Hockey and Healing: In Wake of Tragedy, Golden Knights Try to Bring Comfort to Vegas

1:01 | NHL
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Tuesday October 10th, 2017

While their bulk coffee order at Starbucks was busy brewing, Deryk and Melissa Engelland dashed to the grocery store. They grabbed premade sandwiches, fresh fruit, bottles of water and Gatorade—anything to help nourish first responders who had been working around the clock. “We have to do something,” the Vegas Golden Knights defenseman told his wife, and everywhere they found other groups of locals driven by similar instincts. In the beverage aisle, two women asked where the Engellands were headed with their haul, remarking that they planned to drop theirs off at the blood drive.

The previous night, Oct. 1, Engelland had returned home after the Golden Knights’ final exhibition game, put his two sons to bed, and fallen asleep early. Hours later, around 12:30 a.m., one of Melissa’s close friends called and, in a panicked voice, told them to turn on the television. Four miles away—and only a 20-minute walk from the team’s home rink at T-Mobile Arena—a lone gunman had opened fire on concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest festival, spraying bullets from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay, killing almost five dozen and wounding hundreds more.

As cell phone footage of the horror looped on the news, the nine-year NHL veteran watched with a familiar pit in his stomach. On Sept. 11, 2001, Engelland, 35, was running on the treadmill at the New Jersey Devils’ practice facility when, across the Hudson River, two hijacked planes struck the Twin Towers. On April 19, 2013, he was locked down at a Boston hotel with the Penguins when police embarked on a citywide manhunt for the brothers who bombed the marathon four days earlier. And now one of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history had been executed from a hotel-casino that Engelland can see from his back porch.

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“It’s crazy I was in the proximity for all of them,” he says, though this also means Engelland understands the small roles that sports played after each tragedy. There were the Yankees, welcoming President George W. Bush to throw out the first pitch at Game 3 of the 2001 World Series, ultimately falling to the Diamondbacks in seven but winning all three times in front of their home crowd. There was David Ortiz, five days after the pressure cookers detonated on Boylston Street, telling Fenway Park, “This is our f------ city.” 

That is the connection Engelland developed with Las Vegas. He met Melissa 14 years ago, when she was a graduate student at UNLV studying business and he was a minor-leaguer with the ECHL’s Wranglers making $500 a week. He has spent most summers there since, skating in an annual charity game with local firefighters, many of whom Engelland would bring coffee and groceries to their union hall downtown. He and Melissa built a house on a half-acre, enrolled their oldest son in preschool, entrenched themselves among the 2 million-plus locals who call Las Vegas home. “It’s a big city,” he says, “but a very small community. If you don’t know someone, your best friend knows that person.”

As Vegas’s first major pro sports franchise, the Golden Knights were always going to hold a special place in the city’s heart. And though none of Engelland’s teammates had lived in Las Vegas prior to arriving less than two months ago—many readily admit that they didn’t even know quiet suburban life existed beyond the Strip—the bonds are forging far faster than expected, albeit at a horrible cost. “Now Vegas is our new home,” defenseman Jason Garrison says. “For something so devastating to happen, so soon into this, you just have to give as much support as you can.”

In the days after the attacks, players fanned into the community. They posed for pictures at police headquarters, where talk quickly turned to the upcoming season. They signed autographs for fans sitting on the sidewalk, waiting to give blood; players wanted to donate too, but the line was six hours long. Inside the convention center, they hugged a crying couple that lost a friend at the concert. “I’ll remember that forever,” Engelland says. “Seeing what they went through, how much they’re hurting right now. You don’t know what to say. You don’t know what to do. You want to do so much more.” 

Every bit helps. Engelland and defenseman Nate Schmidt each bought 20-game ticket packages for surviving victims and first responders. Foundations run by Vegas owner Bill Foley, the NHL and the Chicago Wolves—Vegas’s minor-league affiliate—together donated $500,000. Last Friday, as the Golden Knights won their season-opener in Dallas, 2–1, a viewing party raised money to support Nick Robone, an assistant coach for UNLV’s club ice hockey team who was shot but survived. “I knew [Las Vegas] was a small town and everyone is there for everyone,” Engelland says, “but it’s definitely showing a whole new side, how much everyone wants to help.” 

It all crested Tuesday night when the Golden Knights, unbeaten on the road in their first two games against Dallas and Arizona, made their home debut at T-Mobile Arena. Prior to the start, each player was escorted onto the ice by a local first responder. Survivors of the shooting performed the ceremonial puck drop. A 58-second moment of silence was held, during which the names of the 58 slain were projected onto the ice in gold lettering. The national anthem was led by members of the Route 91 festival. Then Engelland took the microphone. “To the families and friends of the victims, know that we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal,” he told the fans, the players, the first responders, the survivors. “We are Vegas strong.”

Ultimately, where the Golden Knights fit in the healing process isn’t really up to them. Their games might comfort some, inspire others, or maybe even feel trivial. “It can be two-fold,” says Wild forward Jason Zucker, the NHL’s lone Las Vegas native. “It absolutely can be a fun thing for [survivors] to go, but unfortunately they already were at a fun venue, having a great time before, and it was disastrous.” Regardless, the team is part of Las Vegas now.

That’s the message Robone gave a group of players who surprised him at the trauma ICU at Sunrise Hospital last Wednesday. Largely thanks to his younger brother Anthony, a 25-year-old firefighter and paramedic who also attended the concert, Nick, 28, survived a bullet wound to his left chest. He was discharged hours before the home opener, but faces a long recovery from a bruised lung. When the Golden Knights arrived, he had also just received a dose of morphine. “You could definitely see they were in shock a little bit, that this happened, just to see one of the people affected by it,” Anthony Robone says. “They had that look in their face, that it was something they’ve never seen before. But when the conversation got rolling, they were super cool.”

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The players sat and stayed for 15 minutes, talking hockey, joking about how Nick and Anthony grew up cheering for the L.A. Kings but would make an exception for the new NHL team in their hometown. They all signed a jersey and told Nick they would see him soon at the new practice facility, which doubles as UNLV’s home rink. Then Nick motioned down the hall, where the family waiting room was jammed with relatives of survivors. “Not everyone has the same amount of support I do,” he told the Golden Knights. “I have a professional hockey team coming to visit me.” 

The city needs them, in other words. “From where they’re at, as these new leaders of our community, they have this platform, they have this way to reach out to every corner of the valley,” Anthony says. “Half of them look like they can’t party in the city yet. Now they’re going to try to unite everybody. It’s a big step for these guys. But the way they’ve presented themselves, the medium they have, I think they can handle it.”

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