Four years ago today, October 1, a city found itself dealing with an unspeakable horror and its first major professional sports team found itself in the most unusual position of playing an integral role in helping its city heal.
October 1, 2017 started out as a normal day in Las Vegas. It ended in carnage and a broken city. The scars from that night are still there four years later.
“You never forget,” said Bill Foley, the owner of the Vegas Golden Knights. “You can’t.”
When the Golden Knights play the Los Angeles Kings Friday, the reminders will be there.
Down the street from T-Mobile Arena, where the expansion Golden Knights were putting the bow on their preseason schedule, the Route 91 Harvest Festival was wrapping up across the street from the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino. Thousands of country music fans were enjoying the evening and as the sun set on Sunday and the temperatures started to cool, it was the perfect end to a wonderful weekend.
Then, suddenly, the unmistakable sound of gunfire rained down on the concert-goers. A deranged lone gunman had set up a perch in a room on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay and unleashed a wave of terror in a matter of minutes that changed the lives of not only the thousands of concert attendees, but an entire community.
Dozens were dead. Hundreds were wounded. Chaos ruled.
Some of the Golden Knights players and coaches had gone home after losing to the San Jose Sharks, 5-3 and ending their preseason slate 3-4. Other players elected to go out for dinner at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, a block north of the arena and away from the concert. A couple of players thought about catching the festival’s closing night headliner, Jason Aldean, but decided to not go.
As word spread on what was taking place at the concert, hotels, restaurants and bars along the Las Vegas Strip went into lockdown. The Knights players who were at the Cosmo were told to stay put. At T-Mobile Arena, a couple of reporters who were still at the rink were told they couldn’t leave.
“It was wild,” Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb said. “We had family members there so we were very concerned about them.”
Forward Jonathan Marchessault had gone home to his wife and kids. When he heard the news after the team called to make sure he was accounted for, he said, “It was definitely a scary moment and it was super sad as we started to learn the details of what happened.”
Peter DeBoer, who was coaching San Jose that evening and is now coaching the Golden Knights, remembered leaving Las Vegas just before the shooting started.
“It was surreal,” he said. “We had just played and were wheels up and in the air heading back to San Jose. It was shocking to know that you had just been there. I couldn’t imagine staying there during something like that.”
The healing begins
Kelly McCrimmon was the team’s assistant general manager and he and the other hockey operations members were making sure the players, coaches and staff were accounted for. Once that was established, the senior staff met early Monday morning. How would the team respond? What could the players do? The team had spent months planning an elaborate opening night ceremony for its inaugural home opener on Oct. 10. Now, they had to pivot 180 degrees and change everything. You couldn’t celebrate when 58 people were dead and hundreds of others were injured and trying to recover in hospitals all over the city.
“We’d been together for three weeks as an organization with our players,” McCrimmon said. “What happened really impacted our players. Once we realized exactly what had happened, and the scope of things, there was a genuine interest our players had to want to help the city heal and deal with the tragedy.”
But how do you help? What do you say to complete strangers to comfort them in their hour of need? How do you properly thank the first responders who risked their own lives to prevent the death toll from climbing?
“I remember coming in early Monday morning and everyone was already in the office and it was eerily quiet,” said Kerry Bubloz, who is the team’s president. “People were still in shock.
“We knew we had to do something. So we talked among ourselves. What should we do with our players? How do we help without getting in the way?”
The plan was to keep things simple. Visit the United Blood Services office on Tuesday after practice and be visible among the hundreds of people who were waiting hours in the late summer heat to donate blood. Swing by Metropolitan Police Headquarters, thank the brave men and women who helped limit the casualties with their quick thinking. Go where families were assembled, waiting to hear on word of loved ones who were not accounted for.
“It was remarkable,” said Foley. “I didn’t have to say anything. Kerry and our staff sprung into action and I trusted them to do the right thing for our organization.”
As the players circulated around town, the images of their goodwill showing up on the evening news and in the morning newspaper, Bubolz and his staff faced another dilemma. They had been planning this celebration of the NHL in Las Vegas for months. They were going to introduce their mascot. They had an elaborate pregame show planned. In the wake of the shooting, they knew there was no way they could go on with that plan.
“We had to rethink what was going to be a celebration and come up with something that was going to be proper,” Bubolz said. “The ideas started to flow. People started to come up with a plan.”
Bubolz kept the NHL, including commissioner Gary Bettman, in the loop to let them know what was going on. Bettman was flying in from New York to attend the historic home opener and he was made aware of the plan for what would be a somber and respectful pregame.
