Friday, June 1, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Nearly an hour after the Golden Knights’ final home game of the Western Conference Finals, a congregation of fans waited outside the back of T-Mobile Arena, hoping to catch a glimpse of the players as they exited the venue.
The party-like atmosphere that ensued inside during Vegas’ 3-2 Game 4 win over Winnipeg had transferred outdoors, as the small group frolicked in their jerseys and recounted the night’s biggest plays. The scene felt like a moment more typically associated with post-concert revelers awaiting the exit of a pop luminary or famous band — not fans of a team that was considered a hodgepodge of NHL castoffs seven months ago.
The Golden Knights have shattered that perception by reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their expansion season, especially in Las Vegas, where the players have grown into the community’s rock stars.
“They’re the hottest ticket in the Vegas market,” says Cameron Papp, communications director for StubHub, the world’s largest secondary ticket marketplace. “In the last 30 days, the Golden Knights have the top-four selling events for us in the Vegas market. They outsold Electric Daisy Carnival, U2, Elton John … everything.”
Vegas’ Game 5 closeout win in Winnipeg posted an astronomical 36 share in the local Nielsen ratings. That means roughly one of every three televisions in use throughout the valley was tuned in to the victory.
A multitude of watch parties sprung up throughout the area out of sheer demand as Vegas’ playoff run progressed. The D Las Vegas hosted the official watch party at the Downtown property’s Long Bar all season, but also recently began showing the games on a 72-foot screen at the Downtown Events Center. The outdoor venue attracted as many as 6,000 fans for playoff games and might very well top that number in the Stanley Cup, according to Derek Stevens, owner of the D.
“The community element of Las Vegas gets overshadowed,” Stevens says. “You don’t hear about all the people that live here, work here and love this city. I really thought this city was ready for a major league sports team. I think there’s a lot of pride. For people who have been here a while, there’s a lot of pent-up demand to say, ‘This is my team.’ I’m not surprised by the love for this team.”
Others in Las Vegas and beyond we’re as optimistic from the start. Even the players were unsure of how the market would embrace. Looking back, they cite the same moment when a bond was forever forged—the October 11 home opener against Arizona Coyotes.
The Golden Knights crushed the Coyotes 5-1, scoring four goals in the opening 11 minutes, but the action on the ice was secondary to the pregame ceremony honoring the victims of the October 1 shooting.
“I think it was a really big moment for the city,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury says. “As a team, we couldn’t heal anybody but maybe change their mind for a bit for the first few weeks—make them proud and cheer for something.”
The clearest reason for the Golden Knights craze shouldn’t be minimized, either: They won in historic fashion. The team had the best record in the NHL shortly before the halfway point of the season, clinched the best expansion record before the three-quarters mark and has gone a league-best 12-3 in the playoffs.
The players tie their performance back to the motivation borne out of the shooting. “To make this run, win [the Western Conference Finals] and move on, it’s awesome for us,” says defenseman and longtime local Deryk Engelland. “But it all comes back to the city and the people affected by it.”
In May, the Golden Knights were the second-best selling team in all of sports on StubHub, behind only the New York Yankees. And unlike the regular season, when opposing fanbases flocked to Las Vegas for games, playoff sales skewed heavily to Nevada residents, according to Papp.
“They’ve far outweighed our expectations in terms of demand,” Papp says. “It’s a testament to what they’ve built in the local market.”
For the past few months, the team’s practices at City National Arena have attracted standing room-only crowds. Golden Knights’ officials had to ask fans to stop camping outside the team’s City National parking lot, where players like Fleury and Engelland had been routinely bombarded with requests to roll down their car windows and sign autographs before heading home.
In a town never light on star power, the Golden Knights are the biggest celebrities of all.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.