The Golden Knights made it fun to be a sports fan again
Every time I meet someone and they find out for the first time what I do for a living, they invariably say, “Oh, that’s neat. It must be fun.”
And it is. I love being a sports writer and never have wanted to do anything else. But it makes it hard to be a sports fan. For one, we’re working the events, not watching as a fan. When the game ends and the fans head to the local watering hole to talk over the action, we’re on deadline trying to make sense of what just happened.
When the NHL granted Las Vegas an expansion franchise in 2016, I never for a moment could have believed I’d become as invested in the team as I did.
The Washington Capitals defeated the Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday, 4-3, to win the best-of-seven Stanley Cup in five games. When the final buzzer sounded, the Capitals poured off the bench, threw up their gloves and mobbed each other by the goal to my left.
They were, rightly, celebrating a brilliant performance and a well-earned championship.
I never saw it. I turned to my right where the dejected Golden Knights players watched the Capitals celebrate their victory. I didn’t want to see the Stanley Cup, because it hurt too much after investing so much emotional energy into this team. So, I made a point not to watch the Capitals. After the players went through the handshake line and the local fans saluted the Knights, we left as they announced the Cup was coming out.
I couldn’t bring myself to see the Capitals skate it around the Knights’ ice, not after becoming so engaged by their team-first attitude and joy they showed for the game.
The Golden Knights did an incredible job of building a deep and loyal fan base.
The team was remarkable. The players called themselves the Golden Misfits and there were few players beyond goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal of any significant pedigree.
The Knights ignored the experts who said they’d be lucky to make the playoffs, and couldn’t score goals. They won the Western Conference and were among the highest-scoring, most exciting teams in the league.
From the first day, the Knights played extraordinarily hard. They started off the year 8-1. It turns out they were more talented than we thought, as they proved in that opening stretch by defeating a number of quality teams.
What made the Knights so remarkable was how hard they played. In more than 50 years of watching professional sports, I can only recall a few who competed so hard so frequently. As it became clear in the second half that the Knights were one of the NHL’s better teams, I worried if they’d be able to raise their game in the playoffs.
The best teams, the teams that win championships, have another level they can get to in the postseason. That’s what the Capitals did this year. Evgeny Kunetsov was outstanding in the regular season but vastly better in the playoffs. Even Alexander Ovechkin was diving in front of pucks and playing the kind of hockey he’d never played before in his life.
It was a legitimate question whether the Knights could do that. But they did. They swept the Kings, beat the Sharks in six and won four in a row from the Jets after Winnipeg won the opener of the Western Conference finals.
They played as a team, they competed incredibly hard and they were better as the playoffs wore on.
The Knights’ front office put on a show all year, and it never stopped. There were the great openings, the fun between periods, the terrific skits on the video board, the celebrity appearances and more that made T-Mobile Arena a hotspot for hockey fans all year long.
As great as the game presentation was, though, it was because of the way this team played. It reminded you of why you became a fan in the first place, before you were jaded by contracts and business and all the rest: It was the love of the game.
The Golden Knights — the Golden Knights players, to be exact — helped rekindle my love of the game.
The Knights didn’t play their best in the finals and lost the Stanley Cup.
But it’s still appropriate to say thanks. Thanks for caring so much. Thanks for trying so hard. Thanks for having no prima donnas and thanks for being the dictionary definition of a team.
It’s easy to be jaded, but these players didn’t allow it.
Thanks, VGK. I owe you guys for a pretty fantastic nine months.