Having had the fan squeezed out of me way back in journalism school in the typewriter and carbon paper era of the early 1980s, it’s been a long time since I cheered for a team – that would be back in 1982 when my Vancouver Canucks had their Cinderella story go pumpkin city in a big way when they got waxed by the New York Islanders in the Stanley cup final. I still do, however, cheer for the best story.
When it comes to the NHL, the best story by a $5 cab ride from where I sit is the Vegas Golden Knights, the expansion outfit that advanced to the Western Conference final Sunday with a 3-0 win over the San Jose Sharks. While getting wrapped up in the feel-good story of the year might be a bit muted here given how the season unfolded and collapsed for the Edmonton Oilers, there’s no getting around how compelling the Knights have been.
If anybody out there in the MSM or the blogging world had the Knights making the playoffs this season, I can’t find it. As for me, I thought the Knights might be better than the Canucks or the Arizona Coyotes, but better than the Oilers? No chance. A playoff team? Get a grip. Pacific Division winners with 51 wins and 109 points? Sure. Now, they’re in the conference final and I’m pulling for them. How can you not?
Nobody saw this coming because it flies in the face of common sense that any hockey ops department could take a bunch of cast-offs and turn that group into Stanley Cup contenders in their first spin around the block. That’s exactly what GM George McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant have done. The Knights compiled 26 more points and 18 more wins than any expansion team in the history of the NHL. They’re Cup contenders. Eight wins away.
“I think we’ve made ourselves a good team,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said after the Knights disposed of the Sharks in six games. “We had great chemistry right from the start. We kept improving throughout the season. I feel like we’re using everybody in the lineup to get wins. That’s what made us successful all season, and that’s why we’re still having success.”
“We have belief in our room that we can win,” James Neal told NHL.com. “[It started with] training camp and our first game and continued on, and built something special throughout the year and built the confidence in each other and the belief that we could win. We continue to prove people wrong, I guess you can say. It’s an exciting time for us, and we’re grabbing ahold of it. Everyone’s grabbing ahold of it and enjoying it and playing hard for each other.”
The underdog angle, revenge of the cast-offs angle, is the most obvious when it comes to the Knights. It remains the best hook, of course – a bunch of players, like Neal and Fleury, being this successful after essentially being deemed spare parts by their former teams. For me, the backdrop to that — the horrific events of Oct. 1 when a gunman opened fire at an outdoor concert and killed 58 people – is just as compelling. Las Vegas is a place where you’re supposed to have too much fun. You’ve done that. I’ve done that. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” That changed forever Oct. 1.
That’s real life, the important stuff, and we’re just talking hockey here, but the juxtaposition of the two has made the story scripted by the Knights something truly special. If your team – around here that’s the Oilers in the vast majority of cases – is out of Cup contention or never even made it to the post-season, how do you not cheer for the Knights and the city of Las Vegas right now?
I’d like to a say a personal thank-you to the fans, people and business community of Edmonton for the response we’ve had to Hockey Helps the Homeless, which will played at the Terwillegar Rec Centre this Friday, May 11. The same goes for the alumni of the Edmonton Oilers, who’ve helped in a big way to make this event a success before the first puck drops.
That goes for citizens of Oilersnation, who stepped up by providing HHTH funds from the 10th anniversary of the website. Former equipment man Barrie Stafford and the alumni have been wonderful despite some very challenging times. Chris Joseph, who lost his son Jaxon in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, has told us he will play in the game as he’d originally planned. We are all happy Chris is feeling well enough to take part.
Stafford, former head coach Ron Low and his wife Linda, as well as the alumni, have been dealing with the passing of former video coach and friend Brian Ross. All of them have continued hustling tirelessly behind the scenes to help make the event the success we want and need it to be. We are lucky to have them.
If any of you want to come by the rink Friday and say hello, please do. We’ll have a full complement of TSN 1260’s shows — Dustin Nielson, Allan Mitchell, Dave Jamieson and Jason Gregor – doing their broadcasts live at the rink. This event is going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to make a real difference in improving the lives of the homeless in Edmonton.