The energy outside T-Mobile Arena for the Vegas Golden Knights' home opener was palpable, a strange mix of anticipation and excitement for a historic sporting event with a tinge of somberness. For every three Marc-Andre Fleury jerseys in the plaza outside the arena there was one "VEGAS STRONG" jersey to remind everyone that the Golden Knights' first home game wouldn't be the big party the city was known for.
The sea of dark Knights jerseys—based on two games' worth of anecdotal evidence, the light road jerseys are about as popular in Vegas as going to bed at a reasonable hour—were lightly peppered with Arizona Coyotes jerseys. There was even an oddly placed Jordan Martinook jersey, which was being worn by the player's dad, if you believe what someone said on Twitter.
With no laws against open containers, it was a tailgate atmosphere in a downtown setting. Instead of fans holding cans of light beers and sitting in patio chairs next to cars in a parking lot, they were on city benches holding half-priced margaritas and towers of frozen alcohol. If you followed the path of a beanbag being tossed during a game of cornhole, your eye would catch an advertisement for a Lady Gaga show.
If the mood struck, you could walk into a nearby casino and place a bet on the game you were about to attend or just kill time at a blackjack table—an option chosen by many—until it was time to enter the arena.
It was a level of overall giddiness for hockey that's rarely found outside of a Stanley Cup Final. If heaven is a real and it has a sports team, this is what the pregame scene would look like—cheap drinks, music, perfect weather, and games of chance within walking distance of a beautifully designed arena.
It could be said that much of that giddiness was an active attempt to distract from the tragic mass shooting that occurred in Vegas two weeks earlier. It could no longer be avoided once inside the arena, as the Knights offered one of the more complete, touching and thoughtful memorials by a sports team after a terrorist attack. There were literal tears in the stands as first responders and players took the ice together, a situation everyone wished they could avoid but embraced in a show of solidarity with a wounded community.
Four goals and about 15 minutes of real time later, the Knights gave everyone a reason to resume the party. The Coyotes were overwhelmed and the Knights won the franchise's first regular-season game inside the city limits on a night that will lay a foundation for the future of the organization.
The Knights' in-arena entertainment had its good quirks—instead of a 50/50 raffle like all arenas hold, they went with a 51/49 raffle, because "your odds are always better in Vegas," even though that's not true but it's cute—and its bad quirks, like an in-arena sing-along where the dude-bro with the microphone asked fans to change the "Sweet Caroline" words to "Sweet Golden Knights." The look of horror on the faces of the two women shown on the scoreboard as the song began will live with me forever.
But there was a playoff feel in what was the third game of the season, and that's a testament to the fans who packed the building, and man, they packed it. The arena PA announcer occasionally let the everyone know a whistle blew for an icing or offside, but there wasn't a sense of confusion in the air during those stoppages. You could close your eyes and think you were in Montreal or Chicago (since the Blackhawks got good and fans started showing up, of course).
Three nights later, things were a little different.
Instead of a team that should have either been contracted or relocated four years ago coming to town in the middle of the week, the Detroit Red Wings, as crummy as they are in their current form, arrived for the start of the weekend with a large fan base in tow. It's one of those unexplainable things—Red Wings fans don't attend home games but they show up on the road in big numbers.
A plaza packed with Fleury jerseys earlier in the week was now Henrik Zetterberg Central. Suddenly, the Fleury jerseys were operating at Martinook levels. There were probably more Red Wings fans in the plaza an hour before puck drop than there were at the new arena in Detroit on Monday night this week.
An arena that was 90 percent Knights fans for the opener was down to 60 percent, at best, for the second game. Wasn't the mascot reveal enough to pull fans back for another game? What about the Medieval Times sword fight at center ice? Isn't this team undefeated? Didn't the Knights say they received 16,000 season-ticket deposits for the 18,000-seat arena last year?
