Brian Killingsworth arrived at his Vegas Golden Knights office on Oct. 2 to face the task of transforming a planned opening-night party into the first major remembrance of the Route 91 massacre.
Just three months into his job and with only eight days to adjust, Killingsworth sought advice from one of the few places with even the opening pages of a playbook when he dialed up contacts with the Boston Red Sox.
“They gave us a lot of good insight on how sports and their particular team really helped bridge that city together after that tragedy,” Killingsworth said. “I hate to say it, but they had the blueprint for how to deal with a disaster that bad from the team side.”
Killingsworth and Jonny Greco, the team’s vice president of events and entertainment, executed a pitch-perfect day from a Nevada-shaped “Vegas Strong” ice sculpture greeting fans in front of T-Mobile Arena to 58 seconds of pre-game silence honoring the lives lost last Sunday.
The Golden Knights succeeded in balancing the temporary escape sought by a weary community with the solemnity demanded by the country’s worst-ever mass shooting.
“It obviously changes the focus and the tenor, but it also shows what a major-league professional sports team can do to a community in terms of bringing people together, uniting them, helping them heal from a tragedy and demonstrate the power of distraction when everybody comes together,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
The team removed all advertising from its dasher boards for the night, replacing it with #VegasStrong messages wrapping the ice. Hours before the game, vendors sold black T-shirts with the Golden Knights’ custom Vegas Strong logo for $20, with all money going to charity efforts. Team executives wore custom jerseys with a Vegas Strong nameplate and the number 17 on the back as they talked to fans on Toshiba Plaza, while players took the ice for warmups in custom white shirts with Vegas Strong across the shoulders. Proceeds from the team’s 51/49 raffle — which netted $52,970 — went to Metro’s foundation.
“It’s like how can you give a hug to the city the right way,” Killingsworth said. “And that’s our responsibility to do that.”
At 7:25 p.m., the energetic atmosphere from warmups cooled as the arena lights dimmed. A video rolled featuring the captains of every other NHL team saying “your team is our team” and “Vegas Strong.” Following it was another video with images of police, firefighters, doctors, nurses and Mandalay Bay employees that drew the first of many strong cheers from the sellout crowd of 18,191 people.
Player introductions worked in reverse, as the public address announcer welcomed first responders, medical personnel and law enforcement officers one-by-one.
“We’d like to introduce our heroes, the heroes of Las Vegas, those people whose actions on 1 October will forever remind us of the best of humankind.”
Each everyday hero from the tragedy was escorted by a Golden Knight to a spot along the blue line, where the Arizona Coyotes later joined the team before the national anthem.
Grief then hit its lowest, the 58 seconds of silence accompanied by the projection of the name of each person killed in the attacks projected onto the ice. At the 58th second, a fan yelled from the upper deck, “We’re Vegas Strong!” A team from the Route 91 Harvest Festival cued the capacity crowd to sing, an overwhelming unified voice taking over the arena and building back its strength.
“We were really cognizant to honor the victims and then to also really celebrate first responders,” Killingsworth said.
Killingsworth drew from the most emotional moment in the Red Sox ceremony honoring victims of the Boston Marathon bombing five days after the terrorist attack. He tapped defenseman Deryk Engelland, a 13-year Southern Nevada resident, to speak to fans during the pregame ceremony as David Ortiz did in 2013.
“Like all of you, I’m proud to call Las Vegas home,” Engelland said. “I met my wife here, my kids were born here, and I know how special this city is.”
Coyotes players offered stick taps on Engelland’s shin pads as they skated back to their bench. Less than 10 minutes later, Engelland owned one of four goals scored by the Golden Knights in a cathartic opening stretch already written into the sports lore of Las Vegas.
“The guys did a good job in here channeling that emotion and running with it,” Engelland said.
Head coach Gerard Gallant tasked his team with doing just that prior to the first contest for a Las Vegas-based major-league sports franchise.
“My message was simple: I talked about the game a little bit and we talked about tonight being the most important game we’ll ever play,” Gallant said. “We’re playing for our city, for the tragedy that happened, for all the people that were here tonight and were affected by the tragedy. I thought the guys did a hell of a job.”
Engelland stayed in Las Vegas after joining the Wranglers of the ECHL in 2004, but he learned plenty about his adopted hometown in the past week.
“I knew it was a small community, but it’s way tighter than I could have ever imagined,” Engelland said.
That unity showed throughout the afternoon and evening, in large part thanks to the deft management of Killingsworth and Greco.
“You see how sports teams can galvanize people together after a tragedy like that,” Killingsworth said. “I think the same thing is going to happen here. We saw from the event itself, strangers were protecting strangers. Now, this is a chance to have people really come around and come together.”