Following tragedy, Vegas trip takes on new meaning for NHL players

Neal hopes team can help uplift Vegas (0:41)

Golden Knights forward James Neal says he had tickets for Sunday's concert in Las Vegas but didn't go because of an early skate and discusses the impact he hopes the new NHL team will have on the city. (0:41)

The buzz built throughout the league. Players on the 30 non-expansion clubs chattered about what it would be like to play a road game against the NHL's newest franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights. After years of looking to Las Vegas purely as an offseason vacation hotspot, from this season forward they would be taking important business trips to Sin City.

That curiosity and anticipation was altered after a mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1 left 58 people who were attending a country music festival dead and hundreds more injured.

In the wake of the tragedy, the Golden Knights' home opener at T-Mobile Arena on Oct. 10 has taken on a different meaning for a community still coming to terms with the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. From that moment on, the Golden Knights' role in Las Vegas changed -- a fact that hasn't been lost on the players who will be visiting T-Mobile Arena this season.

"There are a lot of good people in Vegas. We saw that," said Arizona Coyotes defenseman Luke Schenn. "You think of Vegas as a city that people go to to get away on vacation. But there are a lot of people who live there. Hopefully, the Golden Knights can bring some excitement into the community."

The Coyotes will be the road team when the Golden Knights play their home opener -- and Las Vegas' first major pro sports franchise tries to play some small part in the healing of a grieving city.

"It's going to be really emotional. There will probably be a lot of first responders at the game. You'd have to imagine they'd be honoring some people," said Schenn. "It's terrible, what happened. Hopefully, people come to the rink with the mindset that maybe they can take their minds off it for a little while and bring a little new energy into the city with the new hockey team."

If the days immediately following the tragedy are any indication, the Golden Knights could prove to be a source for healing in the city. Before playing in their first game, a 2-1 road win against the Dallas Stars on Oct. 6, Golden Knights players had already been active in the community, visiting the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department headquarters, United Blood Services and an assistance center set up at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The team's charitable foundation also combined with its American Hockey League affiliate, the NHL and a family charitable trust established by club owner Bill Foley to make donations totaling $500,000 toward relief efforts in Las Vegas. Before the puck was dropped Friday night in Dallas, Stars players showed their support by lining up behind Vegas' players during a moment of silence to honor the victims of the tragedy. Given that the "Vegas Strong" slogan has already become a rallying cry in the city and across the country, the Golden Knights have an opportunity to play a unique role in the aftermath of this tragedy.

"It's gut-wrenching for everybody and hits close to home for our organization and Southern California," said Los Angeles Kings forward Michael Cammalleri. "Generally, sports kind of has a galvanizing effect on the community. We're excited to have hockey in Vegas, and this tragedy leaves us all with heavy hearts."

The events of Oct. 1 also proved especially tragic for the Kings and their Southern California neighbors, the Anaheim Ducks. A number of the shooting victims were from Southern California, including Christiana Duarte, who was in her first year as a Kings fan service associate. Duarte was honored before the Kings' home opener on Oct. 5, along with the other victims of the mass shooting.

Of all the players who will be visiting Las Vegas this season to take on the Golden Knights and witness firsthand the city's efforts to come together, none will experience a more poignant and emotional trip than Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker.

Born in California, Zucker moved to Las Vegas as a toddler and grew up in the city. Among the people injured on Oct. 1 was his friend Nick Robone. An assistant coach on the club hockey team at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Robone was shot in the chest before being rushed to safety by his brother, Anthony, who works as a firefighter in Henderson, Nevada.

"I've known him for many, many years. Grew up playing hockey with him," Zucker said of Robone. "He's doing well now and moving his way forward with his recovery. He'll be released from the hospital soon."

Zucker and the Wild don't play their first game in Las Vegas until March 16, but the Minnesota forward will certainly be thinking of his hometown throughout the season as it comes to terms with these traumatic events, as well as the new NHL franchise that could play a prominent role in what will be a lengthy period of mourning.

"I think it's going to be awesome to have their first-ever regular-season game there and be able to basically take fans' minds off of this tragedy and hopefully get a win for that city. I think that would be huge," said Zucker. "That's such a strong city, and there's such a great community. I think they're going to be just fine. It may take a little while to rebuild, but they're going to be just fine. It's more or less now just trying to honor the victims and keep them in your thoughts and your prayers."