“Everything was happening organically and it was happening so fast,” Bubolz said. “We knew we wanted to honor the victims and the first responders as well. We knew we wanted to have a player say something.”
That player would be Deryk Engelland, the veteran defenseman who was the only player on the Golden Knights roster to have lived in Las Vegas. Engelland played in the ECHL with the Las Vegas Wranglers and he would meet his wife Melissa while playing for the Wranglers. Their two sons were “Vegas Born” and he would be the player to speak on behalf of the team.
“Deryk is a kinda quiet guy,” Foley said of Engelland, who retired last year and is currently a special assistant to Foley and works as between-periods analyst on the Golden Knights’ locally produced telecasts. “But he knew the city and he didn’t hesitate when we asked if he would address the crowd at the home opener.”
Meanwhile, the team had its first-ever games to play. They opened on the road in Dallas on Friday (Oct. 6). That night, where the Stars were dealing with their own tragedy as team broadcaster Dave Strader had died on Oct. 1 after battling cancer, they joined the Knights on the blue line and stood together in moments of silence for the Las Vegas shooting victims and Strader.
The next night in Glendale, Ariz., the Coyotes joined the Knights at center ice for another moment of silence to remember the victims of the shooting.
“I think what happened really impacted our players,” McCrimmon said. “Hockey players are good people. They genuinely wanted to help.”
Center William Karlsson said he could tell how much the city appreciated the gestures of goodwill by the Golden Knights players.
“It was a difficult time,” he said. “But the biggest part was how the team and the city came together. It was a beautiful thing.”
‘We are Vegas Strong’
The night of Oct. 10 would be a roller coaster ride of emotions as the Knights hosted the Coyotes. The team had scrapped the showy Vegas-style pregame. The dasher boards had the ads removed and replaced with the message “Vegas Strong.” The names of the 58 shooting victims were etched into the ice and were flashed on it. Later that season, a banner with 58 stars representing the victims, would be hoisted to the rafters and the number 58 would be retired by the team. Later, the banner would be updated to include two additional shooting victims who died from their wounds.
The lights were dimmed, each Golden Knights player and coach who was introduced was accompanied by a first responder, be it a police officer, a doctor, a paramedic, a firefighter, a nurse and they stood with the players on the blue line. The Coyotes were classy as well, standing behind the Knights players and first responders in a literal and figurative show of support.
There were no speeches other than Engelland’s, which had followed a moment of silence. He spoke for 58 seconds, at the end, declaring “We are Vegas Strong!”
“It was beautiful,” Foley said of Engelland’s speech, which Bubolz said was written by Engelland himself. “Having Deryk speak for our team was perfect. It was a great speech.”
McCrimmon said: “I was on the ice when Deryk made hi speech. It was an incredibly difficult position to be put in, but Deryk handled it well.”
Engelland would fittingly score the second goal in what would ultimately be a 5-2 victory. But the bigger win was the connection between a new hockey team and its city.
“I always believed we would come here and have success,” Buboltz said. “We would’ve succeeded because I believe in our organization and our commitment. With that said, it created a different level of a connection, especially for those people who were Vegas Born and grew up here.”
Gage Quinney falls into that category. Quinney, whose father Ken played for the Las Vegas Thunder of the old International Hockey League, has been trying to make it full time in the NHL as the first Nevada-born player. He has worn a Golden Knights sweater while spending the majority of his time in the AHL with the Henderson Silver Knights.
“I had a couple of friends there (at the concert),” Quinney said. “The way the Golden Knights helped bring the city together was important.”
McCrimmon, currently the team’s GM, said: “I was very proud of our players. There’s no doubt it galvanized our organization.”
McNabb said:” It was cool to see the excitement and passion on opening night. You could feel the bond between the team and the fans.”
Marchessault said: “I think the thing that I got was the fans never had anything to gather around. I think after what happened, I think that’s how they got to cherish us and we cherished them.”
Now, four years to the day of the tragedy, which remains the worst mass shooting on American soil, the Golden Knights will once again play hockey in T-Mobile Arena, just down the street from the site of the carnage. Foley said there will be a small ceremony to remember the victims and pay tribute to the first responders. Six hundred tickets have been distributed to the first responders and while Engelland won’t have to give another speech, don’t be surprised if it is replayed on the Knightron video scoreboard prior to puck drop vs. the Kings.
“Being the first major professional sports team in Las Vegas, I believe we will always have a special place in the hearts of the people of the city,” Foley said. “We will never forget the victims or the heroism of the first responders from October 1.”