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Everything’s coming up Vegas: Can the best expansion team we’ve ever seen capture hockey’s holy grail?

When the 2017-18 NHL season comes to an end, there’s no doubt the Golden Knights will have had the best expansion debut in the history of pro sports. But can they finish their quest and capture the Stanley Cup, too?

(Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the March 5, 2018, issue of The Hockey News. It has been edited and updated for online purposes.)

During the NHL’s All-Star Game weekend in Tampa, everybody involved has a little extra fluid to sweat out of their systems, if you know what we mean. It’s Media Day, and Vegas Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant is sitting at the podium, patiently answering question after question, pausing every couple of minutes to wipe the rapidly forming beads of perspiration off his brow with his hand. After 25 minutes of talking about the league’s greatest feel-good story in years, Gallant welcomes the chance to step down and says, “Holy s—, was that hot! I’m leaking!” So we’ve clearly established the man who is all but assured to be named the best coach in the NHL this season wilts under the bright lights, even when they’re not that bright. That’s probably not the most ideal scenario for a guy who makes his living on the Las Vegas Strip. It’s a good thing he rarely goes there. Aside from being in the T-Mobile Arena for his team’s games, Gallant reported he’s been to the world’s most debaucherous 4.2-mile stretch only twice so far.

One of the great things about being the coach of the Vegas Golden Knights these days is that you don’t have to prepare your team to play the Vegas Golden Knights. What started as an inspirational story in the face of the unspeakable tragedy of the city’s mass shooting has become something nobody could have foreseen. The Golden Knights are a shoo-in to be the best expansion franchise in the history of any professional sport in North America. That much is a given. But we’ve entered another stratosphere here. The Golden Knights entered the February with the best points percentage in the NHL and were legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup. Expansion teams are supposed to be cute and cuddly and really bad, chock-full of players on a mission to prove everyone was wrong about them and failing spectacularly in the process. Remember two years ago when Leicester City was coming off almost being relegated and faced 5,000-to-1 odds to win the Premier League? The Golden Knights are hockey’s version of that story. You can compare them to any other compelling team in the history of sports – the 1980 U.S. Olympic Miracle on Ice team, the 1969 Miracle Mets, the 1995 South African rugby team – and the Golden Knights take a backseat to none of them.

The amazing thing is the Golden Knights are in their infancy, but they’ve managed to avoid taking baby steps. They’ve skipped over the awkward adolescent stage and leapfrogged the clueless teenage years to instantly morph into full-on NHL adulthood. The $500 million they paid as an expansion fee gave them a ready-made NHL roster that had a chance to compete on the fringes of the playoffs, and their players have either overachieved wildly or were ridiculously underappreciated in their former organizations. They’re the fastest team in hockey, taking advantage of the crackdown on hooking and slashing to make the middle of the ice their own personal speedway. They get the puck on a turnover and make what look like blind passes but are really set plays to their forwards and, in doing so, create a chaotic transition game. Off the ice, they’ve boggled the mind. They sell out every game, hundreds of fans flock daily to their suburban facility to watch them practice, and they’re a team in the desert that will actually pay into the league’s revenue-sharing plan rather than draw from it.

Canadian transplant and world-famous poker star Daniel Negreanu has lived in Vegas for 20 years now. His career earnings of more than $35 million have made him a pretty big deal around there. Negreanu, a part of The Founding 50 who helped get the ticket drive going, has 16 season tickets – four in the lower bowl for himself and 12 more a little higher up that he gives to charities, kids and members of the military. He recently took a friend, a native of Mexico who now lives in Vegas, to his first hockey game and by the second period, the friend reported he was hooked and wanted to know how to get season tickets. It was something Alex Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals teammates noticed when they were there for their first visit, a shutout loss, two days before Christmas. “It’s an unbelievable show,” Ovechkin said. “You get excited. (It’s like) a nightclub. Everybody dancing over there. It’s like, ‘Holy s—, are we having a hockey game or is this a pool party?’ ” When asked whether the Capitals would be better prepared for their next meeting against the Golden Knights, Ovechkin responded: “We’re going to play in Washington, so it will be OK. Not so much dancing moves over there.”

The question now is not whether the Golden Knights will make the playoffs, but whether their fans will be dancing in the streets after them. Or as Negreanu put it: “People are already planning the parade. When you watch this team at home, you just think, ‘They can’t ever lose, right?’ ” It’s not a terribly far-fetched thought for a team that started the season with 200-to-1 odds of winning the Stanley Cup but by the 2018 portion of the campaign had climbed into a tie with the Tampa Bay Lightning at 6-to-1. To be sure, odds are more a reflection of where the money is going than who the bookies actually think is going to win, but you get the idea here. Who is anyone in the hockey world to spoil the party if the good people of Las Vegas are hedging on the near impossible? Plus, with the top of the NHL rife with parity, it could happen. And if it does, the sports books in the town where they play will lose millions of dollars.

