From trauma to triumph for Vegas Golden Knights fan

On opening night, the Golden Knights honored the victims of the One October tragedy, including a ceremony with first responders such as Joseph Bruno of the University Medical Center trauma unit. Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

LAS VEGAS -- There are reminders everywhere you look before a Vegas Golden Knights game. Those "Vegas Strong" T-shirts and signs. Those hockey jerseys whose nameplates and numbers are personalized in memoriam of that unfathomably tragic day on Oct. 1, 2017, when a gunman fired 1,100 rounds from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel at a crowd of concertgoers, killing 58 people and injuring 851 more.

When Golden Knights fan Joseph Bruno sees these reminders around T-Mobile Arena, he smiles.

"They wear them in defiance of what happened," he said. "We're a strong city. We're a strong community. You don't always think about that when you think about Las Vegas. But it's a signal that we're all in this together."

An NHL expansion team whose run to the Stanley Cup Final has defied expectations and logic, the Golden Knights have been part of that togetherness despite being new to the city. Their first home game was Oct. 10, 2017, and it was a night few will ever forget: the honoring of victims, the message of hope and resilience, the acknowledgement of the first responders who worked tirelessly through that tragic night.

The Golden Knights were introduced to the city for the first time while partnered with police, firefighters and medical professionals, who walked with them onto the ice on opening night. Medical professionals such as Joseph Bruno, the registered nurse in charge of the University Medical Center trauma unit the night of the shooting. He walked out with defenseman Colin Miller.

"That was an emotional night, something really special," Miller said. "The organization made the time for those people, and it was cool. They went out there in the heat of it all."

Bruno remembered how much the city needed the Knights then. He remembered how much he needed them, too.

"I think that's very common whenever a tragedy strikes a community like this. You want something to rally behind. You want something positive. Something to offset whatever horrible event that happened, and sports are a great way to do it," he said.

The notion of "Vegas Strong" isn't simply a reference to the city's defiance in the face of tragedy. It's a comment on the strength of the bonds within this community. From team to fans. From fans to team. From a city to its first responders such as Bruno, who are still processing the horrors of One October.

The University Medical Center trauma unit deals with all manner of calamities: auto accidents, organ failure, someone who tumbled down an escalator at a hotel.

The night of the shooting, Bruno received a call from a unit in the field saying that an officer had been shot. "I didn't have any of the details, so I called the whole trauma team in," he said.

As they assembled, Bruno received another call from dispatch: There was an active shooter event on the Strip. His trauma unit could expect 20-plus casualties headed its way.

"It was extremely confusing what was happening that night, especially in the initial minutes," he said. "It's not unusual to get false reports from dispatch. The police get called. They respond to it. [Sometimes] it turns out there was nothing going on. The fact that I had already received a call from a unit that was transporting someone who was injured, I elected at that point to enact the mass tragedy protocol in our unit."

No matter how many drills Bruno and his team ran to practice for this, nothing could've truly prepared them for the scope of the horrors. Bodies punctured by bullets that had shattered bones and pierced their innards. The blood loss. The smell of gunpowder hanging in the air, emanating from each victim wheeled in.

But amid the chaos, there was calm.

"If you watch a medical drama show on television, it's heavy on people screaming and crying," Bruno said. "But the overall calmness of the victims ... we evaluated each victim that came in and got them where they needed to go. We couldn't have done it any better."

His shift ended at 7 a.m., with his unit having attempted to help countless victims of the shooting. Some made it. Many didn't.

Did Bruno seek clarification on what happened after he left the hospital?

"No, no ... the absolute opposite," he said. "The only thing I was concerned with was if it was some sort of terrorist attack and ongoing attacks on the city. But I spoke with a [police official] who said it was an isolated gunman. My concern was my family and all my friends."

Oct. 1 became Oct. 2. No two consecutive days in the city's history could have felt so dissimilar.

"We had very low volume of people coming in [the next day], seeking care," Bruno recalled. "I don't ever like to say 'quiet,' but it felt like the entire city was silenced. Myself and a lot of my coworkers were walking around in shock."

