How a knockabout hockey player from Canada found love, life, and a forever home in Las Vegas — just when the Golden Knights and the city needed him
Nearly 500 National Hockey League games, regular season and playoffs included. Hundreds of minor-league hockey games. Thousands of amateur hockey games. Years of struggle, of crisscrossing two countries, of clinging to the dream that one day, someday, the big break would come, and then when it finally does, taking full advantage of it, and being forever grateful for it.
All of this — every last bit of it — brought Deryk Engelland to this moment in time: his first NHL game in his adopted hometown, wearing the sweater of that adopted hometown’s very first major professional sports team. To call it a dream come true would be disingenuous, because nobody is foolish enough to really dream this sort of thing.
Yet there he was, the Canadian from rural Edmonton — who some 17 years earlier met an American woman from rural Wisconsin at an Irish pub in Las Vegas after one of those minor-league hockey games — now standing center ice at T-Mobile Arena as a starting defenseman for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
Goose bumps, sweaty palms, nerves — check, check, and check. But for all the wrong reasons. Because this moment in time, long expected to be drenched in jubilant celebration, was instead awash in sorrow.
It was October 10, 2017, just nine days after a madman gunned down 58 people and wounded 869 at a country music festival on the Strip. And here stood Engelland, surrounded by dozens of first responders, with a hockey stick in his left hand and a microphone in his right.
A man who says, “I don’t really speak well in front of people” was aglow in the only light shining in an otherwise dark arena — an arena that greeted Engelland with a warm round of applause before quickly falling silent.
All eyes and ears were on No. 5, especially those of that woman from rural Wisconsin. “I was so nervous for him,” says Melissa Engelland, who helped her husband craft a speech that was all of 74 words, beginning with these:
Like all of you, I’m proud to call Las Vegas home.
When Deryk Engelland was born on April 3, 1982, his hometown of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, was on the verge of becoming the hockey capital of the world. Led by a young phenom named Wayne Gretzky, the Edmonton Oilers would win four Stanley Cup titles between 1984-88. It was right around the time of those first Oilers championships that Engelland first found himself on a sheet of ice, learning to get his bearings on a makeshift rink his dad made in the backyard.
“As far back as I can remember,” Engelland says, “all I wanted to do was play hockey.”
His father’s job as a welder took the family — which included middle-child Deryk and his two sisters — from one small town to the next in northern British Columbia, before eventually settling in Chetwynd, on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. By then, Engelland was playing organized hockey in youth leagues and club tournaments, with his parents transporting him from town to town during the harsh Canadian winters.
By his admission, Engelland was a solid but not exceptional player. But he made up for his shortcomings with the kind of physical toughness that defines the sport — and opens the eyes of scouts. He wasn’t much of a fighter, though, off or on the ice. The latter changed during the 1999-2000 season, his second with the Moose Jaw Warriors in the Western Hockey League, a junior club based in Saskatchewan. Engelland estimates he fought 10 times in the final 15 games. “From there,” he says, “it just occurred to me that that’s what I would need to do to get where I wanted to go.”
Shortly after Engelland’s 18th birthday, the New Jersey Devils selected him with the 194th overall pick of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. Rather than turn pro, though, he chose to remain with Moose Jaw, piling up ice time — and penalty minutes — as a regular defenseman over the next three seasons. At that point, he was 21 years old and an elder statesman by Canadian junior hockey standards. Realizing that his hopes of making it to the NHL were fading with each turn of the calendar page, Engelland returned to Chetwynd following the 2002-03 season at a crossroads. “I went home and tried to figure out what I was going to do.”
The Calgary Flames solved that problem when they called in June 2003 and invited Engelland to their summer camp. He played well enough that the Flames let him train at their facility for the entire summer, showing enough potential that the team signed the rugged defenseman to a contract. Engelland did not, however, head to Calgary with the big club. Instead, the Flames assigned him to their minor-league affiliate in the East Coast Hockey League — a brand-new franchise called the Las Vegas Wranglers.
