A few blocks from T-Mobile Arena, where the Vegas Golden Knights played the first home game of their first NHL season, a sign was affixed to a fence bordering Las Vegas Village, where 58 concertgoers were killed and about 500 were injured by a barrage of bullets fired by Stephen Paddock on Oct. 1. Surrounded by bouquets of flowers and single red roses, the sign proclaimed, “Humanity Always Wins. Inspire LVE.” Among the scrawled words of thanks and encouragement, one neatly printed message stood out: “Andrea Castilla always in our heart,” in honor of the Huntington Beach resident and aspiring makeup artist who was killed at the Route 91 Harvest Festival.
Castilla’s name was among those projected onto the ice Tuesday night during a stirring pregame ceremony staged by the Golden Knights. That they defeated the Arizona Coyotes 5-2 in front of an overflow crowd of 18,191 and became the first NHL expansion team to win its first three games was secondary to their success in turning the occasion into a cathartic shared moment that strengthened the bonds already forged through tears and tragedy.
“It was a terrible event and we’re here to help the healing. If we can help in any way that’s what we’re going to do,” said defenseman Brayden McNabb, who was claimed by the Golden Knights from the Kings in the expansion draft. “We want to play well for our city. If we can take their minds off what happened, that’s amazing.”
Discarding initial plans for a celebration of the NHL’s arrival here, the Golden Knights produced a respectful and touching tribute that properly acknowledged the real heroes aren’t athletes but the nurses, doctors, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, firefighters and police officers who were on duty that awful night.
Instead of standard introductions, each Golden Knight stepped to the ice paired with a first responder, most of whom wore their scrubs or duty uniform. All were loudly applauded. A video featuring messages from the captains of the other 30 NHL teams was played on the center-ice scoreboard, as were a video of fans and musicians offering good wishes, a montage of the crosses erected at a makeshift memorial, and images of the supportive billboards that have popped up around the city. Most affecting was the 58-second moment of silence and the appearance of each name on the ice.
Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland, who has lived in Las Vegas for more than a decade, addressed the crowd before the game. After thanking the first responders, he added “to the families and friends of the victims, know that we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal. We are Vegas strong.”
That’s the slogan adopted by the team and the city, and Tuesday it replaced the advertisements that usually clutter up the boards. The theme was echoed on towels placed at each seat and on decals on the helmets of both teams. The Golden Knights are selling T-shirts with that slogan and donating the net proceeds to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Foundation; team owner Bill Foley, the NHL and the Golden Knights’ top farm team, the Chicago Wolves, have made sizable donations to relief efforts. Team President Kerry Bubolz said other NHL clubs have made donations toward those efforts or have pledged to do so.
Many players were having dinner at a Strip hotel when news of the shootings surfaced, and they were on lockdown for several hours. The next day, when general manager George McPhee asked for volunteers to go into the community, no player refused. They brought food to the fire station, greeted people who waited hours in line to donate blood and offered whatever comfort they could to victims’ families. Sometimes, the pain was too raw for those families to speak to them. But other times, the players made an immediate and lasting impact.
“I’ve got texts from some people from the fire department saying the spirits lifted at the department have just been huge, just with the first two wins,” Engelland said. “To hear that, and the guys hearing that from me, they were ecstatic.”
The players got back as much as they gave.
“We knew the team would be popular here. We knew the team was getting a great reception but the horror of the last week has created a series of circumstances that probably have made the team more important to the community,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “The horrible circumstances accelerated the fact that the Vegas Golden Knights are now an integral part of Las Vegas.”
“Definitely the stories from the people that lost loved ones,” he said of what he found most memorable. “They were coming here for a show and having a good time, a good night, and they lose somebody close to them. It’s unthinkable.”
Future Golden Knights home games won’t be like this. The ads will return and the team won’t be fueled by the same emotional drive it had Tuesday. Life here won’t be the same but the Golden Knights hope to make it better, if only for a few hours at a time.
“Hopefully,” Bubolz said, “we’ll do our very, very small part in terms of being part of the healing that’s taking place, that needs to take place here.”