They were searching for solace, searching for answers, searching for something to latch onto and lessen this disorienting feeling.

Then the Vegas Golden Knights called, looking for first responders.

Before Joseph Bruno gained a team, he lost one.

He grew up in Connecticut, where he followed both the NHL's Hartford Whalers and the AHL's New Haven Nighthawks. By 1997, both had relocated, the former to Carolina to become the Hurricanes and the latter to Prince Edward Island as the Ottawa Senators' affiliate.

"It was just devastating when both teams left town," he said. "I was left adrift for years."

When Vegas was announced as an NHL expansion city, Bruno and his wife, Layla, a Dallas Stars fan, were ecstatic. Their friends? Slightly less so. "When it was announced we were getting a hockey team in Vegas, a lot of my friends were like, 'Oh, we're getting a pro sports team ... but oh, great, it's a hockey team,'" he said.

But the moment that hockey team honored the city's bravest during opening night ceremonies, all that bellyaching went away. It didn't matter if you were a hockey fan: The Golden Knights were Vegas' team at a time when Vegas needed something to rally around.

"It's hard to fathom, when you sit back and realize that you lost 58 people. During our opening night ceremony, that 58 seconds felt like forever," general manager George McPhee said. "So we've done our best as a team. We were put on a huge platform that was unexpected that very first night to have a ceremony and to get it right. We did our best to get it right, to be respectful and honor the people and help them grieve and heal and persevere."

Bruno arrived at T-Mobile Arena on opening night and met up with friends from other hospitals. No one was sure what their role would be that evening. Eventually, it was revealed that each first responder had been paired with a player.

(Bruno said he's happy that Miller is still with the team. The responder who walked the red carpet with Brendan Leipsic was less lucky.)

The ceremony remains a study in perfection. Bruno remembers the player intros, the speech delivered by Deryk Engelland, a Vegas resident who talked from the heart about the tragedy, and the scream of "Vegas Strong!" that punctuated that moment of silence and drew a roar from the fans.

"I thought the team did a phenomenal job," he said. "It was tasteful. It was respectful."

The Knights' support didn't stop on opening night.

"Certainly, this community has been amazing in how it's come together. It's been amazing how our players have immediately volunteered to help and have continued to help and do a lot of stuff offline that people don't know about to continue to help. We've got a lot of humble guys. We've got coaches and other guys that continue to do things for people in this community to help and always will as long as we're here," said McPhee, whose team honored victims, their families and first responders throughout the season.

"It's an unfortunate thing that happened, and sometimes beautiful things follow something like that, and the way that this community came together and these people helped each other really was a beautiful thing to witness and experience."

Although the players haven't made the tragedy a focal point in motivational moments in the dressing room, they have acknowledged that this singular bond with the community has fueled their unprecedented success this season.

"With everything that happened, we've been playing for more than just a team, more than just a score. We've been playing for the city," forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare told ESPN in December. "Maybe it's just the way that it reminds us that we're just playing hockey, and everything else means so much more than just winning a game -- especially in the situation that we were in. A lot of people look up to us. This is going to help us pass those tough days. You hear the fans talking to us in the first three weeks in the season -- kind of a thank you, that they needed that.

"After that, we surged on it. What that jump-start did was that it made us realize that this is bigger than us. Be consistent each game. Give 110 percent. Buy in on it."

The buy-in happened. The effort was there all season. Whatever the motivation, whatever got them to this point, the Vegas Golden Knights are poised to deliver to their fans an unprecedented amount of joy, months after they experienced an unprecedented amount of anguish.

"A Stanley Cup would be phenomenal, obviously," Bruno said. "But win or lose, this season has defied expectations."

He still thinks about One October. Everyone in Las Vegas does. But now, months later, many of those thoughts include how the Golden Knights helped with the healing process with their incredible journey to the Stanley Cup Final.

"It's meant something personally to have this team here," Bruno said. "The city fell in love with the team, and the players seem to genuinely love the city, too."