Wednesday, June 7, 2023 | 2 a.m.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers didn’t have much of a joint history on the ice before meeting in the Stanley Cup Final — just 10 regular-season games before the series opened Saturday.
Off the ice, the teams were connected by tragedy just over five years ago. Within months of each other, Las Vegas and South Florida were devastated by mass shootings not far from their arenas — and the then-expansion Knights and the Panthers played a role in the healing that has followed.
The teams mourned the Las Vegas Strip and Parkland high school victims during pregame ceremonies, brought relatives to games, honored first responders and donated to family foundations. They erected permanent memorials inside their arenas — in Vegas, to its 60 victims, and in Florida, to the 17 who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
“The idea that these two teams, impacted by gun violence at almost the same time, are now playing each other for the Stanley Cup is such a huge deal,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime died at Stoneman Douglas.
“The Knights, even though they were a new team, they stepped into their community and became such an important part of helping that community heal,” he said. “The Florida Panthers, not only are they my hometown team, they are now like family to me.”
Orin Starn, a Duke University cultural anthropology professor who studies the impact sports have on society, said teams often contribute to their communities’ recovery after tragedies. He pointed to the New York Yankees’ first home game after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and New Orleans Saints players assisting relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
There are other examples, including the Miami Heat giving jerseys and also hosting families of Stoneman Douglas victims and the Houston Astros hosting residents of Uvalde, Texas, after last year’s school shooting there.
“Tragedy, like the Stoneman or (Vegas) killings, rips apart the fabric of society,” Starn said. “Returning, after proper time for mourning, to the rink or the court marks a gesture of refusing to give in to forces of violence and intolerance, and beginning to mend.”
On Oct. 1, 2017, the Golden Knights were finishing training camp, five days from playing the first NHL game in team history and nine days from their home opener. Vegas sports fans were abuzz about the city’s first major league team.
But then a sniper opened fire from a Strip hotel’s 32nd floor, initially killing 58 at an outdoor country music concert. Two more died years later. More than 800 people were wounded.
The team scrapped its raucous opening night celebration. The boards that surround the ice were stripped of ads, replaced by the motto “Vegas Strong.” The pregame focus was on victims and first responders. It culminated with then-defenseman Deryk Engelland giving an emotional speech.
”To the families and friends of the victims, know that we will do everything we can to help you and our city heal,” said Engelland, who now works for the team’s foundation.
During that season’s home games, the Knights recognized the Vegas Strong Hero of the Game, a first responder or citizen who risked their life to save the wounded.
At the regular season’s conclusion, the Knights retired the number 58 for the victims who had died to that point. The names of all 60 victims are on a banner hanging in the arena’s rafters.
Amber Manka said the Knights’ lasting support has been a source of light for the tens of thousands of people affected by the Las Vegas shooting. Her mother, Kimberly Gervais, died of her wounds in 2019.
The team’s work “gives people hope and reassurance that there is good in the world,” she said. “I think one good deed leads to another, and it makes a difference. That’s what they’re doing.”
That inaugural team shocked the NHL by winning its division and three playoff rounds before falling to the Washington Capitals in the Cup final. By far, it is the best performance by a modern expansion team in North America’s four major sports leagues.
Forward Jonathan Marchessault, an original Knight still with the team, said it has been a “love-love situation” with the fans.
“It’s been really great to be part of this. It’s been an unbelievable run for the past six years,” he said last week.
When a former Stoneman Douglas student gunned down 14 students and three staff members on Feb. 14, 2018, the Panthers were in Vancouver to play the Canucks — as far from South Florida as possible within the NHL. Parkland, a well-off bedroom community just north of the team’s practice facility, is home to many players, coaches and executives.
Shawn Thornton, a 14-year NHL player and the team’s chief revenue officer, said owner Vincent Viola told him to do anything needed and not worry about the cost. Thornton turned to friends working for the Knights and two Boston teams, the Red Sox and Bruins, for advice as they had dealt with tragedies in their communities.
“The thing we learned is that everyone is going to grieve differently, that everybody needs support in different ways. Just sit back and listen to what’s needed and not expect to know what’s needed,” Thornton said, his voice breaking throughout an interview.
At the team’s next home game a week after the shooting, a 15-minute pregame memorial that brought some players to tears ended with a speech by then-goalie Roberto Luongo.
“To the families of the victims, our hearts are broken,” Luongo said. “Just know that we’re there for you if you guys need anything. You’ll be in our prayers, and let’s try to move on together.”
Eleven days after the shooting, the Stoneman Douglas hockey team — which included Guttenberg’s son, Jesse — won the Florida state championship. As the Eagles prepared for the national tournament in Minnesota, the Panthers hit them with surprises.
First, the Eagles practiced at the Panthers arena, with players and Thornton, a hard-nosed brawler during his career, giving pointers — including Thornton’s lighthearted lessons on fighting.
When practice ended, to the players’ amazement, Thornton brought out the Stanley Cup for them to skate with — only NHL champions usually do that. The Panthers then flew the Eagles and their families on the team plane to the tournament and brought them back.
“Shawn Thornton coming out with the Stanley Cup was just surreal,” said Matthew Hauptman, that team’s captain. “Everything that the Panthers did for us was just very high class. It made us feel very welcomed. … Five years later, it is still something I think about.”
On the shooting’s first anniversary, the Panthers unveiled a memorial in the arena’s main concourse that includes the victims’ portraits and the phrase “MSD Strong.” On the recent fifth anniversary, the team wore special shirts while traveling honoring the victims, and their arena has hosted graduations and other student events.
“They have been supportive over and over through the years,” said Tony Montalto, president of Stand with Parkland, the group that represents most victims’ families. His 14-year-old daughter, Gina, died in the shooting.
Florida state Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, then-Parkland’s mayor, hopes no other teams ever have to step up.
“There are too many opportunities for people to help one another after these awful, awful tragedies,” she said.
Fred Guttenberg said some of his happiest memories with Jaime are from Panthers games. When she was young, when the team scored he would prop her on his shoulders as they clapped and yelled.
“There is one more super fan who is there every (Panthers) game and that’s my daughter,” he said. “I have no doubt she is watching these games.”
Rio Yamat and Mark Anderson of The Associated Press contributed to this report in Las Vegas