A group of misfits is making sports history this week. And helping a city heal.
On Monday, the Vegas Golden Knights hosted the Washington Capitals in the first game of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup championship series. It’s the team’s first year in the NHL.
Expansion teams, whose rosters are composed largely of players left unprotected by their former teams, usually go through a long learning curve, spending many years in the cellars of their leagues, until they acquire enough players to make them competitive.
Las Vegas’ Golden Knights, who began play on Oct. 6, 2017, five days after the tragic shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival that left 58 people dead and more than 800 injured, have found unprecedented success in their first season. And they have offered several inspirational lessons that reflect Jewish teachings.
Before the players stepped on the ice to begin the team’s debut season, they already became part of the community, doing bikur cholim, visiting those injured in the local hospitals.
The immediate impact was felt by both those affected by the tragedy, and the ragtag personnel that had been assembled in the summer’s expansion draft. “We feel we’re already a part of the community,” said forward Alex Tuch.
Defenseman Jon Merrill, who said his teammates looked ahead to opening night under a cloud of uncertainty, said, “We’re going to be out there fighting for this city. It’d be tough to find a dry eye in that building.”
Just as the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl victory did after Katrina and the Houston Astros’ World Series win did after Harvey, the Golden Knights unexpected regular season and post-season success is offering a respite to a city in shock. A city more associated with blackjack and slot machines than red lines and slap shots.
Second, spiritual priorities.
The team’s first game began with a 58-second moment of silence for the 58 victims. Civic unity trumped athletic victory.
As the Golden Knights entered the last stage of the season, coach Gerard Gallant has used the start of the campaign as the impetus for a spectacular run. “We always go back to our first home game,” Gallant said. “It wasn’t about our team winning, it wasn’t about nothing — it was about the first responders and the tragedy that happened the week before. It was a tough way to start our season, but I think the guys and everybody supported it well. They all came out and played an unbelievable game that first night and I just think it carried over.”
The current Golden Knights’ former employers had given up on the players who were not protected in the expansion draft. The team constructed by veteran general manager George McPhee, ironically the architect of the Washington Capitals, was made up of players who essentially were leftovers, castoffs or misfits from other NHL squads.
The players did not give up on themselves. Many of them had career-best seasons in 2017-18.
Leading the team is three-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, from the Pittsburgh Penguins, who was given a second chance in Las Vegas and is a leading contender to be named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Golden Knights clinched their place in the Stanley Cup championship series on Shavuot, when Hallel, excerpts from the Book of Psalms, is read. One line from Hallel states, “The stone the builders despised has become the cornerstone.” It’s a reference to David, who was rejected by his father and brothers, who went on to become king of Israel; and to the nation of Israel, which has scorn at the hands of other nations but remained steadfast in its mission.
Las Vegas’ hockey team epitomizes this.
Elsewhere in Hallel prayer we find another stark comparison to what the Golden Knights represent: “He raises the needy from the dust, from the trash heaps he lifts the destitute. To seat them with nobles, with the nobles of his people. He transforms the barren wife into a glad mother of children. Hallelujah!”
The Golden Knights are the ultimate underdogs. Just like the Maccabees were.
One of the reasons the largest sports clubs in Israel is called Maccabi is exactly for this reason. As the Jews of Constantinople were thrown out of their sports clubs due to anti-Semitism, they founded what would eventually be the powerhouse of sports in the Holy Land.
The Golden Knights won their game on Monday night, 6-4 (they lost 3-2 on Wednesday.) The final results of the best-of-seven series won’t be known until the end of this week or early next week.
But the Golden Knights have already proven they are winners. The famous saying, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” need not apply.
These modern-day Maccabees have inspired a city and a nation.
Montreal native Rabbi Joshua Halickman (aka the Sports Rabbi), a lifelong hockey fan now lives in Jerusalem, where he covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel Sports Adventures for tourists and residents and blogs at SportsRabbi.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.