Las Vegas has fallen in love with Golden Knights

Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore (27), center Jonathan Marchessault, center, and right wing Alex Tuch (89) celebrate Tuch's goal against the San Jose Sharks during the second period of Game 5 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series, Friday, May 4, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS (AP) The Golden Knights’ gold-and-grey-on-black helmets are everywhere.

They’re on T-shirts and hats worn by mall patrons, on jerseys of moviegoers, on stuffed animals, on mugs and on bumper stickers deep in suburbia. Bars far from the city’s tourist-driven areas show the games on TV, and watch parties have become a regular activity.

The arena rocks when the expansion team that has taken the league by storm appears on its home ice. A city that for years longed for a major sports franchise has truly embraced the Knights.

”It’s so much different live than it is on TV. It’s a whole different experience,” said David Santangelo, a Las Vegas resident who is a season ticket holder and longtime hockey fan. ”People fall in love with it. So many people I talk to at work are saying that they didn’t know it was so exciting. People are really starting to learn about it now.”

Santangelo, who was wearing a Knights jersey, was among hundreds who attended a party Monday in downtown Las Vegas to watch Game 3 of the Knights’ second-round playoff series against the San Jose Sharks. The Golden Knights have a 3-2 series lead after a 5-3 victory over San Jose on Friday night.

For years, questions were raised over whether the tourist-driven city with a long history of hosting big events could support a big league team night after night. Gambling and a relatively small market size steered major franchises elsewhere. Before the Knights dropped the puck, there were naysayers even though initial ticket demand was high.

Average game attendance at T-Mobile Arena is now 18,042. Tourists and comped high-rollers have surely caught games. So have tennis greats Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, rapper Lil Jon, poker pro Daniel Negreanu and slugger Bryce Harper before baseball season started. But defying some of those early predictions, it’s been regular residents and their children who have filled the stands game after game.

The crowds bode well for the NFL’s Raiders, who are due to move to Sin City in 2020.

The Knights – who were 200-1 at many sports books to win the Stanley Cup before the season began – proudly declare themselves Vegas Born. Their success on the ice has certainly influenced attendance, but it may also have to do with the city’s desperate need for fellowship around the time the season opened.

The Knights’ home opener in October came only a few days after the city suffered the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The team retired jersey No. 58 during its final home game of the regular season to honor the victims. A banner with 58 stars was hoisted into the rafters. The victims’ names were also projected on the ice.

”I think because all the players are from different places and Las Vegas is a melting pot of people from different places, it’s just really brought community together to have our own team,” said fan Angel Ashby. ”This is a Vegas-born team. It isn’t from somewhere else.”

Ashby had rooted for the Colorado Avalanche, but got rid of the jersey when the Knights arrived. She and her friends rotate hosting watch parties.

The energy has existed at the arena from the beginning, but has progressively gotten louder with the success that followed. For the playoffs, the team has expanded the pregame festivities to include a huge knight’s helmet that is lowered from the rafters in front of the Vegas bench. The Golden Knights enter the ice through the front of the helmet.

Some players toss pucks to their young fans before the game and some children in attendance will get sticks from select players after every game. And the popularity has spilled over from T-Mobile Arena to City National Arena, the team’s practice facility. There, the Vegas Golden Knights Skating Academy has grown from less than 100 kids to nearly 1,000 seven months after its inception.

Todd Pollock, vice president of ticketing and suites, said he did not expect the level of support the team has experienced in its debut season and wondered what took so long for Las Vegas to get a major franchise. The team had planned a three-day campaign for season-ticket packages for next season, but the organization canceled after the first day due to an overwhelming response.

”What we’re seeing collectively this year absolutely, positively, I don’t think I could have scripted it any better than the way it’s currently playing out,” said Pollock, who worked in the same capacity with the Los Angeles Kings and the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.

Follow Regina Garcia Cano on Twitter at https://twitter.com/reginagarciakNO

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