Wingers Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith and defenseman Jason Garrison — all former Florida Panthers — were at a team dinner in Las Vegas on October 1 when they heard the news.
A madman had opened fire at a concert on the Vegas Strip, killing 58 people and injuring nearly 500 more.
Garrison, in a phone interview with the Miami Herald, said he started hearing reports on social media but was unsure of the reliability.
“We all went home, and every highway exit was blocked off,” said Garrison, who is now teammates with Smith and Marchessault on the Las Vegas Golden Knights. “Police were rushing in, and it wasn’t until the next morning that we knew the true significance.”
It was life-changing significance, especially for everyone in Vegas.
The Knights — coached by former Panther coach Gerard Gallant — are in their first year as an NHL franchise. In fact, they are the first major pro team in Vegas history, and now they have become so much more than that.
“It’s special to be here and to try to rebuild this city,” said Smith, who joins Marchessault on a Vegas line centered by former New York Ranger Oscar Lindberg. “We’re trying to be a team that this city can stand behind.”
So far, the Knights (3-0-0) have been just that, becoming the first franchise in NHL history to begin their debut season with three consecutive wins.
On-ice success is nothing new for Smith, Marchessault and Garrison, all of whom have experienced their highest goal-scoring seasons with the Panthers.
Garrison, 32, made his NHL debut with the Panthers, scoring a career-best 16 goals in 2011-2012. Smith, 26, scored a career-high 25 goals while playing for Florida in the 2015-2016 season. Marchessault, 26, scored a career-high 30 goals last season while playing for the Panthers.
And Gallant had his best season as a coach in 2015-2016, winning the Atlantic Division with 103 points, which still stands as the best regular-season in Panthers history.
“It’s very interesting,” Garrison said of those their success while in Florida, “but I wasn’t there at the same time as Reilly and ‘Marchie’.”
All three players were on the ice on Tuesday night when the Knights made their home debut, defeating the Arizona Coyotes 5-2.
After a goose-bump-inducing opening ceremony that paid tribute to the 58 victims as well as the courageous first-responders, the Knights skated to a 4-1 first-period lead.
“There were a lot of emotions — it was way, way bigger than hockey,” Marchessault said. “It was a lot to take in, but I think that game was very important for the city.”
Marchessault, who was surprisingly left unprotected by the Panthers in this past summer’s expansion draft, said he isn’t mad at his old franchise.
“I was a little surprised, but not angry at all,” he said. “This proves that there’s nothing sure in this business. It just makes me want to go harder.”
Since arriving in Vegas, Marchessault has seen some shows — Absinthe and Cirque du Soleil, for example — and has been welcomed by the residents of his new city.
In fact, he has been shocked by how quickly Vegas has become a hockey town.
“Not just at the rink, but outside —they notice you,” he said. “You don’t expect the crowd to be that into it the first year, but the fans have been great.”
The Knights, a long shot (200-1) to win the Stanley Cup due to their expansion status, may soon come down to earth. But, in the meantime, they are playing inspired hockey with veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, winger James Neal (team-high five goals) and a deep defense.
But even if the experts are right and the Knights are not a true Cup contender, the team is sure to play an important role in Vegas’ recovery.
“The city is healing,” Garrison said. “We’re doing what we can to help with that process, not just on the ice but in visits to hospitals and by supporting first-responders. Those things get noticed and go a long way toward helping the city heal.”
The Panthers, whose first game against the Knights is Dec. 17 in Las Vegas, defeated the St. Louis Blues 5-2 on Thursday night at the BB&T Center.