The 2017-2018 Las Vegas Golden Knights were one of the greatest cinderella stories in sports history.
After all, they were just the second expansion team in the NHL, NBA, MLB or NFL since 1960 to reach the championship game or series in their inaugural season. The 1967-68 St. Louis Blues were the other team to accomplish the improbable feat, but they also played in a league that featured only 12 teams.
Go back and look at any preview feature for the 2017-2018 NHL season, and you’ll find the Golden Knights picked to finish dead last. Considering how the team was built, such predictions seemed logical. As an expansion team, LVGK had to largely rely upon poaching players from existing teams to build their squad. But other teams were able to protect between nine and 11 players on their roster, forcing the Golden Knights to assemble a group wrought with role players and guys who simply weren’t valued all that highly around the league. The roster wasn’t without talent, but it was largely a team of misfits and castoffs. That’s why the Golden Knights were considered a 500-1 shot to win the Stanley Cup at the start of last season.
It begs the question—how did a team with so little promise on paper go on to play for a championship? The mindset and chemistry of that Las Vegas Golden Knights team should inspire team sport athletes and coaches for years to come.
When looking back at quotes from LVGK players and coaches during their remarkable season, one thing is crystal clear—it was a team without egos. It was a team of players who felt disrespected and undervalued. When you put a lot of those guys on the same team and get them working toward a common goal, remarkable things can happen.
“We were looking for the most talented people we could get but they had to be hard-working because you can accomplish things with a team of workers,” general manager George McPhee told The Globe and Mail in January 2018. “We wanted low-ego people who were ready to work … We don’t have a face for our franchise. It’s all about the logo, the team. So far, it’s working.”
It’s not just lip service, as the Golden Knights elected not to name any one individual as team captain ahead of the season. “Everyone in this room leads in their own little, certain ways. Which brings us closer and tighter as a group,” defenseman Deryk Engelland told The Sin Bin of the decision.
While every coach preaches the importance of playing as a team, it’s often a platitude that goes in one ear and out the other. But the Golden Knights truly embraced a phrase that all too often serves as little more than a meaningless cliche.
“I’ve heard it over the past 10 years, ‘Leave your ego at the door,’” right winger Alex Tuch told NHL.com during the middle of last season. “But I’ve never seen it like this, honestly. No one’s treating someone like a lesser human because they’re a lesser player.”
That lack of oversized egos helped foster a tremendous sense of team pride. The players knew that to win games, every man would have to outwork their opponent. They knew that if they wanted to be anything more than a walkover team, they could not rely on individual displays of brilliance to make it happen. “We realize we’re not going to outskill teams. We’ve got to outwork teams in order to be successful,” defenseman Nate Schmidt told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in November 2017.
The Golden Knights also had the perfect leader for this blue-collar team. Head coach Gerard Gallant has two simple conditions to earn playing time—work and compete. “If you work and compete for him like he says you’ll get your ice time. He wants to win. Guys came from teams that maybe the coach was hard on them or they didn’t get the chance or the ice time, and they got that chance here. (Coach) is very fair with giving you chances to play and if you make a mistake he might say something to you on the bench but two seconds later he’s sending you out there again,” forward James Neal told the Las Vegas Sun in April 2018.
It created a culture which emphasized effort and enjoyment above all else, which was a welcome departure from the pressure-packed environments which plague many pro locker rooms. “One of the first things he says (at the start of the season) is, whatever happens this year, I want you guys to have fun,” winger Jonathan Marchessault told SI.com in January. “Everybody’s like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard that from a coach.’”
Most importantly, the team truly believed in one another. They played fearless hockey all season, and they didn’t let outside noise dictate the goals or standards they strive for. “We weren’t satisfied at the beginning, we weren’t satisfied at Christmas, we weren’t satisfied at just being one of the best teams. We want to be the best one,” Neal said after the Golden Knights punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals. “When you get a group of guys to believe in each other, amazing things can happen.”
Ultimately, the Golden Knights fell just short of winning the 2018 Stanley Cup. But with their coaching staff and player core returning largely intact, and a set of values in place that helps the team be more than the sum of their parts, we expect them to make noise for years to come.
Photo Credit: David Lipnowski/Getty Images