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Vegas Golden Knights netminder Marc-Andre Fleury.

There are a number of reasons for the Golden Knights’ mind-blowing success this season, not the least of which is a Prince Edward Islander named Gerard Gallant. Acadians began settling in P.E.I. in the 1700s, and by the early 1800s there were 61 families on the entire Island – with 47 of them going by the surname of Gallant or Arsenault. Gerard’s father was a Gallant and his mother an Arsenault. Growing up in Summerside in a family so large that his oldest sister moved away to Toronto when he was an infant, Gallant was one of 11 children to Alfie, a civilian who worked on the air force base in town, and Rosie, who worked the arena canteen. Growing up, Gerard Gallant idolized his next-door neighbor, Mike ‘Pinky’ Gallant (no relation), who captained the local Jr. A team and was probably the toughest player to ever suit up for them. Pinky’s younger son, Alex, leads the AHL in penalty minutes, while his middle son, Brett, already has more than 1,500 career PIMs in fewer than 400 pro games. Suffice it to say, Gerard outdid Pinky. According to Elias Sports, a total of 19 players in NHL history have had seasons of 30 goals and 200 PIMs, but none more than the four Gallant had with the Detroit Red Wings in the late 1980s.

When it comes to coaching, Gallant most closely resembles the man who coached him in his best years in Detroit, Jacques Demers, with a little Pat Quinn and Pat Burns mixed in for good measure. “I played my best hockey for Jacques,” Gallant said. “Because he left me alone.”

None of those three, nor Gallant, will blow you away by parsing the game down into micromanageable pieces, but all are hockey geniuses in their own way. They all had and have an uncanny knack for being able to get the most out of their players and a unique ability to measure the pulse of their bench and react accordingly. Gallant rolls four lines with almost religious fervor and places an enormous amount of trust in his charges. He doesn’t chase matchups the way so many coaches do, and there is rarely a day when the Golden Knights practice for more than 45 minutes. And while they use video as a tool, Gallant doesn’t believe in having his players sit through half-hour video sessions as a team. “I do a lot of my coaching on the bench,” Gallant said. “We don’t waste a lot of time. I tell my assistants, ‘Make sure when they come off the ice they know when they did something good and make sure they know when they did something bad.’ It’s a little reinforcement, but 80 percent of the time it’s positive reinforcement.”

When Golden Knights GM George McPhee was looking for a coach for his team, he got in touch with Gallant almost the instant he was kicked to the curb by the Florida Panthers. McPhee wanted someone who had played in the league and, before hiring Gallant, spoke with numerous players who had played for him. All were unanimous in their endorsement of Gallant, saying he was the ultimate players’ coach. Much of that is because Gallant was a player himself, one who forged a very good career as an undersized but fierce competitor who had the fists of a heavyweight and the hands of a goal scorer. Gallant immediately developed a bond with Steve Yzerman and the two played together until back problems began to derail Gallant’s career.

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Perhaps there’s nobody in hockey who knows Gallant better than Sportsnet analyst and former NHL coach and GM Doug MacLean, who has known him since Gallant was 10 years old. In his former life, MacLean taught Gallant Grade 10 math and life skills at Three Oaks Senior High School in Summerside. Gallant worked at MacLean’s hockey school every summer growing up, then played for him when MacLean was an associate coach with the Red Wings. As GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets, MacLean hired Gallant as an assistant coach, then made him head coach three years later. MacLean remembers Gallant as a proud and fearless player who had trouble adjusting to his role when it was diminished in Detroit. MacLean recalled one game near the end of Gallant’s tenure with the Wings when Bryan Murray was the coach and MacLean the associate. At one point during a game, Gallant elbowed MacLean in the back of his leg to get his attention and said, “Tell that f—in’ dummy to put me out on the power play.” On another occasion, again later in Gallant’s career, MacLean recalled the Red Wings were playing the Montreal Canadiens and Gallant came to the bench and said, “I’m telling you, next shift I’m going after that Swede.” To which MacLean replied, “Uh, Gerard, that’s not a Swede, that’s Lyle Odelein and he’s from Saskatchewan. Randy McKay, one of our tough guys, dropped his gloves and he and Lyle had an unbelievable fight. Gerard turns around to me and says, ‘Thanks a lot. I appreciate that.’ ”

When you talk to Gallant now, it’s hard to believe he was so tough as a player. He smiles often, speaks softly and doesn’t seem the least bit intimidating. He is not, however, a pushover. One of the things his players appreciate most about him is that he is direct with them, both positively and negatively. They also appreciate knowing they’re truly part of the collective effort because, from the first line to the fourth, his players are all in the game. Gallant will try to get favorable matchups, particularly when they’re more available to him on home ice, but he does not obsess with chasing them because he believes it to be counterproductive. “Think about it,” McPhee said. “If you’re being yanked off the ice every time a certain line is out there, what does that say about your abilities? In terms of rating players and getting the most out of his players, (Gallant) might be one of the best we’ve ever seen.”

