“Let’s get those figure skaters off the ice,” one parent said.
Like most crowded inside the lobby and near the lockers inside the Salt Lake City sports complex Friday morning, she was in black-and-gold. Many were sporting the same colors. Kids eagerly laced up their skates, looking out at the open-skate session to come to an end and elated for the next one to begin.
Because on the other side of the glass, in shorts and a No. 88 jersey was Nate Schmidt, the guy hundreds of fans came out to see and meet. Friday was the last stop of the Las Vegas Golden Knights' summer road trip, which began last week in Vegas and worked its way around the intermountain West, from Reno to Boise to Jackson Hole and finally to Salt Lake, where it’s clear the fan base is still burgeoning.
And fans were everywhere. Jerseys and shirts with last names like Schmidt, Fleury and Karlsson were there. The Vegas mascot, Chance, a giant yellow Gila monster, was making the rounds, too. Youngsters showed up in their peewee jerseys, waiting to greet Schmidt, the 27-year-old defenseman who helped the Golden Knights make their historic run to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first year of existence last season.
It’s clear the reach of the franchise is growing.
A couple of months ago, before Schmidt agreed to come on the road trip, he heard rough estimates of how many fans would be in stops like Reno, Boise and Salt Lake. They’ve nearly doubled in actual turnout since, Schmidt said. Numbers have reached as much as a thousand.
“To be able to see where the Golden Knights logo has gotten to be,” he said, “it’s awesome to be out here.”
Year 1 will be forever etched into the city’s lore. Not only were the Knights the first major league franchise to land in Las Vegas, but amid the tragedy of October’s mass shooting, the Golden Knights helped unite a community heartbroken and in shock. The day after, Schmidt said the players filtered out around town to see how they could help. That, he said, set the tone for the city falling in love with the team.
It helped, too, that they were phenomenal as a rookie organization, going 51-24-7 in the regular season and eventually falling to the Washington Capitals 4-1 with the Stanley Cup on the line.
“I’ve been in the league for a long time, both as a player and broadcaster,” said TV color analyst Shane Hnidy, “and I’ve just never seen anything like that.”
“It was interesting as they got better as the year went along, people went from doubters to believers to saying, ‘Well, this is fixed!’” Hnidy said. “That’s what happens when you’re on top, you have people looking for a reason why you shouldn’t be.”
The NHL has its staples out West. The Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, all teams that have long been a fabric of the league’s growth. But with Vegas, there was something different. And it’s clearly made an imprint on the region. Owner Bill Foley envisioned his club being the team of the desert and of the Rocky Mountains.
“We’ve been welcomed everywhere,” Hnidy said. “I think it’s a team that people want to grab a hold of.”
For Schmidt, it’s a chance to live out a dream that he missed as a kid. Growing up in Minnesota, the former North Stars had left and the Wild hadn’t been awarded an expansion spot. He grew up watching the Detroit Red Wings instead. So as young hockey players and fans lined up to skate with him Friday in Salt Lake, it dawned on him.
How much cooler would it have been if his hometown had a team when he was the kid in the peewee jersey showing up to events such as this?
Schmidt realized that a couple hours in the last remaining months of summer could just add to the groundswell support for the Golden Knights. It doesn’t have to be in Vegas, either. They’re already a hit everywhere.