Herein lies the problem for the Knights in a non-traditional hockey market—sustaining and growing a local fan base and not relying on visiting fans. While few events will ever match what occurred in the Knights' first home game, rarely will you find such a loud building when the road team scores as you would have during the second home game. You could close your eyes and think you were in Detroit (if Red Wings fans actually packed their building, of course). If the passion for hockey in Vegas doesn't carry to a second game, what will things be like in January and February when the team most likely sinks in the standings?
If you walked from the arena to the strip during the game, there were very few signs a hockey game was taking place. The Monte Carlo sportsbook had six people in it—four watching Yankees-Astros and two sleeping. Walk a little further to the better, bigger MGM sportsbook and only two of the two-dozen televisions were showing the Wings-Knights game. And once Yankees-Astros ended, the giant TV in the book was changed to... Washington State-California football.
Once you got beyond Beerhaus, a bar near the plaza, it felt like just another Friday night in Vegas. Maybe the Knights could consider asking the dudes who hand out the hooker fliers to hand out Knights tickets? Or Knights coupons? Even in Beerhaus, there were only a handful of Knights fans, although the bartenders there have said business has greatly improved since the preseason.
There's also something to be said for the fact that that after a Knights goal, four guys at a nearby table began singing, "Sweet Golden Knights." That's not a joke. It really happened. And it happened again after another goal. If I weren't there to see it, I wouldn't have believed it. That's both a good and bad sign for an organization that wants to embed itself in the area.
After the game, it didn't take long for Beerhaus to become flooded with mostly happy Red Wings fans. There was a line three-deep around the bar, but the influx wasn't as strong Tuesday, as the Coyotes and their 12 fans at the game couldn't provide the same level of revenue as the thousands of Wings fans.
The other thing to consider is that Vegas fans don't necessarily live in Vegas and instead reside 25-30 minutes away. So if the building is only Knights fans on nights they host teams like the Devils, Islanders, Hurricanes or any other team with a limp fan base, the post-game effect won't be the same. Especially on a weeknight, because local residents can't stay out and revel until the wee hours because they have these things called jobs they have to attend the next day.
When Carolina and Tampa Bay come to Vegas on successive Tuesdays in December, it will be interesting to see what the atmosphere is like in the arena during the game and outside the building afterward. But on nights like this when the Red Wings are in town, it's an invasion.
New York, New York is the closest casino to the plaza—the Monte Carlo is open and nearby but it's currently undergoing renovations primarily because the Knights' existence means thousands of people will be spilling past the building 41 nights a year.
And because of all the Red Wings fans, the casino was a sight to behold.
Gordie Howe rolling craps. Jordin Tootoo arguing with a waitress that he ordered a Jack and Coke and this tastes like Bacardi. The Grind Line sitting side-by-side-by-side at a blackjack table. Enough Zetterberg jerseys that it looked like the final scene with all the amigos in the Three Amigos.
A drunk woman in a Knights jersey was sort of clapping with a small plastic cup of booze in one hand and dancing around four guys in Red Wings jerseys chanting "Go Knights Go." It wasn't confrontational—it was all in good fun—but that scene juxtaposed with the usual Friday night scene of people in their early 20s heading to clubs in their finest attire a few feet away was a sight to behold.
Everybody seemed to have identical, "What are you people doing here?" gazes.
It will be an adjustment for everyone in the first year of the Knights. If the team truly has sold most of its season tickets, how does it get more of its people in the building? How do you create more buzz outside of the immediate area of the arena? How can you dance and clap with a drink in your hand without spilling any of it? Those tiny plastic cups are easy to squeeze and spray the drink everywhere. Maybe she does magic in Vegas?
No matter the question, the answer will involve time and patience. The business model of visiting fan bases of popular teams filling seats isn't a viable long-term model but it's a great built-in fallback for now.
Make no mistake—even with the Golden Knights' great start (which included back-to-back home wins after the loss to Detroit), growing the team's popularity in Vegas will be a challenge. But the party that will be happening around it should make it easier to tolerate for the fans who are on the ground floor with the new franchise.