So, in late September, Engelland headed south to a city he’d never been to, arriving just a few weeks before the Wranglers’ inaugural season began.
“Our assistant coach picked me up from the airport,” Engelland recalls. “I was expecting him to drive us down the Strip, but instead he took the airport bypass and went around. At that time, the 215 was pretty much the end of the city — it didn’t go much further west. Our whole team basically lived in the same apartment complex at Flamingo and the 215.
“To come to Las Vegas as a 21-year-old, it was pretty exciting.”
Not so exciting? Pulling in $500 a week. With money tight, Engelland and his teammates ripped a page right out of the Vegas 101 handbook: They looked for comps, scoring one at McMullan’s Irish Pub on Tropicana Avenue, a few hundred yards from the Orleans Arena, where the Wranglers played their home games.
Engelland honed his enforcement skills with the Las Vegas Wranglers. (Pictured right. Photo by Steve Spatafore.)
McMullan’s and the Wranglers struck up a deal: After games, the players could eat for free; all they had to do was pay their bar tab and kick a few bucks to the servers. “Most games, three-quarters of the team would go eat there,” Engelland says. “The deal was tip $5 and buy all your beers. You couldn’t beat it.”
After one particular Wranglers game — the day after Thanksgiving in 2003 — Engelland got his free meal … and a life-changing encounter.
I met my wife here, my kids were born here, and I know how special this city is.
Melissa was born and raised in a small Wisconsin suburb north of Milwaukee, surrounded by dairy farms. Her mother was a secretary, her father a firefighter, and she and her brother enjoyed a typical Midwestern upbringing. But after earning her degree in communications and public relations from Concordia University Wisconsin, a private liberal-arts Lutheran college in the small town of Mequon, Melissa was ready to spread her wings. She zeroed in on UNLV. “I came out here with my girlfriend for a weekend trip, and I thought, ‘Oh, that would be a good place to move to. It would be fun and so different from where I grew up.’”
Too different — much too different — as far as her parents were concerned. “They basically said, ‘You’re on your own — figure it out. We’re not helping you with this move at all,’” she says. “So I was like, ‘All right. I’m going to show you!’”
She spent the next year working and saving, and in June 2003, she moved to the desert. Two months later, at 24, she began studying for her master’s in communications at UNLV.
“I knew I liked public relations,” she recalls, “having previously worked for a radio station where I did a lot of promotions, and Vegas is such a good spot for that type of career. So I was hoping something would work out. But then all my plans changed.”
Specifically, they changed the night after Thanksgiving, when Melissa and her friend Andrea went to McMullan’s and posted up at the bar. Engelland was in the back room scarfing down another free postgame dinner when she caught his eye.
We’ll let them take it from here:
Deryk: “I’m pretty shy, and I was probably only about three or four beers deep at that point. So I grabbed a couple of guys and went up to the bar and tried to be smooth.”
Melissa: “I thought he was really nice — very put together, attractive, sweet, and friendly. Then I asked him how old he was, and he said 21. And I was like, ‘Ugh. I don’t know.’ Because in America, you can’t start drinking till you’re 21, so I wasn’t sure about his (maturity).”
Deryk: “I said, ‘Here, take my number.”
Melissa: “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll take your number.’ We didn’t have cellphones, so he had to write it down on a piece of paper. I told him I’d call him, but as I walked out of the bar, he stopped me.”
Deryk: “I said, ‘You’re not going to call me, are you? How about you give me your number?’”
Melissa: “So I did, thinking I wasn’t going to hear from him. But he called.”
And she answered, accepting his invitation to attend a Wranglers game the next week, followed by a meet-up back at McMullan’s. At one point during the game, Deryk and an opponent dropped the gloves and began flinging fists, with Deryk getting the better of the exchange: “I busted up the guy’s nose pretty good.”
