New NHL hockey team's meteoric rise helping Las Vegas to heal

LAS VEGAS, Nevada — Dencil Gold, a father of three from Las Vegas, has never been into sports, let alone the game of hockey.

But this year, all that changed.

“It’s like the perfect storm in a perfect community,” Gold said, “and everybody loves it.”

He’s describing the hockey fever surrounding the Las Vegas Golden Knights.

From the oversized Knights jersey draped over the Statue of Liberty replica outside the ‘New York, New York’ hotel and casino, to the well wishes on the marquees, to the giant-sized chocolate sculpture of star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, hockey is the talk of the town.

The Las Vegas Golden Knights are an NHL expansion team; it’s in its inaugural year, and few expected them to do well. Vegas Sports Book locations had their odds at clinching the Stanley Cup at 500-to-1.

That was months ago. Now, they’re just one round away from the finals.

“This is really special,” Gold said as he looks out over a packed house on a recent Thursday morning to watch the team practice.

But it’s not even about their enormous and almost unrivaled success as a first year team.

The Knights' very first home game ever took place just nine days after, and just down the street, from one of the most horrific mass shootings the country has ever seen. The city was in mourning. What this team represents is hope in the face of evil.

“We were hurting as a community, and [these team members] were hurting as people,” Gold said. “All of a sudden none of that mattered. We were all in this together.”

He can point to the exact moment he became a fan of the Golden Knights. It was during the opening ceremony at that first game, when emotions were still raw. The Knights put together a tribute to the 58 people who lost their lives, and the players, often considered heroes in their own right, escorted the “everyday heroes” of that fateful night, doctors, nurses, and first responders, out onto the ice.

“It was a very moving and touching moment,” Gold said. “It was just like ‘Oh my God, this is really special.’”

Golden Knights’ defenseman Deryk Engelland then skated to the center of the rink and took the microphone.

“To the families and friends of the victims,” Engelland said, “know that we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal.”

The crowd erupted into cheers before his closing line.

“We are Vegas strong,” said Engelland.

“The city was just trying to find a way to come together,” said mom of two Melanie Samaniego. “I think it brought something positive into the city in a time of mourning when people were really feeling low and sad and kind of lost.”

Samaniego was also watching the Knights practice on this weekday morning, and admitted that, as Gold has done, she too has taken her kids out of school to be at these practices.

“This doesn’t happen every day,” she said,  smiling. “I’ve never seen this kind of reaction to any team brought into this city.”

Her daughter has even started playing hockey, mimicking the moves of the standout goalie.

In the locker room after practice, Fleury, asked whether he thinks their success is helping people heal after an unthinkable tragedy, he demurred but said that if their games can help take people’s minds off something horrible even for “a few nights a week” and cheer for their home team, then “we did a little bit of good for the community.”

Samaniego, beaming from ear to ear, summed it up with one sentence.

“I don’t think anything more positive could have come out of this.”

Chris Welch is a national correspondent for The E.W. Scripps Company. Follow him @ScrippsWelch on Twitter.

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