Until Oct. 10, there was only one sporting event in my life that has ever brought me to tears out of pure joy; not only at the time I’d first witnessed it, but also whenever it’s been brought up in conversation or replayed on a television screen.
That was Mike Piazza’s homerun on Sept. 21, 2001 – a mere 10 days after the horrific terrorist attacks on our shores. I didn’t even get to see it until the next night because of the Sabbath, but it basically had the same impact, even if I was watching a recorded ballgame that wasn’t occurring in real time.
After 10 days of sulking and worrying, I felt something different, something I’d almost forgotten we were capable of expressing: happiness. That win by the Mets, and the homer Piazza smashed over the fence at Shea Stadium to help facilitate it, gave New York a badly-needed spark. To this day, I tell anybody who says that sports don’t matter to watch that game from start to finish and then dare come back and say to me they still feel the same way.
Fast forward 16 years later, opening night in Las Vegas for the expansion Golden Knights. This wasn’t just the first professional sports game in Vegas since the deadly shooting the city had borne witness to nine days earlier; it was the first professional sports game ever for a Vegas-based team.
I don’t know for certain what the original plans for the Golden Knights’ pregame ceremony were, though it’s probably a good guess that it wasn’t supposed to look anything like what we saw on Tuesday night. Perhaps, there was supposed to be a flashy performance by Cirque Du Soleil, perhaps there were supposed to be giant slot machines on the ice shooting smoke into the air. I don’t know. All I know is, the Golden Knights could’ve stuck with those elements and included a moment of silence for the victims, or something to that affect.
They didn’t have to cover all of the ads on the boards and replace them with the words “Vegas Strong.”
They didn’t have to introduce the members of the inaugural team roster and management as secondary to the heroes and first responders that were being honored and given full marquee treatment.
They didn’t have to spend 58 seconds on a moment of silence – we’ve definitely seen much shorter ones before.
They didn’t have to go out of their way to address the crowd, as Deryk Engelland did at center ice; delivering an emotional speech about how the team would do everything they could to help the city he met his wife in and adopted as his home begin to heal.
They didn’t have to do all of those things, but they did. And it wasn’t just the right thing to do – it was the most perfect way possible to capture the spirit and gravity of the moment, the most perfect way to honor those who lost their lives and those who rushed to save lives.
As if that weren’t enough, the Golden Knights scored two and a half minutes into the contest, and never looked back. Their second tally, which came just 1:47 later, was registered to hometown hero Engelland, an absolute cannon of a slap shot that beat Arizona goaltender Anti Raanta and sent the already rambunctious assembled masses into total bedlam.
When it was all said and done, the Golden Knights had beaten the Coyotes 5-2, the first star of the game awarded to the city.
There’s an old saying that “evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.” For a change, the good guys won and did so in as dramatic a fashion as you could envision. All those in attendance amongst the sellout crowd at T-Mobile Arena wanted was a reason to cheer, to hold their heads high and come together. They got that by the gallon, and then some.
In my mind, the parallels to Piazza’s homerun after 9/11 were immediately drawn and never faded away.
I don’t live in Las Vegas – heck, I’ve never even been to Las Vegas. But on Tuesday night, I think we all felt like we were right there, in that emotionally-charged atmosphere. And when Engelland scored, there weren’t enough tissues in the world to stop the tears from flowing.
There is still a lot of work to be done and a long road ahead for the city, the victims, families and friends. Having said that, the Golden Knights showed them there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s just a flicker in the distance in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.
Like Mike Piazza and the Mets did in 2001, Vegas’ new hockey team lifted people up and united them. They reminded people that there are still reasons to smile.
Even if they don’t win another game for the rest of the season, the Golden Knights have already made more of an impact than any team possibly could with a Stanley Cup title.