“It was a really long fight, time-wise,” Melissa recalls. “I was like, ‘Man, this guy is still going. He’s a little crazy. And I don’t need any crazy in my life.”
The brutal fisticuffs were enough to keep Melissa from showing at the bar, forcing Deryk to do some serious damage control, eventually convincing her to meet him at McMullan’s. From there the two went to a nightclub, and the rest …
“We knew there was chemistry pretty much right away,” Melissa says.
Unfortunately, professional hockey organizations couldn’t give two pucks about chemistry. So it wasn’t but a couple of days later that Deryk was reassigned to Calgary’s American Hockey League affiliate. Location: Lowell, Massachusetts.
“I thought, ‘Oh, well, I’m never going to see this guy again,’” Melissa says. “But we just started talking on the phone — some nights, we’d be on the phone for hours. We became what I would say is good friends first.”
They reconnected in person in the spring of 2004, when Deryk returned to Las Vegas to join the Wranglers during a playoff run that, after he arrived, lasted all of one game. With the hockey season over, Deryk moved into Melissa’s apartment for a few weeks, and the relationship blossomed.
All of a sudden, Melissa was facing an important life decision: Continue with her studies at UNLV, where she was one year into her master’s program, or commit to the vagabond existence that is minor-league hockey, with no guarantees about much of anything.
“At first, I was worried about leaving school and my job if things weren’t going to work out,” she says. “But at that point, you just kind of take a leap of faith and go for it. From then on, it was moving from city to city to city.”
Among the cities they traveled to during the next six years: Chetwynd; Calgary; Lowell; Las Vegas; North Charleston, South Carolina; Hershey, Pennsylvania; Redding, Pennsylvania; and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pennsylvania. All in Melissa’s SUV, and all on a bare-bones budget.
Melissa: “Financially, it was hard.”
Deryk: “When I got to Hershey (in 2006), things got a little better — I think I started at $35,000 a year.”
Melissa: “Yeah, we were still broke. We shared a car. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment. We didn’t go out to dinner. But it was the way things should be when you’re a young couple — struggling, working hard, trying to make it all work.”
All the while, the couple spent each off-season back in Las Vegas (where Deryk ended up playing for the Wranglers for the entire 2004-05 season before his career took him East). It’s where they got engaged in summer 2005 — he popped the question during a gondola ride at the Venetian, which cost $200 they didn’t necessarily have — and where they settled after marrying in Wisconsin a year later.
Why make Las Vegas home?
“It was a little bit of everything,” Deryk says. “We had mutual friends here, we had separate friends here, the weather, the training, the cost of living. My hometown is much too small. We did spend some time in Wisconsin in the summers, but I just don’t do humidity very well.”
Two words, otherwise buried in the above paragraph, would change the Engellands’ lives: the training.
After the Pittsburgh Penguins signed Deryk to a contract following the 2006-07 season, he languished in the minors for three more seasons with Hershey, Redding, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. On November 10, 2009 — a little more than a month after he was the last player the Penguins cut in training camp — Deryk’s dream of playing in the NHL was finally realized when Pittsburgh called him up to replace an injured player. But after playing in nine games, Deryk was shipped back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the remainder of the 2009-10 season.
That summer, back in Las Vegas, Melissa body-checked her husband with some tough love. “Basically, I gave him an ultimatum,” she says. “I said, ‘You need to quit drinking, take your training seriously, and go for it. I’ll do whatever it takes to make it work financially.’”
She connected Deryk with Mark Philippi, who spent 15 years as the strength and conditioning coach for UNLV athletics, and was a former World’s Strongest Man competitor. Deryk went to work with Philippi, and Melissa went to work wherever she could. “I took every crappy job I could find just to pay the bills,” she says. “We moved into the cheapest one-bedroom apartment we could find here. We were still sharing a car. All he did was train and skate, and all I did was work.”
