LAS VEGAS (AP) — It was supposed to be a celebration of all the things this city is about, a night many thought would never come.
But the carnage is too fresh, the horror still too real.
The city’s first major professional sports team opens at home Tuesday night on the Las Vegas Strip, a short walk from where a gunman carried out an unthinkable attack that left 58 people dead. Fans are expected to pack the T-Mobile Arena to watch the Vegas Golden Knights against the Arizona Coyotes in a debut more than three years in the making.
Hockey will still be played. But the celebration will have to wait.
“This terrible event has kind of put a damper on opening night,” Knights owner Bill Foley said. “We’re going to be very respectful and pay tribute to the first responders and victims. That’s kind of our job. We’re the Las Vegas team and this is going to be the first event following the massacre.”
Las Vegas remains a somber place, even as tourists continue the never-ending party on the Strip. Hospitals are still caring for victims, some still in critical condition, and the cleanup at the site of the massacre continues.
A hockey game isn’t going to suddenly make things better. But there will be prayers for those killed and wounded, and praise for those who went in to try and save them.
Surely a lot of tears, too, because emotions are still very raw.
Then there will be hockey on the highest level, as Las Vegas joins the ranks of cities with major sports franchises for the first time.
“We can do the celebratory activity in our second game on Friday,” Foley said. “We just deferred all of that and thought we should just focus on helping the victims any way we can.”
Foley, who earned a fortune in the title insurance business, paid a $500 million expansion fee to the NHL to get the franchise for his newly adopted city. In a place where odds matter, he defied them to land a team and get a piece of the privately funded arena on the Strip that opened just last year.
Some 13,500 people bought season tickets. Hockey fans from around the country are expected to visit throughout the season to watch their favorite teams and enjoy a few of their favorite activities in this adult playground.
Two games into the season, the Golden Knights are a surprising 2-0. They begin play at home under less-than-ideal conditions, eager to do their part to provide some entertainment to a city still in mourning.
“My prayers go to everyone affected,” said James Neal, who scored the winning goal in both Golden Knights wins. “We talked about giving people a smile and something to be happy about and we’re doing everything we can to help uplift this city and this community.”
Neal went to the Route 91 Harvest festival concert Friday night and planned to go again the night of the shooting until he got a text saying that he had a morning skate the next day. He had friends who were there, so the shooting is very real to him.
Neal was among the players who went to visit first responders. He and teammates who are still trying to find their way around the city also went to the victim’s assistance center to try to offer some comfort to victims and their families.
Small things, yes. But this is a team that from Day 1 has had a laser focus on integrating itself with the local community.
“It was pretty tough on them, a lot of people were still looking for loved ones and friends,” Foley said about the visits. “But hockey players are all great guys and they all really wanted to participate.”
Eventually, of course, the shock and horror will fade and hockey will just be hockey again. Thanks to a generous expansion draft, the Golden Knights are expected to be one of the better expansion teams in their first year, though any thoughts of a Stanley Cup being paraded on the Las Vegas Strip are a bit premature.
First, they must get through an opening night Tuesday unlike any other.
“It’s going to be tough,” Foley said. “But we’re going to do a good job.”
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or http://twitter/com/timdahlberg