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Las Vegas looks to its new NHL team, the Golden Knights, as an anchor after tragic shooting

Las Vegas looks to its new NHL team, the Golden Knights, as an anchor after tragic shooting
Fans arrive for the Golden Knights' inaugural regular season home opener against the Arizona Coyotes at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Oct. 10, 2017. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

For years, the city wanted a professional, bona fide sports team from one of the four major leagues. It would signal Las Vegas was more than transitory, more than a tourist trap.

Las Vegas wanted the Golden Knights. On Tuesday, it needed them.

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Rob Doyle stood in line with his mother outside the T-Mobile Arena a couple of hours before the city’s first National Hockey League game was to start. Both wore Golden Knights jerseys. Both had planned this day for months. Both were shaken by the mass shooting that killed 58 and wounded nearly 500 in their city on Oct 1.

"It was my birthday," Doyle said.

He'd gone out to dinner and, because he had to work the next morning, went to bed. He woke up to the horror of what had happened at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival. When he drove into work at RC Willey, a home furnishings store, co-workers were trying to track down friends and family who were at the concert. They had been missing for hours.

Doyle had called his mother, Laura Shepherd, in Indiana at 6:30 a.m. to tell her he was OK. She said she had been waiting for him to call, worried.

"I wanted to hear his voice first," she said. "When he called, I cried."

Doyle grew up in Las Vegas. He said they had bought tickets during the summer for the home opener against the Arizona Coyotes, and it was going to be a defining moment. A team to finally call his own in the place he grew up. Having the team, he said, made Las Vegas feel real.

But so did the shooting.

"When it's your hometown, it feels different," he said. "Every day I drive to work, I see Mandalay Bay and that broken window. I can't forget it."

As America reels from tragedy after tragedy — mass shootings, hurricanes, the Sept. 11 attacks — sports teams have found themselves thrust into the role of healing agents. They offer a chance for people to rally together amid the grief and, for a few hours, cheer as one voice for one cause.

The New York Giants, Jets, Mets and Yankees did that for their city after Sept. 11, 2001. No event was more important to New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina than the first Saints’ game at the renovated Superdome. The Colorado Rockies visited victims of a mass shooting at a movie theater shooting in 2012 and played their season while honoring the victims. Boston turned to the Red Sox after the bombing at the Boston Marathon in 2013.

“I can’t wait to put on my jersey today,” Red Sox infielder Will Middlebrooks wrote on Twitter after the bombing. “I get to play for the strongest city out there.”

The Red Sox won the World Series that year and seemed to buoy the town.

Now the Golden Knights — in their first season — are in that role. A brand new franchise is being asked to help carry a town. They aren't even supposed to be good — an expansion team widely projected to miss the playoffs.

The team had a pregame show all planned out, but scrapped it after the shooting. It took off all the ads along the boards around the rink and just left the words "Vegas Strong" on them. First responders were a part of the pregame. Fans outside the arena signed big letters that spelled out "Strong." The team had been out in the city all week meeting the injured and first responders.

Then they won their first two games on the road in dramatic fashion on Friday and Saturday.

Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sports operations at the Westgate Las Vegas, said there were a lot of small, emotional bets being placed on the Golden Knights — $50 or maybe $100. He said there is a sense that people want to have a copy of that ticket to show they believed in the team.

Even he wants to believe in them.

A resident of Las Vegas for more than 30 years, he said he went in with friends for season tickets — but lost the draw to go to the home opener. But after the shooting — and a surprising 2-0 start — he and his wife went on the secondary ticket market to attend the game.

"It was already going to be a big night," Kornegay said. "Now it's a special night. It's one we won't forget."

The emotions of the game and the bonding and common humanity during a game is felt at all levels. The fans bond, but the players are affected as well.

Former New York Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer said he still remembers playing against the Chiefs at Kansas City after 9/11. He remembered players crying during the national anthem.

"It was something bigger than our team," Toomer said. "It was something that was really big for the city."

Deryk Engelland, a Golden Knights defenseman who lived in Las Vegas when he played in the minors, said playing would be emotional.

"We just want to come out and get that win for the city," he said.

Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak said the team was doing some heavy lifting for a city filled with heavy hearts.

He said seeing people wearing Golden Knights hats and shirts throughout the city has given people a common rallying point in a city known for its flashing lights and easy distractions.

"It's amazing how unifying it is," Sisolak said.

At 7:47 p.m., the puck was dropped. Two and a half minutes later, the Golden Knights scored. Outside the arena at a nearby bar, the crowd rose and cheered. Inside they stood and cheered. Together.

Times staff writers Helene Elliott in Las Vegas and Sam Farmer in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Twitter: @davemontero

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