LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - The Vegas Golden Knights have attracted a passionate fan base by smashing expectations in their inaugural season but supporters say it is what the team has done to unite a community torn by tragedy that has truly endeared them to the city.
The city was tested like none other on Oct. 1 when a gunman opened fire on concert-goers on the Las Vegas Strip, killing 58 and injuring 851 in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
Days later, the Golden Knights played their first home game just a few blocks from where the tragedy occurred and the community quickly rallied around its first NHL franchise under the banner “Vegas Strong.”
“We were nine days away from our home opener and deep into planning how we were going to unveil this franchise when the tragedy happened,” Brian Killingsworth, the team’s chief marketing officer, told Reuters on Wednesday.
“We asked the players if they wanted to go out in the community and to a man everybody wanted to visit with the police, fire department, first responders and hospitals.
“We had the responsibility to react and to do what sports does, which is to bring people together and help heal.”
The outpouring of support came in sharp contrast to the city’s reputation as ‘Sin City’, a party town with lots of flash but little substance.
“There is a lot more to this city than just The Strip. It’s a community of hard-working people that really care and have a passion,” he said.
“The Golden Knights helped give this city a soul.”
The 4-2 win over the visiting Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday gave the home side a 2-1 lead over the favorites in the best-of-seven series. Game Four is set for Friday in Las Vegas.
The team took time to honor heroes during Wednesday’s win as well as to pay tribute to the fallen.
Which is not to say a Golden Knights home game is a somber affair.
Far from it, the fans that pack into the T-Mobile Arena are among the loudest and most colorful in sports and, this still being Vegas, the party starts well before the puck drops and carries on in the streets after the arena clears out.
“People laughed when the team was coming together. They said nobody is going to show up to the games because it’s a transient town with no attention span,” said Elvis impersonator and diehard Golden Knights fan Jeff Stanulis.
“Right after the tragedy of Oct. 1 the whole town was in a funk and needed something big to lift it out of that.”
And lift they did as the Golden Knights ran away with the Pacific Division before dispatching the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks in the first two rounds of the playoffs to put themselves just two wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals.
Dressed as Wonder Woman, season ticket holder Stephanie Huntsman said the emergence of the team had made the city she moved to three years ago finally feel like home.
“It has been amazing to see this city come together around the team and to have something that was created by Vegas that is ours to claim,” she said.
The loyalty of the fans has led to massive jersey and ticket sales with the Golden Knights having sold more merchandise in May than the other three remaining NHL playoff teams combined.
The team’s reach extends far beyond the Nevada desert with fans from 90 different countries including the Philippines, Latvia, England and Australia having bought merchandise.
“We’ve become a worldwide phenomenon,” Killingsworth said.
To get a sense of how passionate the fans are, look no further than the people in line to get Golden Knights’ tattoos — permanent tattoos — outside the arena.
“I think we’ve probably had over 350 people get permanent Golden Knights tattoos because we offer them for free every playoff game, and the line is always 50 to 60 people deep.”
“They are inking their fandom permanently on their bodies, which is fantastic,” he said.
“I’ve never seen a market get behind a team like this.”
Reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Ian Ransom