LAS VEGAS — The thing about watching a professional hockey team practice is that it’s not terribly interesting. There is no winner, no loser, no concession stand, no beer, no tension, no narrative, no stakes. There is just a lot of shooting on empty or barely guarded nets, which is fun to observe for about ten minutes before it becomes routine.
But to fans of the Vegas Golden Knights, the team’s practice sessions might as well be games. At noon the day after the city’s shiny heroes won Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, City National Arena in the suburb of Summerlin is packed to the rafters with fans. They’re all decked out in Golden Knights gear, waiting to watch their guys skate in circles for about fifteen minutes. Others sit in the practice facility’s restaurant, which has a bar with windows that overlook the rink. They eat burgers and fries while they peer out to see if the players have taken the ice yet. Today’s session is optional and very short. Not that it matters—the crowd still chants “GO, KNIGHTS, GO!” at the empty rink.
Deneen Dardis joins in. She’s originally from North Dakota, but nine years ago she moved to Vegas because she wanted to be in the sunshine. She played hockey growing up, but because her small town didn’t have a team for girls, she had to play with the boys. By the time she reached seventh grade, they made her stop. She still skates sometimes, but when she talks about it, you can tell it still stings that she had to watch her older brothers play through high school when there was no way she could. But hockey is still Dardis’s favorite sport, and she was thrilled when the Golden Knights showed up in town. She works from home for Microsoft and lives near the practice rink, so she’s been coming to watch them practice all season. So have many others; when I was out here on a random Tuesday in February, the stands were at least half full.
Dardis is one of the few Vegas fans who really loved hockey before the Golden Knights became the NHL’s 31st team. Well, no, sorry, that’s not true; Vegas has had more of a connection to the sport than most people think. There have been two minor league teams in the city’s history—the ECHL’s Wranglers and the IHL’s Thunder—and lots of kids grew up playing the sport here, waiting until the night dipped below freezing in the winter to hose down the driveway for makeshift rinks which would melt the next day in the sun.
“It’s made a lot of hockey fans. I think it’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “A lot of people in college would ask, ‘Well, what hotel do you live in?’ And my person favorite question was, ‘Does the strip close in the winter like Disneyland?’ I think having a team shows that there are people who live here, that work at places that aren’t casinos. Obviously the service industry is really big, but there are people who go to school here, who were born here, raised here. The Knights show that this is more than just a destination town.”
Vegas is more than just a destination town. The place is booming—as I drove to T-Mobile the other day, my Uber driver pointed out all the new construction near the north end of the Strip where buildings that have sat unused for years and years are finally being fixed up. The tech industries have moved to town, bringing jobs and new people. When you drive out to the practice arena from the Strip, you pass rows and rows of stucco houses that seem to go on forever before you hit gravely desert surrounded by the red ring of mountains. The city keeps pushing out into the dry sand as more people come here (many from Southern California) for the cheap cost of living. Most residents don’t gamble or step foot on the Strip unless they work there. Or, these days, if they’re going to a hockey game.
The players know the “real Vegas,” too.
“I do feel like it’s home,” Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch tells me after practice. “I met a lot of good people, a lot of locals. I’ve gotten to know more and more people as I go on, and they’ve treated us almost too well. It’s unbelievable. I know my neighbors now, on a first-name basis, I talk to them. I got a text from one of my neighbors last night saying congratulations. It’s great, and that’s how I was raised—in a big community, a very outgoing place. That’s why I love Vegas. The people are very welcoming, very outgoing and they love having a professional sports team here. It’s actually a very small town.” He smiles and laughs a little before adding, “too small almost.”
This small town with big neon signs is one of reinvention. Yes, it’s place where you can come and forget who you are for a weekend. But it also renews itself — there are hardly any buildings left from the days when the Rat Pack cruised around on the old Strip east of the current river of neon. This latest iteration of this place has nothing to do with casinos or losing money. It has to do with being a normal suburban town, where normal people live and do normal things. The office buildings surrounding the practice building might as well be in Anytown, USA.
But the Strip still looms large, and this newfound domesticity doesn’t mean that the Golden Knights haven’t leaned into the city’s glitzy side. This is a great place to lose some money (trust me), and if you watched Game 1, you saw the outlandish, beautiful, gaudy, bizarre, totally thrilling introduction that plays at T-Mobile before the puck drops. You either loved it, or you thought that those kind of theatrics have no place in hockey. If you fall into the latter camp, it is my pleasure to inform you that the Fun Police are on their way to your house with an honorary badge. But two things can be true at once; Tuch can be good friends with magician Criss Angel (“I met him after one of the games. I was a big fan of magic growing up, so I went to his show, he levitated, it was insane”) and with his neighbors in Summerlin.
One thing is for sure, however; the city is much more than just a place to go to a techno pool party. Locals finally feel like that’s beginning to get through to the outside world. And the Golden Knights have helped immensely.
“That’s what I tell my friends who come to town,” Dardis says. ‘There’s so much more to do than just gambling and the Strip. I live way out here by the Vegas Golden Knights, and I always bring them over here to get souvenirs, check out the rinks. I explain to them there’s the Red Rock Canyon to hike in. There’s so much to do out here outside of town. People don’t have any idea that god’s country exists right here.”
I leave Dardis and the rink to walk outside. A sign has appeared near the doorway, propped up on an easel. It says: SEATING IS AT CAPACITY.