The sacrifice paid dividends the following season, when Deryk — now 28 and in the best shape of his life — made the Penguins’ roster out of training camp. He played in 63 games and remained with the club for the entire 2010-11 season, during which Pittsburgh signed him to a three-year contract extension through the 2013-14 season. Average annual salary: $566,700.
“It was huge,” Deryk says. “To finally make it and get that three-year extension was a dream come true. But I don’t think either of us were satisfied. We both looked at it like, the day that I’m satisfied is probably the day I’d start being on my way out.”
Three productive seasons in Pittsburgh set Deryk up for free agency in summer 2014. As fate would have it, the Calgary Flames — the first NHL organization that gave him a look, the one that signed him more than a decade earlier and sent him to Las Vegas — made the Engellands and offer they couldn’t refuse: three years, $8.7 million.
“I wasn’t expecting the deal that I got from Calgary, that’s for sure,” Deryk says. “It was tough to leave Pittsburgh, but you’re grateful and excited for a new chapter in your life, and Calgary was not far from back home. So it was exciting to go up there and be part of that organization for three years.”
In 226 games with Calgary, Deryk tallied just nine goals and 30 assists, but he wasn’t signed for his offensive acumen; he was signed to do what he does best, and that’s be an enforcer. For that, he earned his keep, racking up a combined 163 penalty minutes.
About a year after Deryk received his first contract extension with Pittsburgh, the Engellands solidified their roots in Las Vegas when they purchased and renovated a foreclosed home, moving into it in 2012. A month later, they welcomed their first son, Cash.
Two summers later, just as the family was about to head to Calgary for Deryk’s first season with the Flames, rumors began to bubble that the NHL was considering adding a 31st team. Their No. 1 target city: Las Vegas.
Within three months — in November 2014 — the league tapped Bill Foley as a potential owner of a Las Vegas franchise. By February 2015, with the NHL’s permission, Foley launched a season-ticket drive to gauge local interest. The goal: 10,000 deposits. Within two days, Foley was halfway there; within six weeks, the goal was fully met.
Some 1,800 miles north, Melissa Engelland tracked the ticket drive with excitement and hope. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh — they’ve got this many ticket commitments already. This is going to happen!’ We just didn’t know at the time what year the team would start. I was hoping that every star would align perfectly. Then, when we found out that the expansion draft was going to happen the year his contract was up in Calgary, we really got excited about the possibility.”
On June 26, 2016, it became official: In exchange for $500 million, Foley was awarded an NHL expansion franchise that would be placed in Las Vegas and begin play in October 2017, the first time the city would be home to a team in one of America’s four major professional sports.
The Vegas Golden Knights were formally christened in November 2016, and by this time team officials, led by general manager George McPhee, were traversing the NHL to scout talent for an expansion draft to be held on June 20, 2017. Three days prior, the league’s 30 existing teams submitted names of “protected” players — those players the Knights were not permitted to select with one of their 30 expansion-draft picks.
To nobody’s surprise, Deryk Engelland’s name was not on Calgary’s protected list; he was, after all, a free agent. But that didn’t mean he was a lock to become a Golden Knight. “I never thought I’d get taken in the expansion draft,” Deryk says. “We figured with free agency starting a week later, that would be our only chance. Then they called (two days) before the draft and said they were interested.”
Allowed to select only one player from each team, McPhee made it official by swiping Engelland from Calgary.
“He really stood out as a guy who would be a good fit here,” McPhee says. “When we looked at Calgary’s team, there really wasn’t a close second. Of all the decisions we made in the expansion draft, taking Deryk was a fairly easy one.”
Made easier by the fact that Engelland was already entrenched in the Las Vegas community.
“It certainly helped having someone here who knew his way around and could really help the other players when they got to town with whatever they needed — school needs, housing needs, those sorts of things,” McPhee says. “He became the person who all the other players would seek out when they needed answers to things. And we liked that we had someone here who was part of this community.
