Everyone knows where they were when they heard the news. It’s one of the things that has bonded the city together in the past few weeks. I was actually asleep. We had played our final preseason game against the Sharks that night, and I had gone home and put our kids to bed. Sometimes getting them down is more of a grind than the actual hockey game, so I was beat. By 11 o’clock, I was out.
Then at 12:30 in the morning, my wife’s phone started ringing. She always has her phone on Do Not Disturb at night — except for her closest friends and family. Only those calls go through. We both popped up. I was confused, and I remember saying, “What the heck’s your alarm going off for?”
Before she even answered, she looked at the screen and said, “It’s Chelsi. It’s 12:30 at night. Something’s wrong.”
Chelsi is one of my wife’s best friends. The first thing she told my wife was, “Turn on the TV, right now.” I could hear she was upset. In that moment, your mind thinks of a million different scenarios. We’re getting pretty used to tragedy in this country. But nothing can prepare you for when it’s your home, you know? When we turned on the TV … it didn’t even make sense. We saw the Mandalay Bay. We saw the cellphone footage of people running away. We saw the wounded being carried from the scene. We saw that our city was under attack.
Immediately, my mind went to my friends who are firefighters in the city. I still had no idea what was happening, or why it was happening. But I knew that some of the first people running toward that danger would be the firefighters.
I grabbed my phone and did what everyone in Vegas did that night. I went through all my contacts and I texted friends and family and people I love the exact same thing….
“Are you O.K.? Were you down there?”
And then we waited for the responses to come back.
When I was younger, I never, in a million years, thought I would ever call Vegas home. I’m an Edmonton kid. I first came here in 2003 to play for the Las Vegas Wranglers in the ECHL. It was about as far from the NHL as you could get. Our arena was inside The Orleans Casino, and since there wasn’t a real weight room, the whole team used to go do workouts at the Gold’s Gym up the street. It was kind of rough-and-tumble, but it was a blast. We were all making like $500 a week, so the team worked a pretty sweet deal with this Irish bar called McMullan’s. It was right across the street from The Orleans, so we would all walk over after the game to eat dinner. The deal was that you could get a free meal as long as you left a $5 tip. I probably ate 500-plus shepherd’s pies at McMullan’s.
This one night, I noticed a pretty girl sitting near the bar with her friends.
I am definitely not the smoothest talker in the world. I will admit that, no problem. But I did my best. I walked up to her and introduced myself. She said her name was Melissa and that she was getting her master’s at UNLV. I said I played hockey for the Wranglers, and I guess part of me thought she’d be impressed.
But she had the blankest expression possible.
“Las Vegas has a hockey team?” (Yes.)
“Do they actually pay you to play?” (Sort of.)
You know, that kind of thing. She didn’t know anything about hockey. So I gave her my number and told her to come to our next game so she could see what it was all about.
But then as I was walking back to my table, I just had this feeling, like, You know what? This girl is definitely not going to call me.
Editor’s note from Melissa: This is probably true. I thought he was a little too young.
So, I don’t know what got into me, but I wheeled back around and I said, “Hey, sorry, but uhh … I know you’re not going to call me. So how about you give me your number and I call you?”
I got the number. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Editor’s note from Melissa: It was the best thing that ever happened to him.
A few days later, she was sitting in the stands at The Orleans for our game. In those days, I dropped the gloves quite a bit. And in those days, I was pretty good at it. So at some point during the game, some guy asked if I wanted to go, and I knew that Melissa was in the stands — so you’re damn right I wanted to go. And, you know, I wasn’t about to lose a fight in front of this girl.
So I got him pretty good. And, at least in my memory of it, the fans were going crazy. They were lovin’ it. And I’m sitting in the penalty box, hands all cut up, thinking, She probably thinks I’m pretty cool.
So I got to McMullan’s after the game, and Melissa was supposed to meet me there so we could go out on the Strip. So I’m waiting, and I’m waiting. Finally, I called her and said, “Hey, where are you?”
And she was like, “Are you … kind of crazy?”
I’m like, “What? No!”
“Then why did you beat that guy up? That’s a bit irrational, don’t you think?”
I think that’s exactly what she said: “irrational.”
So I had to do some pretty big damage control. I was like, “No, no, you don’t understand! It’s my job! He was being a jerk! It’s the code!”
I guess I convinced her that I was a normal enough guy, and she ended up giving in and coming to meet me.
Fifteen years and two kids later, she still thinks it’s irrational that I go to work and fight other grown men, but we’re still going strong. And even though my hockey career took us all over the map — from South Carolina to Hershey to Wilkes-Barre to Pittsburgh to Norway (back to Pittsburgh) and then on Calgary, we returned to Las Vegas every summer. We built our home here. We made close friends here. And I mean, Vegas is definitely Vegas. The Strip is the Strip. It’s awesome. But what people don’t understand is that underneath all that, Las Vegas is almost like a small town. The people who live here all seem to know each other — or they know someone who knows someone. It’s a close-knit community in a lot of ways.
We absolutely love it here. Vegas is home.
When I knew there was a possibility that the Golden Knights could pick me up in the expansion draft this summer, I was really excited. My oldest son, Cash, was about to start kindergarten, and we didn’t want him to have to leave all his friends. We knew the Golden Knights were interested in me, but it was really up in the air until the last minute.
