Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau
Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020 | 2 a.m.
Deryk Engelland, predictably, wasn’t willing to divulge his future plans.
The contract of the Golden Knights’ defenseman will expire next week, making him a free agent and potentially ending the tenure of the player with deep local roots. He played just once over the final month of the season and not at all in the playoffs.
Vegas even offered to trade him in February to get him more playing time, but he refused.
The writing is on the wall that Engelland’s time with the Knights could be ending after three seasons. But his impact in Las Vegas has been two decades in the making and won’t be ending next week, contract or not.
Engelland has a Las Vegas footprint that no one in hockey has: a time that began with minor league games at the Orleans Arena in 2003 and was cemented with a speech no one will ever forget in 2017. Until the very end, he was always putting others first.
Las Vegas Wranglers
Engelland is like many Las Vegans: He wasn’t born here, but he got here as fast as he could. He first came to Las Vegas as a 21-year-old when he played in the ECHL with the Las Vegas Wranglers. The city has had a few hockey teams since then, but none like the Wranglers, whose 12-year tenure to this day makes it the longest-lived professional hockey team in Nevada history.
Engelland, now 38, arrived in 2003 and played parts of two unspectacular seasons. The Wranglers have 19 alumni who skated in the NHL, but Engelland is the only one who returned to play for the city’s NHL team.
Besides, this is where Engelland met his wife. He detailed the meeting in a 2017 story on The Players’ Tribune — seeing Melissa at a bar after a Wranglers game, inviting her to another game, and not making the impression he had hoped when he dropped the gloves that night.
Melissa was studying at UNLV when they met. She’s from Wisconsin and Deryk is from Edmonton. They tried spending summers in her hometown, in Canada and a few places as Engelland’s hockey career took them across the continent — even to Norway for a spell.
But nowhere stacked up to Las Vegas. Both of their sons, Cash and Talon, were born here.
“We both loved here, from my time playing here and her going to school,” Engelland said. “Ever since then, it’s been home and it’s going to be for a long time, I think.”
Engelland left town after the season in 2005 to continue his climb to hockey’s highest level, which achieved in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He played parts of five seasons in Pittsburgh and three more in Calgary. His offseason home was Las Vegas, but he never thought he’d play hockey here again.
Vegas Golden Knights
Engelland’s contract with the Flames expired after the 2017 season, the same time the Golden Knights were prepping for their inaugural campaign. Engelland was interested in the possibility of a free agent deal with the Knights, but they made that decision for him, plucking him from Calgary in the expansion draft.
Nearly every first-year Golden Knight was going to play in a city they had only heard of or visited on vacation. Engelland was going home.
“When they called and told me they were interested, it was almost surreal,” he said. “You’re dreaming and hoping it would come true; it’s a pretty special moment.”
Everything went right on the ice that first season. The Golden Knights made a miracle run to the Stanley Cup Final, thanks in part to a career year for the 35-year-old defenseman. Vegas still hasn’t had a formal captain, but Engelland was the de facto leader. He wore an ‘A’ on his jersey as alternate captain and accepted the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl as Western Conference champions, a role reserved for the team’s captain.
He signed a one-year extension in January 2018, and won the league-wide Mark Messier Leadership Award.
Off the ice, the Knights galvanized the city in a way that the team could have only hoped for. They quickly became Las Vegas’ team, with car flags and street signs and jerseys everywhere you went, from Boulder City to the Strip to Mesquite.
And many of those signs and banners and jerseys had two words on them, a rallying cry that Engelland invoked during the most important minute in his time with the Golden Knights: Vegas Strong.
‘We are Vegas Strong’
It was 58 seconds from the time he started speaking on the night of Oct. 10, 2017, until he finished — 58 seconds to memorialize the 58 people who died on the worst night in this city’s history.
Just nine days prior, a man opened fire from the window of Mandalay Bay onto the Route 91 Harvest Festival, killing 58 and injuring hundreds.
The Golden Knights started their first season on the road, winning in Dallas and Arizona before their inaugural home game Oct. 10. Because of the shooting, the team scrapped its celebratory plans for the first game, and instead dedicated the night to everyone involved in the tragedy the week before.
That included Engelland doing his part. The team came to him and asked if he would be interested in giving a speech. He admits he’s not much of a public speaker, but he could have fooled anyone in the building that night. It wasn’t poetic, but was exactly what was needed.
“Like all of you, I’m proud to call Las Vegas home,” he said then. “I met my wife here. Our kids were born here. I know how special this city is. To all the brave first responders that have worked tirelessly and courageously through this whole tragedy, we thank you. To the families and friends of the victims, we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal. … We are Vegas Strong.”
Engelland said his biggest worry was misspeaking, or messing up something that he knew would be “coming from the heart.” He rehearsed the speech with Melissa, worked on it with the Golden Knights’ public relations staff, memorized as much as he could, and skated to center-ice for the moment.