Like every good story, this one has a little hyperbole to it. One of them seems to be this notion that the Golden Knights are doing all these great things despite being members of the Island of Misfit Toys, a group of castoffs who were unwanted and unappreciated by their previous teams. That’s a bit of a stretch. The Golden Knights are the best expansion team in NHL history because they began the season with the best expansion roster in NHL history by a pretty fair margin. Nobody saw William Karlsson challenging for the Rocket Richard Trophy, so that’s a major surprise. But Jonathan Marchessault had 30 goals last season in Florida, and James Neal has 10 20-goal seasons to his credit. Marc-Andre Fleury has three Stanley Cup rings. “When we started the season, I felt like if I could just give our team a chance to stay in the game and keep it close, we can have a chance to win some games here and there,” Fleury said. “But it’s been easy. We’ve played a lot of teams and now it feels like we’re just a normal team now trying to win games. Things are getting more normal as we go.”

Earlier in the season, when they were making their way through the league, almost every night a player on the Golden Knights roster was playing against his former organization. Don’t think Karlsson didn’t enjoy it when he potted two goals in a win over Columbus, the team that left him exposed in the expansion draft. In their first game against the Panthers, Marchessault had a goal and two assists and Reilly Smith had two assists as the Golden Knights came back from a 2-0 deficit to win 5-2. The two players came to Vegas from Florida for the sum total of a fourth-round pick. And then there was Gallant, who thought he had a team in Florida that could contend for the Stanley Cup, then watched as ownership dismantled it and left him on the sidewalk in Raleigh to catch a cab after firing him. “Obviously, I wasn’t happy with a lot of the decisions (in Florida), and that’s where it started,” Gallant said. “(The night he was fired), the taxi came up and I jumped in the taxi. It looked a lot worse than it was.” But even Gallant downplayed the revenge factor early in the season until he couldn’t help but notice that guys on his roster playing against their former teams were coming up big. “I’ve been in that position before, and there’s no better feeling than scoring against your old team,” Neal said. “It’s a different player’s team every night. When you play your old team, you want to play well. You want to score and you want to do everything to win the game. Do we have a chip on our shoulders? Of course we do. When you’re left unprotected, you have something to prove.”

The Knights’ success can be better explained, however, in how they approach the game. Gallant took one look at his roster over the summer and saw that he had some size on the back end but did not have a big, physical team for the most part. That, and the emphasis on speed, convinced him to implement a system based on fast puck movement and quick feet. There are times when the Knights get the puck in their end and immediately move it up the ice to a forward speeding out of the zone. It creates a ton of pressure on opponents and has them on their heels just seconds after they’re on the attack. And it’s working to perfection in most cases. “We saw our forward group, and we thought with the Marchessaults and Smiths, they don’t want to be bumpin’ and bangin’, that’s not their style,” Gallant said. “So let’s get the puck up to them with a good, fast transition game. Every team does it, but it seemed to work well with our group. Let’s face it, 90 percent of the systems are the same, and the biggest thing is how your players execute and how you manage your players. I haven’t done anything different as a coach with this group. I can’t say there’s anything special about what is going on. Some nights I try to figure it out myself.”

There really is something special and unique going on, though. Even though they’re an expansion team, the Golden Knights are not particularly young. And they have an inordinate number of players enjoying career years. With the exception of the start of the season when they got to the fifth goaltender on their depth chart and continued to win, there have not been any serious injuries, something Gallant attributes to the fact the forward who logs the most ice time is Karlsson at just over 18 minutes a game. “Tired people get hurt a lot of the time,” he said.

Things are beginning to gain a sense of normalcy with Vegas now. There is no sense this is a house of cards that is going to fall apart. They have a competitive roster and have stocked well for the future. Prospective free agents, mindful of the fact that they could basically wipe out their escrow payments by having no state taxes, will seriously consider the Golden Knights. McPhee is quick to point out they haven’t accomplished anything yet and “none of this means anything until we do something.” Gallant maintains they’re not obsessed with being in first place in the Western Conference and, in fact, barely mention it. Through the first half of the season, though, Gallant could remember in his mind’s eye the exact games in which his team underperformed. Instead of being deluged with a steady stream of losses, the Golden Knights are making history.

There is indeed something going on in Vegas. And what’s happening in Vegas simply can’t stay there. It’s just too good not to share.