“In terms of how much it factored into the decision, it was probably 10 percent. The other 90 percent was because we really liked the way he played.”
For the Engellands, getting to stay home to play for the NHL’s newest team was an incredible relief, especially considering the family had expanded in May 2016 after the arrival of son Talon. It would be up to Cash, though, to share the good news with his mom. “I was at work, and I called Deryk, and Cash got on the phone and said, ‘Guess what, Mommy? We’re not moving this year! Daddy’s going to be a Golden Knight!’ I just started crying.”
Four months later, Melissa would be brought to tears again. This time for an entirely different reason.
To all the brave first responders that have worked (tirelessly) and courageously throughout this whole tragedy, we thank you.
It’s August 10, 2018, and Cash and Talon Engelland are filled with boundless energy as guests infiltrate what Melissa calls the family’s “forever house” in the southwest part of the valley. When the boys aren’t spiritedly mimicking their father by playing hockey on the wood floor — rubber puck, of course — they’re coercing their parents into giving them M&Ms, which Mom and Dad use as currency to get them to participate in a photo shoot.
On this hot summer afternoon, the house is filled with laughter and joy — a stark contrast to the atmosphere late on October 1, 2017, after the Golden Knights’ final preseason game against the San Jose Sharks. Everyone was sound asleep when Melissa’s phone rang shortly after 11 p.m. She couldn’t answer the call in time, but when she noticed it was her friend Chelsi, she immediately sensed something was wrong and called back.
“I’m half asleep,” Deryk says, “and Melissa just says to me, ‘Turn the TV on. Now!’”
It’s one of those Where were you when? moments that will live within all of us who called Las Vegas home that night. For Melissa, the initial shock of the mass shooting was immediately followed by sheer panic: She knew one of her friends was at the concert — Andrea, the friend who was with her at McMullan’s the night she and Deryk first met. After several frantic hours and countless texts and calls, Melissa finally got the word: “She texted back and said, ‘I can’t talk, but I’m OK.’”
The next several days were a blur for the Engellands, with one emotion intersecting with the next. “So much was going on,” Melissa recalls. “Deryk and I personally knew so many people who attended the concert that night that we were just trying to figure it all out.”
For their part, Deryk’s new teammates quickly came together and volunteered to assist in any way needed. “The next morning, guys were already texting me to see where stuff was, what they could do,” Deryk says. Melissa says the players’ wives and girlfriends reached out to her with similar overtures. In fact, in the days following the tragedy, the entire Golden Knights’ organization thrust itself into the community, offering to give blood, donate food and water, or simply lend emotional support.
The latter would come in a hurricane-like wave on the night of October 6, when the Knights played their inaugural game in Dallas and rallied for a 2-1 victory that raised the spirit of an entire community. “I think everyone in that locker room knew we had to come out and try to win that game for Las Vegas,” Engelland says. “But I don’t think we knew to the extent it would help.”
Another 2-1 road victory — this one in overtime against the Arizona Coyotes — followed the next night, setting the stage for a Knights-Coyotes rematch at T-Mobile Arena three nights later.
To the families and friends of the victims, know that we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal.
The Golden Knights’ game-day operations staff spent months planning a raucous celebration for the October 10 home opener. But after the shooting, those plans, at least for opening night, were scrapped. Rather than pomp and circumstance, pregame festivities would include honoring the 58 victims who lost their lives and recognizing survivors and first responders.
As the plan evolved, Eric Tosi, the team’s vice president of communications and content, approached the only player on the roster with ties to Las Vegas and asked him to close the ceremony by addressing the crowd. Engelland was reticent. Then he asked his wife. Her response: “You should probably do that.”
Deryk and Melissa worked with Tosi’s staff on the wording, and once they got that down, they practiced it. Over and over.
