Community: We Live by Knight
If the Vegas Golden Knights weren’t as good as they are at hockey, would we love them as much? Hell yes. Here’s why
From the tragedy of the 1 October mass shooting to the deepest throes of the pandemic, the capacity of the Vegas Golden Knights to heal, inspire, and unite the community seems limitless. As the team enters its fourth consecutive postseason since its inception, we’re still fiercely watching and rooting — amid the economic pain and emotional toll of the past year, no less. That means something.
“In many ways, we use these teams to fight symbolic battles,” says Michael Ian Borer, a sociology professor at UNLV. “Often those battles are against a rival city. But now we’re fighting a different symbolic battle against this virus and against isolation. It creates this focal point, where multiple peoples from our larger community can focus on and root for the same team. That in itself can be really healing.”
You don’t have to be a sociologist to see this. It’s a truism that teams unite their cities, foster civic identity, and create a shared narrative, all in ways both obvious and nuanced. In the case of the Golden Knights, however, it’s a dynamic that seems more deeply embedded in the team’s origin story.
“They started in the sad glow of (1 October). It’s part of their history as a healing mechanism to deal with collective trauma,” Borer continues. “In the same way that they (dealt) with that on a local scale here, they’re now dealing with this collective trauma on a much larger scale.”
Not since UNLV Runnin’ Rebels’ halcyon days more than 30 years ago has a team captured the community’s attention so completely. It certainly helps that the Golden Knights have been a winning team from the first puck drop. It also helps that they’ve been ours from the start, too, from the moment they announced their name and unveiled their logo on Nov. 22, 2016. Being good at hockey is almost secondary to the team’s Vegas roots.
“If they weren’t good at all, they’d have this binding mechanism because one thing that they’ve done so well is promote themselves as Vegas-born,” Borer says. “For a city that is known for what it imports rather than what it creates, they’ve flipped the script. That appeals both to locals who are born here, but also for locals for whom this is now their home.”
Jesse Granger, a 15-year Vegas resident and a writer for The Athletic who has covered the team from the start, points out how that homegrown appeal exists in curious tension with our other major identifier: the Strip.
“This city wanted something that represented them other than the Strip and casinos. Everybody here is super proud of what Vegas is. But they needed something else. When I leave Vegas, I want to support my city, I want to rep my city, I want something that represents us. Even if the team wasn’t as good as they’ve been, they were going to latch on.”
Consistent sellouts, soaring ticket prices on the secondary market, the existence of the minor-league Silver Knights, and two new arenas in Henderson (Lifeguard Arena on Water Street and Dollar Loan Center in Green Valley) illustrate how the Golden Knights have resonated. The rollout of an alternate gold sweater and a bright red reverse retro sweater (an homage to the former minor-league Vegas hockey teams the Wranglers and Thunder) reflects the demand for merchandise. And, of course, VGK shirts, hats, caps, masks, flags, bumper stickers, and license plate frames abound.
Adding to their already-robust folklore, the Golden Knights staged a furious third-period comeback against the Minnesota Wild on March 1, the night fans were allowed to watch live hockey again. The Golden Knights scored two goals with less than eight minutes to play and won in overtime. Captain Mark Stone, who had assists in all five goals, skated around the ice and pumped his fists afterward — one of the season’s indelible images.
“(Stone) talks a lot about how hockey players are entertainers and make really good money to play a game that they love. The only reason that they’re able to do that is because the fans pay to see them,” says Granger. The thinking goes: “‘If they’re going to shell out a few hundred bucks … I owe it to them to play my hardest and to give everything I’ve got,’” says Granger. VGK certainly isn’t the first team to rally its home city after tragedy — think the Boston Red Sox after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the New Orleans Saints after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the New York Yankees after 9/11 — but it’s the first team in Las Vegas with the kind of public stature and community goodwill necessary to do that.
Off the ice, VGK engages the Southern Nevada in numerous ways — some publicized, but mostly under the radar. Kim Frank, president of Vegas Golden Knights Foundation and Community Relations and Player Initiatives, helps the franchise have a philanthropic impact. “When (the players) call me and want to do something, I don’t care if I have 500 things on my plate, it warms my heart and it just shows how much these guys really care about the Las Vegas community,” Frank says. “You’d be shocked at how many sick kids or somebody that just needs a message from one of our players to lift their spirits while they’re going through chemo. We get them all the time, but our guys stop what they’re doing. And they’re going to make these videos. It’s not a hard ask for me. I’m proud to say that I work with these guys.”
At the pandemic’s outset, the Golden Knights Foundation and owner Bill Foley contributed to the Nevada Covid-19 Task Force; paid $700,000 to part-time workers who lost paychecks because of canceled games; donated paper products; funded meals to hospital staff and other front-line workers; contributed to Three Square food bank and other charities; and partnered with Cox Communications to provide gift cards for teachers to buy equipment for virtual classes. The work continued with Thanksgiving meals and Christmas presents for Adopt a Family.
They consistently try to help the homeless and address food insecurity in the valley.
Abby Quinn, spokesperson for HELP of Southern Nevada — which VGK has partnered with numerous times since 2018 — points out that the team’s generosity has a nice side effect of inspiring fans to give, too. “This team is so ingrained in the fabric of the Las Vegas through not only the team’s own involvement, but also through the team’s influence,” she writes in an email. “It is an incredible ability these players have to lead by example and as a result, we see so many fans donating their time, money, and efforts to the community because their favorite VGK player did the same.”
Only our descendants will see a Ken Burns-like documentary to learn how we fared during the pandemic. But at the end of this season, whether the Golden Knights hoist a Stanley Cup or leave the ice empty-handed, their bond with the city is as strong as ever.