Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018 | 2 a.m.
No. No way. Never.
That was my reaction when a longtime local compared the energy inside T-Mobile Arena during a Vegas Golden Knights game to how bonkers fans were at the Thomas & Mack Center for the peak of UNLV basketball’s dynasty in the 1980s and early ‘90s.
I was there for all those memorable Rebel games — wins against David Robinson and Navy, or when Georgetown came to town. Even when they were playing lowly league opponents in the old Pacific Coast Athletic Association (now the Big West) like Pacific or UC Irvine, the arena was sold out and so loud you couldn’t hear the person talking next to you. Many in town were desperate for tickets or thrilled to go once a season.
It couldn’t possibly be that way for hockey, I argued.
Then, during the national anthem Tuesday before Vegas’ 3-0 win against Nashville, it was pretty clear my friend’s observation was spot-on. As Paul Shaffer, yes that Paul Shaffer, arrived at the part “... gave proof through the night,” a loud chorus of “Knights” chimed in.
That was just the beginning.
From the pregame hype video when the noise and anticipation mirrored that of UNLV’s fireworks show back in the day, to the constant chorus of “Go Knights, Go” and the wild celebration after the Knights scored, it became glaringly obvious that Las Vegans love their team.
Vegas' Reilly Smith punctuated that sentiment when he declared in a post-game interview on display at the arena: "Our home record is because of the energy of this crowd." It drew a thunderous response.
And we weren’t supposed to be a hockey city.
What’s happening at T-Mobile Arena, no matter the opponent or day of the week, has become the story of the NHL season. The Knights are historically good for an expansion franchise, regardless of the sport. And just like Smith said, your support is a significant reason why.
Without the best home-ice advantage in the league, there isn’t a 17-2-1 record in Las Vegas and hopes of a long postseason run. Vegas went from hoping to make the playoffs in three years of existence and competing for the Stanley Cup in five or six, to having the third-best betting odds in the league to win this year.
Many use the “Vegas Flu” theory to explain the Golden Knights’ greatness at home, including wins against league notables Pittsburgh, Tampa, Toronto and Nashville. Sure, some visiting teams have allowed players to enjoy the Las Vegas nightlife, and they probably weren’t at their best when the puck dropped — hence, the Vegas Flu.
But that theory does a disservice to the home team. You don’t assemble an eight-game winning streak, including victories at Los Angeles and against league-leading Tampa, and credit the success to other teams partying too hard the night before.
This team is good, which in all honesty is a surprise. While William Karlsson has been one of league’s biggest surprises, the Knights don’t necessarily have a superstar. Rather, it’s a group of players who really like playing for each other and who are thriving in this unexpected winning season. They are having fun, and we are having fun supporting them.
They weren’t built to win this year. The plan was to sell off key players in late February to accumulate more pieces for when they expected to contend in the third or fourth seasons. That still could be the plan, actually.
Or is it?
There’s such momentum for this team around town — everything from standing-room-only practices in their Summerlin facility to reports of myriad children receiving Golden Knights gear for holiday gifts — that management would be crazy to break up the team. Add to it. Fight and claw to bring a championship to the city.
Remember, we love winners in Las Vegas. UNLV basketball became our passion because they won — and won in style. They ran up and down the court and scored with high-flying dunks and long-range 3-pointers.
The Knights are well on their way to surpassing that excitement. With each game, especially when the outcome is decided so dramatically like in victories against Tampa, Anaheim or Pittsburgh, more Las Vegans are fervently joining the fold.
Can you imagine how loud it will be for the playoffs? Kind of like that night when UNLV beat David Robinson and Navy.