“I told him, ‘You need to memorize this speech. It also needs to be something that’s poignant and straight to the point and that can hold the attention of 18,000 people,’” Melissa says. “Sometimes when I fell asleep, I would dream it, because we went over it so many times.”
At least she slept.
“It’s the only thing that was going through my mind for three or four days,” Deryk says. “I’d lie in bed and couldn’t fall asleep.”
The practice paid off. Deryk delivered the 74-word speech smoothly and sincerely, and everyone was impressed. That includes the crowd, which offered a rousing ovation; the opponent (“Every Arizona player tapped me on the shin pads and said, ‘Unbelievable job!’”); his general manager (“It could not have been done better”); and his wife (“I was very proud—it was amazing”).
The responsibilities didn’t end with that speech, of course. There was still a game to play — make that a game to win. “Once the ceremony was done,” Deryk says, “everyone knew we had a job to do.”
And, boy, did they do it: In the first 10 minutes, 42 seconds, the Knights tallied four goals en route to a 5-2 blowout victory. The second goal? It came off the stick of the guy not paid to put the puck in the net. “That was probably the most excited I’ve ever been for a goal,” Deryk says. “Everyone in our locker room knew we were winning that game. And it wasn’t about getting two points (in the standings) like it normally would be, or beating a desert rival. It was all about winning for the city.”
It was a win that gave the NHL’s newest team a 3-0 record. A win that will be remembered as the launching point for what turned out to be a magical season.
“Not only did we come out and score four goals right away and give people something to cheer about, but it set the tone for the rest of the year,” Engelland says. “That building was amazing that night and for every game after it.”
“The game and the days leading up to the game didn’t matter,” McPhee says. “The ceremony mattered. And it went so well and so right that, when it was over, you could really feel all of the emotion building. And for the first time, I said to myself, ‘We’ve got to win this game. And we have to keep on winning to help this community.’”
You know the rest of the story: The 2017-18 Vegas Golden Knights set dozens of records on their way to the greatest season by an expansion franchise in the history of professional sports — one that fell three victories short of the Stanley Cup. Along the way, the team unified the community to the point that you can’t turn two corners in this valley without seeing a Golden Knights sticker, cap, shirt, or license-plate frame. Deryk and Melissa Engelland’s adopted hometown has turned into a hockey town — one the Canadian player walked through anonymously for 14 years. No longer.
“Before I started playing for the Knights, if I went to the hockey rink, the kids would know who you were,” Deryk says. “But that was it.”
Counters Melissa: “I don’t ever once remember anyone recognizing us in Las Vegas before this year!”
As the Golden Knights embark on their second season this month, they do so with some new faces and without some old ones. Such is how the cogs in the professional sports machine turn these days. But Engelland says his and his teammates’ expectations remain the same: Pick up those three additional wins and hoist the Stanley Cup.
“Is there an unfinished-business element to this season? For sure, 100 percent,” he says. “We want to win it all, and so do 30 other teams. We got a taste last year. And I’m pretty sure I can speak for every guy in that locker room that we want to finish it this year.”
Now 36, Engelland says he wants to play “as long as I can.” McPhee sounds optimistic: “He’s a tremendously fit athlete and a very good player. We may get many more years out of him than we anticipated.”
Eventually, though, the end will come. And while he says he hasn’t given his post-playing career much thought, Engelland is certain of two things: He wants to somehow remain involved with the Knights’ organization, and absolutely will remain part of the Las Vegas community.
“Once hockey’s done, I’m sure we’ll go elsewhere in July and August,” he says with a laugh. “But, no, this will be home, for sure.”
The gal he met at an Irish pub 17 years ago wholly concurs. “Vegas has probably been who we are for a long time,” Melissa says. “We couldn’t be happier.”
Oh, one last thing about that speech — the one Deryk had to be coaxed into giving, the one that will forever live in Golden Knights lore, the one that has more than a quarter-million YouTube views. He ended it with these four words:
We are … Vegas strong.
And he ended it in precisely …