Gerard Gallant speaks fast, and sometimes his thoughts stumble upon themselves with a mumbling Canadian humility. But the smile on the face of the first coach in Vegas Golden Knights history was irrepressible.
“Everything has gone pretty perfect for us so far,” Gallant said before his team played host to the Rangers for the first time in their inaugural season here on Sunday night. “Hopefully it’ll continue.”
What Gallant and the Golden Knights have done so far exceeds any expectations in the history of expansion teams, going into the game first in the Western Conference. But more than just the surprise on the ice, they have engaged this strange city in the desert, one predicated on the perception of glitz and glamour, and for decades thought of as off-limits for something as grass roots as sports fandom.
And so it is on the southern edge of The Strip, down past the awful facsimile of the Eiffel Tower, past the awful miniature Chrysler Building, past the highest Ferris wheel in the world that looks like a bastardized London Eye — there is the home of this team, T-Mobile Arena. Surrounded by noise and neon, it can be lost.
But it hasn’t been. Not with this team winning. Not with this now being a big-time show in a town full of them.
“People are coming to our games, they love coming to our games,” Gallant said. “Our practices are almost full every day at the practice facility. It’s been fun and they’re really taking to our group.”
The NHL took a chance putting this team here, and the league tried to help its immediate success by setting up the expansion draft in such a way that owner Bill Foley was not wasting his $500 million expansion fee. Veteran general manager George McPhee was given the chance to build a competitive team, quite a bit different from years past.
“I can tell you from my experience with an expansion team back in 1992-93, that the rules were a little different,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said about his first year with the expansion Senators, who went 10-70-4. “The quality of their players is different. Give that organization full credit and full marks — got their guys playing well.”
One of McPhee’s first picks in the expansion draft was an emotional one — defenseman Deryk Engelland, who has called this city his home for the past 14 years, starting when he played for the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL, who moved out in 2015.
It turned into even more of a pull on the heartstrings after the mass shooting Oct. 1, just before the season started. For the Golden Knights’ first home game Oct. 10, they projected the names of all the victims and first-responders on the ice, and Engelland gave a short speech.
It was the beginning of the city embracing this team, and it has rewarded them with wins by the bushel. The fact it has taken such a hold didn’t surprise the man that knew the city best.
“There’s a lot of people from different hockey states and different countries, and I think that helps grow it even more,” Engelland said while wearing a “Vegas Strong” T-shirt. “A lot of people get tickets to their first game, come and they’re hooked. It’s an easy game to fall in love with, I guess.”
It’s easier when the team is winning, and there is no sign the Golden Knights are slowing down anytime soon. And this city seems just fine with that.
“I think being here in Vegas, the pregame show, and the show during the game, I think that helps out a lot,” Engelland said. “It brings people in, it’s exciting, and I think the atmosphere is one of the best in the league already. It’s easy to just get hooked with the atmosphere of the rink.”
Gallant actually had quite the comparison, saying it reminded him of his playing days inside the old Chicago Stadium, the home of the Blackhawks from 1929-94, the Madhouse on Madison.
“That’s the closest thing I’ve seen to this,” Gallant said, again smiling. “You’ll see. This is real loud, and it’s been great.”