Wednesday, June 21, 2017 | 7:25 p.m.
Los Angeles Kings fans were asked to stand and cheer. Instead, an emphatic chorus of boos exploded inside the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Next, the public address announcer asked how many San Jose Sharks fans were in attendance for tonight’s NHL Awards. There was absolute silence.
“How about the Vegas Golden Knights?,” she then asked. The fans in the building, many sporting black and gold Golden Knights gear, went wild.
What a moment in our town’s sports existence. No longer are Southern Nevadans forced to root for regional franchises like the Kings. We have our own team, and fans are undeniably passionate about the expansion club.
We’ve long known the Golden Knights would be our first major-league sports franchise, but with each passing day it gets more real. Today, obviously, was one of the noteworthy moments.
The awards show coincided with the Golden Knights expansion draft, where players such as Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and Nashville’s James Neal were selected to comprise Vegas’ inaugural roster. Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup champion, received a standing ovation at T-Mobile Arena, and looked surprised by the support.
It was just another example of how the Golden Knights have captured the attention of Las Vegans.
Many will tell you tonight was significant because the identity of the players was announced. And, don’t get me wrong, it was pretty cool to hear majority owner Bill Foley and General Manager George McPhee list off the players one by one.
But that wasn’t what stood out the most.
Rather, it was the Golden Knights fans, those diehards who are counting the moments until the season begins and showed up tonight in full force, who were most noteworthy. This is their team and they are taking ownership.
They arrived in the mid-afternoon and lingered around the arena in the 110-degree heat waiting to get in. They were vocal when the selections were announced. They made it feel like Las Vegas, in fact, is a major-league city.
“There is a big buzz around the city. Everyone is looking forward to it,” said Brayden McNabb, formerly of the Los Angeles Kings and one of the 30 players the Golden Knights added.
Some (I’m guilty as charged) had doubts we could pull it off. The concerns were two-fold.
First, the desert city didn’t have enough hockey fans to generate a significant support system, especially for a team not expected to initially be a winner. And, secondly, many of our residents come from other cities and already have another rooting interest.
While those theories aren’t necessarily inaccurate, they seem increasingly irrelevant. Locals, everyone from hockey fans to people who simply love their hometown, are jazzed about the addition of the Golden Knights to our area’s landscape. That was evident tonight.
“I’m looking forward to seeing our fans’ reaction because they have been so dedicated. People are going to be surprised by this team,” Foley said minutes before the draft.
Some of the players selected were more noteworthy than others. Some probably won’t play a minute for Vegas. They’ll be sent to other teams as McPhee continues to acquire entry draft picks by the masses. He wheeled and dealed for 11 draft picks during the expansion process, including two extra first-rounders on Friday.
That will give the franchise the young talent to having staying power. The staying power is what will make or break the franchise.
Residents will pack T-Mobile Arena during the initial few seasons because the team is new and everyone will want to experience a night of major-league sports. But if the team doesn’t win, the fans won’t come back — it’s Vegas, after all, and we only support winners.
Those draft picks will form a young nucleus that can mature together and potentially transform into a winner. In the third or fourth years of the franchise, we’ll start to see a team capable of competing for the playoffs. By the seventh season, when Foley has promised a Stanley Cup run, there could be that opportunity.
There also should be plenty of memorable nights against the Kings, a teams which appears to be the natural rival. Each time the Kings were mentioned, the chorus of boos followed. At the very least, it’s another reason to get excited.
“I will be a rival with my old team,” McNabb said with a smile.