LAS VEGAS -- There were plenty of skeptics when the NHL awarded an expansion franchise to Las Vegas.
After all, the historically transient city had never been the home of a major professional sports team before, and the idea that the first one in the market would be a hockey team didn't make much sense to cynics who viewed Vegas as nothing more than an oasis in the desert for bad beats and bad decisions.
However, Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley was able to convince the league that Las Vegas was ready to support a team with a season-ticket drive that exceeded even his own expectations. The team, which was nothing more than an idea in 2015, received deposits on more than 5,000 season tickets in the first two days and 9,000 within the first month. The goal was 10,000, but the team had to stop accepting new deposits after hitting 16,000 for a team that didn't exist that would theoretically be playing games in an arena that hadn't even been built.
The Golden Knights didn't know how they would do on the ice during their inaugural season, but they knew they would be a draw out of the gates at the new T-Mobile Arena, which seats 17,500 for hockey. Even if the team struggled, every game was essentially sold out before the season began, and the novelty of the city's first major professional sports team playing in a new arena would be enough of an attraction for locals and tourists alike.
What has been almost as shocking as the team's historic first season on the ice is what has taken place at City National Arena, the team's practice facility, located about 20 minutes off The Strip in Summerlin. At any given practice during the course of the season, the stands are filled with fans, young and old, chanting, clapping and banging the glass in support of their new favorite team.
"It's so cool when they start cheering for us when we get out there, and it immediately gives you a lift of energy," said Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt. "You know you have to practice well because people are going to watch you mess up out there. It's been important for our guys every day to come out and see that. It's something I've never seen before. It's incredible. Every day, it's like a treat for us to see that. It's like a Jolly Rancher every day when you go out. It's a nice shot in the arm."
The stands at City National Arena began to fill up early in the season as Vegas started the season 8-1-0, with seven of their first nine games at home. With tickets for almost every home game sold out and reselling for top dollar on the secondary market, the best way for some fans, and certainly for families with young children, to get a close-up look at the new team in town was by going to practice.
"We expect it now, and it's become the norm; fans get excited and they make practice fun," said Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant. "It really began after the first seven or eight games at home and there began to be a big following. People found out the practices were open to the public and people started showing up. There began to be more and more and more every day. I think it's easier when you have a facility like ours."
The 146,000-square-foot, $30 million City National Arena opened in September and includes two NHL-sized ice rinks, an official team store and a bar and grill overlooking both rinks. The team also set up Chance's Autograph Zone where Vegas' mascot, Chance, watches practice with kids, who are able to get pictures and autographs with players afterward.
"We've really looked to take the practice experience up a notch," said Golden Knights president Kerry Bubolz. "We added a DJ, we hand out battle towels to the fans so they can cheer the guys on when they take the ice for practice, and we try to make it a nice experience where they can get up-close access to the team."
The demand for players' time at practices grew so much during the course of the season that the team in late January had to limit autographs to kids 14-and-under in the autograph zone, and fans were no longer allowed to congregate outside of the players' parking lot outside of the facility.
"We have at least five players, usually more, come over and sign autographs after practice, and too often we'd have adults getting autographs while kids were waiting in line, and that didn't feel right," Bubolz said. "We also had to make sure the players and fans were safe outside as well. The demand for these guys continues to grow, and these guys are so great and they want to do as much as they can."
While Golden Knights games have attracted fans from all over the world this season, practices have been a meeting place for local families from Henderson to Summerlin. Complete strangers who met at practice at the beginning of the season have become good friends who meet up before home games and watch road games together.
"Practices are almost like a family gathering," said Vince De La Cruz, a 47-year-old restaurant manager, who has lived in Las Vegas for 24 years. "You get to know most of the people in the stands after a while, and as the season has gone on, finding a good seat has almost become like Black Friday after Thanksgiving, because if you don't get there early, you're going to miss out."
De La Cruz attended a recent practice with his wife, Denise, their son Joshua, 18, and daughters Julia, 15, and Grace, 10. They showed up to City National Arena almost one hour before practice and were able to get good seats, but most of the prime seats around the glass had already filled up by then.
"I try to go as often as I can, but this was my wife's first time and she enjoyed it," De La Cruz said. "It gives us a chance to spend time together as a family and it's free. How many things are free for families now? It has really brought the community together."
About 1,000 fans have packed the stands at the arena for practices during the playoffs, and approximately 1,500 fans have lined the streets and sidewalks outside the facility to send the team off to the airport before road games. Prior to leaving for Games 3 and 4 of their second-round series with the San Jose Sharks, the team's mascot, ice crew and drumline pumped up the throng outside and created a pep rally-like atmosphere as players drove by, one by one, from the facility to the airport, waving at the crowd as they drove away. Road-game watch parties during the playoffs have filled area locations ranging from Mandalay Bay Beach to The D Hotel in downtown Las Vegas.
"This is the best place to play right now," said Golden Knights center Jonathan Marchessault. "They support us at games, at practices, when we're driving to the airport, on the road, everywhere. I've never seen anything like this. Everyone says it, but these are really the league's best fans."