“Playing hockey in front of 18,000 is easy, you do that every day,” Engelland said. “To stand up there and speak while everyone is quiet and not saying a word was extremely nerve-wracking.”
Of course the Golden Knights would not be denied a victory that night. They defeated the Coyotes 5-2 and, naturally, Engelland scored a goal, one of just 30 he netted in 11 years.
“That one and my first goal ever in the NHL are going to be the ones you’re going to remember for the rest of your life,” Engelland said. “To get that one on that night was extremely special.”
The three-year anniversary of the shooting is Thursday, and it expects to be a somber day in Las Vegas, just as the first and second anniversaries were. Last year, the Golden Knights were about to start the regular season, and held a closed practice for those affected, as well as hosting them for lunch afterward.
This year, T-Mobile Arena will serve as the site of a blood drive with the American Red Cross, with all those who donate receiving a commemorative “Vegas Stronger” puck.
No one who was in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017, will forget where they were or what they did that night. It means something personal to everyone, and to Engelland, it’s a day to focus on first responders.
“Not just on Oct. 1 but every single day they put their lives on the line fighting fires, police officers, everything, doctors, nurses — they’re there to help us and make our community safe,” Engelland said. “It’s another day to thank those people for all they do for our community.”
The Golden Knights didn’t extend Engelland’s contract before last summer, allowing him to hit unrestricted free agency. Three weeks after free agency opened, they struck a bonus-laden deal with a base salary at the league minimum, but with all the young defensemen in Vegas’ system, it was clear Engelland’s days as an everyday player were numbered.
Still, Engelland played the first half of the season like he always had. He missed just five of the first 53 games through January and remained a stalwart on the penalty kill. Things changed though, once February came along.
From the team’s Feb. 1 game in Nashville through the end of the season, 18 games, Engelland suited up just once, the Feb. 13 game at home against the St. Louis Blues. It coincided with the emergence of Zach Whitecloud, a 23-year-old rookie who took Engelland’s spot in the lineup on the right side of the third pair and on the penalty kill. Vegas extended Whitecloud shortly after the season’s pause in March, and Whitecloud proceeded to play all 20 postseason games. Engelland did not dress in the playoffs.
It was clear ahead of the Feb. 24 trade deadline that Whitecloud was Vegas’ choice moving forward, and his playing time was coming at the expense of Engelland’s. Other teams saw this too, and the Golden Knights received a trade offer for the defenseman. Engelland did not have no-trade protection, meaning the Golden Knights didn’t need his permission to trade him. They asked for it anyway.
“We talked about the situation, and offered to try to do whatever we could to put him in a better spot,” general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “If he wanted to go to another organization, there was an organization that was ready to trade for him. We wanted Deryk to make the decision. We talked to him. He talked it over with his family and came back the next day and said, ‘I think this team can win the Stanley Cup. I want to stay here.’”
Engelland said it wasn’t a tough decision. Neither he nor McCrimmon named the team, but Engelland alluded to the fact that it was a team out of Stanley Cup contention. He had never won the Cup, and saw a chance this season with Vegas, even if he wasn’t on the ice.
“I didn’t want to go to a team that wasn’t in the playoff chase. You never know when your last year is going to be, and that was the situation,” he said. “It was a no-brainer for me to stay here.”
If Engelland knows what his future holds, he’s not sharing it. He’s home with his family now, enjoying time with them after almost two months in the Edmonton bubble. He answered the way you’d expect when asked if he plans to play next season or if he’s heard from Vegas about a new contract.
“That’s all to be determined. We’ll see how things go,” he said. “Just kind of taking it day by day with the family and we’ll see what happens.”
It’s hard to see where Engelland fits on next year’s team. The Golden Knights have six defensemen under contract, with some exciting prospects ready to take the next step. We didn’t know it then, but that Feb. 13 game against the Blues may have been the last time Engelland skated off NHL ice as a Golden Knight.
Even if that’s the case, his importance in the history of the organization is already secure. He’ll forever be the local player, the bridge between an expansion team and a city ready to fall in love with hockey.
And he’ll always be the one who gave that speech. He concedes he didn’t know just how powerful it would be, but it was the kickstart to one of the most magical seasons in hockey history.
If he is done as a Golden Knight, and his legacy is tied to that speech and everything the team accomplished in the first season, he’s just fine with that.
“If that’s what is, for sure. That speech is definitely one of the top things in my professional hockey career, and it wasn’t even playing hockey,” Engelland said. “It was a proud moment. It was great to be part of that whole season. Even though we came up a little short, it was the most memorable season I think most guys on that time have ever had, and they’ll tell you that.
“It was fun, it was great to be part of, and I can’t say a bad thing about that.”