in Summerlin, about 20 miles northwest of The Strip, in the morning. The first responders they honored before the game and the fans they saluted after the game are their neighbors.
"This city is so much more than The Strip," said Golden Knights winger James Neal, who is just the second player to score five goals in an expansion team's first three games. "We all live by the practice facility in Summerlin, and a lot of people live here. It's not just a city where you come and party and leave. We're making this our home and making this a hockey town -- and I think we're off to a great start."
While the game itself felt secondary to the ceremony beforehand, the Golden Knights' scoring four goals within the first 11 minutes before winning 5-2 gave the fans something to celebrate. Each goal provided a reason to stand up and cheer and high-five a stranger. Who knows how the Golden Knights' inaugural season will play out, but during a time when this city needs something to feel good about, they have become the first expansion team in NHL history to win its first three games.
"I think the team is feeding off the city," Foley said. "And I think the city is feeding off the team and the players, and coming together as a community."