LAS VEGAS — When Deryk Engelland first came to this city in 2003, he earned $500 a week playing for the ECHL’s Wranglers, a minor league team. He met his wife, Melissa, here, had his two sons here and built a house with a pool and a swing set here. Even after he broke into the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins and went on to play for Calgary Flames, Engelland continued to live in Las Vegas during the offseason. Then, in June, the Vegas Golden Knights selected the defenseman in the expansion draft.
On Oct. 1, Engelland’s adopted city endured the worst mass shooting in modern American history. As he struggled to come to grips with the tragedy, Engelland met with victims’ families. He delivered groceries to the local firehouse. He became part of the conscience for a community grappling with the unconscionable.
And then, before the newest NHL franchise played its first home game on Tuesday, Engelland — who shared a bond with the city’s residents more intimate than any other player on the ice — took the microphone and addressed the 17,500 fans assembled in T-Mobile Arena.
The largest group he had addressed before this? Twenty guys in the locker room. He and Melissa had written the speech together. Over the past few days Engelland had condensed it and rehearsed it. When he took the mic, Engelland recited it with grace and composure. “We will do everything we can to help you and our city heal,” he said.
A wildly entertaining hockey game wasn’t a bad place to start.
Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland explains how much it means to the team that they won the home opener for the city of Las Vegas and what it meant to have the first responders on the ice before the game.
The Golden Knights defeated the Coyotes 5-2 behind a dizzying, four-goal first period. Now 3-0, Vegas is off to the best start ever for an NHL expansion franchise. Engelland, fittingly, netted the second goal: a blistering one-timer through a double-screen. It was just his 23rd goal in 472 career games. “I don’t plan on getting too many,” Engelland said. “But to get one tonight was special for me.”
After the game, he stood by in front of a scrum of reporters, almost in a daze. He spoke calmly, but his eyes told the story of a man still trying to process what had just transpired.
The night swung on emotion. During a 15-minute pregame ceremony, the team introduced first responders — doctors, EMTs, firefighters, nurses and police officers — by name. A 58-second moment of silence honored the 58 people killed in the shooting. The night also featured some signature Vegas pizzazz: a Cirque Du Soleil performance before the second period, a glow-in-the-dark drumline perched in the concourse, an outdoor festival where fans could (and did) get temporary tattoos reading “#VegasStrong.”
Professional franchises have dangled Vegas as a potential destination for decades. In a city filled with distractions, how could a hockey team survive? Perhaps it’s time to reframe that question. Maybe the hockey team is the distraction. How can a transient community attach itself to a team? That bond will be tested early.
NHL expansion teams historically have had clumsy debuts. Consider the Washington Capitals, who entered the league in 1975 and racked up 38 consecutive road losses. As the legend goes, the team was so ecstatic after breaking the streak that players hoisted a trash can in the locker room in celebration.
The Florida Panthers (née: 1993) boast the best first-season record for an expansion team in any of the four major professional sports leagues. And yet, even behind strong, experienced goaltending from 1986 Vezina winner John Vanbiesbrouck (like the Knights have in three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury) the Panthers missed the playoffs — by a point.
On a night honoring the victims of the Las Vegas shooting, James Neal and the Golden Knights defeat the Coyotes 5-2 in the franchise’s season opener.
Not every win will come easy as this one. This Vegas team is still building for the future. The Golden Knights have a logjam of defensemen. General manager George McPhee is hesitant to make moves and subject those players to waivers, thus stockpiling young assets and prospects to win in the future. Owner Bill Foley has stated his goal is to make the playoffs … in three years.
“We’re 3-0,” coach Gerard Gallant said Tuesday night. “And we’re a work in progress.”
Still, the gravity of Tuesday’s game was not lost on anyone. Gallant told his players in the dressing room that it would be the most important game they’ll ever play. And while the Golden Knights are fun to watch when they pour in four goals in a 11-minute burst and so easy to root for when they have a guy like Engelland speaking on their behalf, the most remarkable thing was how even-keeled they seemed amid the highs and the lows. In the locker room, there was no champagne bubbling in the air — but no trash cans being hoisted, either.