In the week leading up to the expansion draft, Melissa was beside herself. She was pacing around the house for two straight days, asking if I had heard anything from my agent.
It was perfect, because when my agent finally called and told me that Vegas was a done deal, Melissa was at work. So I had Cash staking out the driveway, waiting for her to come home. And when she came through the door he was standing there waiting for her.
He said, “Guess what, mommy?”
And I’m sitting in the penalty box, hands all cut up, thinking, She probably thinks I’m pretty cool.
She said, “What?”
He said, “Guess where Daddy’s playing this year?”
She said, “Where?!”
He said, “Vegasssssssssssss!”
She lost it, to say the least. There were some tears. I mean, you have to understand … if you would have told us back in 2004 that I’d be playing in the NHL some day, that would have been enough. It took me six seasons in the minors before I played my first NHL game. There were times when Melissa and I would drive across the country to my next training camp or my new team and we’d park our car in the Wal-Mart parking lot and go to sleep for a few hours so we didn’t waste money on a hotel.
It was a grind. So if you told me I’d be playing in the NHL some day … wow.
But to be playing in the NHL, for a new Las Vegas franchise, at the age of 35? That would’ve been beyond our wildest dreams.
It was hilarious, too, because my son is a talker. So everywhere we went around the city for literally the next month — the gas station, the grocery store — he would just walk up to random strangers and say, “My daddy’s playing for Vegas this year. He’s not playing for the Flames. He’s playing for the Golden Knights.”
Everywhere we went. Total strangers. Grandmas. Didn’t matter.
“My daddy’s a Golden Knight!”
And I’d be like, “Haha, O.K., bud. Let’s go. Thank you. Have a nice day.”
He was so pumped. Our whole family was so pumped. It was an extremely special time for us, waiting for that first home game of the season at T-Mobile Arena. Everything seemed perfect.
Then we were woken up in the middle of the night, and saw that tragedy was right on our doorstep. All of a sudden, hockey seemed incredibly unimportant. There is nothing you can say that can describe the heartache that so many people experienced that night.
Many of our friends were down there that night. One of Melissa’s best friends, Andrea, who happened to be with her the night I met her at McMullan’s and was in our wedding, was at the concert with her brother and his wife. Two of their friends had been shot and wounded pretty badly, but they both survived thanks to the work of so many brave first responders. The stories that we heard about the fear and the chaos at the concert that night were absolutely heartbreaking.
But then out of the tragedy there were also so many stories of courage. We knew the assistant hockey coach at UNLV, Nick Robone, who was shot multiple times. His younger brother, Anthony, carried him to safety and patched him up with bandages from a police car near the scene. Anthony didn’t know how badly his brother had been hurt, but instead of going with Nick to the hospital, he put his life on the line and ran back into the concert to help total strangers.
The stories go on and on. There was the former Marine who actually stole a random pickup truck so he could drive the wounded to the hospital. There were all the firefighters and EMTs and police officers and doctors and nurses who saved countless lives.
The entire city was in shock, but everyone came together in a time of fear and grief. The following morning, we delivered some supplies to the fire station and the blood bank. I couldn’t believe how many people had shown up to donate blood. The line was six hours long. They were turning people away, but people wanted to stay. They wanted to show that they were there to help the wounded no matter how long it would take. On Tuesday and Wednesday, a big group of our players went out after practice and visited a police station, the convention center, a blood bank and some hospitals. We all just wanted to show our support for those who were affected.
The feeling of togetherness in this city over the past three weeks has been unbelievable.
It would be completely foolish to say that sports can help people recover from a tragedy like this one. We know that it’s just hockey. We know that it’s just a game. But our team came together in the days after the shooting, and there was a real sense of purpose in our locker room. We just kept saying, “Hey, maybe we can go out and make this city proud, and maybe take people’s minds off things for just a few hours.”
We started the season on the road in Dallas just five days after the shooting. It was extremely tough, because everybody wanted to be back in Vegas doing whatever we could to help. We wanted to get that win so bad. And after we pulled it out 2–1, I stood up on the team bus on the way back to the hotel and read a text message from a friend of mine at the Las Vegas Fire Department.
He said, “Man, you wouldn’t believe the spirits you’re lifting here at the fire department. We were all watching. Keep it going.”
Everybody on the bus had goose bumps. I mean, guys were standing up and cheering. I’ve never seen anything like that energy. It felt like, in some very small way, we could give people something to feel good about.
A few nights later, when we finally had our home opener just a mile away from the site of the tragedy, you could feel the weight of the moment in the locker room. We were all nervous, but I was especially nervous. I was scheduled to say a few words to the first responders, who were going to be honored before the national anthem. I get nervous talking in front of 10 people, let alone 17,000 people, so my wife helped me edit the speech into something I’d be able to pull off, and I spent the entire day repeating the lines in my head.
In the locker room, I was a mess. I’ve never been so nervous. But when I skated out there, I saw the faces of all the first responders — men, women, younger people, older people, doctors, nurses, firefighters, engineers, police officers — my nerves went away.
All these people had run toward the danger. I just tried to forget where I was for a second and speak directly to them. They are true heroes. They are the people who make Las Vegas such a special place, and a place I proudly call my home.
Our team will continue to do everything we can to help those who were affected by this senseless tragedy.
We are not just strong. We are Vegas Strong.