LAS VEGAS — Jim Breus is standing in front of T-Mobile Arena, home of the Vegas Golden Knights, dangling a large, plush-toy shark from a stick, with a noose tied around its tail. Nearby, another stuffed shark is impaled on a medieval sword, and a mini plush mako has been repurposed as a chew toy for a Sin City canine.
The message was clear: Not even stuffed animals were safe from the searing rage Knights fans felt toward their team’s newly-cemented archrival, the San Jose Sharks.
“I was born and raised here in Vegas. We never had pro sports. And this team is the best thing that’s ever happened to this town,” he said of the Golden Knights. “The way we got kicked out of the playoffs last year at the end … it was an accident. It was a fluke. And now, we’re pissed.”
Breus is referencing the phantom major penalty for cross-checking called on Vegas center Cody Eakin in Game 7 of the Golden Knights’ first-round series against San Jose. With 9:13 left in the third period, and the Knights leading a seemingly lifeless Sharks team 3-0, then-Sharks center Joe Pavelski stumbled to the ice after a faceoff, smacked his head and began bleeding profusely. The officials judged that Eakin caused the calamity and issued him a five-minute major penalty along with an ejection. San Jose would score four power-play goals within those five minutes, and go on to eliminate Vegas in overtime.
Do you know how to tell when the NHL realizes that one of its teams has been totally jobbed by a blown call? When the league literally rewrites the rulebook to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, which is what the NHL did by expanding video review to all major penalties this offseason — as well as apologizing to the Knights for the officiating mistake.
“The problem is, just like with the Saints, it was already over,” said Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt, referencing the missed call that cost New Orleans a Super Bowl berth last season and convinced the NFL to make pass interference calls reviewable on instant replay. “I’m glad that they changed it. You know, refs are humans. They make mistakes. It’s not like they’re any different than we are when we make a turnover. They don’t want to be wrong. If you look back, I bet those guys felt awful.”
None of this was solace for the Golden Knights fans who arrived for opening night with vengeance on their minds. Like Tony Miceli, who has a T-shirt with the word “TRAVESTY” written on it above the time of the Eakins penalty. (Please note that Sharks fans have their own shirts that list the power-play goals.)
“This has gotta be the No. 1 rivalry, based on what happened last year,” he said.
Rivalries aren’t supposed to look like this anymore in the NHL. Not in a league where fighting is at an all-time low and violence has been superseded by skill. Not at a time when the animosity between teams is superficial at best, and when pure hatred between franchises has gone missing.
“It’s not missing anymore,” said Vegas Golden Knights winger Ryan Reaves. “It’s here.”
Hate is a strong word, but one used liberally among the Sharks and Knights to describe their rivalry.
The Knights have faced the Sharks in consecutive postseasons, eliminating them in 2018 and then getting eliminated by them in 2019. In other words, Vegas has had playoff smackdowns against San Jose in both years of the franchise’s existence. When the Knights were born, many assumed the Los Angeles Kings would be their biggest rival, mainly because of geography. But instead it’s the Sharks, and it’s not even close.
“When you play a team a few times in the playoffs, that’s when you develop that hate a little bit,” said Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. “Between ourselves, and from the fans.”
Fleury compared the growing animosity between the Knights and Sharks to what he witnessed when he played for Pittsburgh Penguins, as their feud with the Washington Capitals escalated. It’s a flattering comparison, as the Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin wars were arguably the hottest rivalry in sports for a while. It’s also a fair comparison, aesthetically: T-Mobile Arena is littered with signs disparaging the Sharks, not unlike Capitals fans placing stickers bearing Crosby’s face in the bottom of urinals at Capital One Arena.
“It just makes the game more interesting. More exciting. It’s good,” said Fleury of the rivalry.
“It’s similar to Montreal and Boston,” he said. “It seemed like there was a line brawl or a goalie fight each and every shift. This seems more like two really skilled teams. When there are times to be physical, it’s there. But there are also times to play offensive. Both teams know when the other is slipping and they take advantage of it.
“This rivalry’s up there. In game where there’s not as many fights as there used to be, it’s found its way to be pretty entertaining and physical and emotional. It definitely helps that our fan base has latched onto it and had a lot of fun with it. It seems each and every game it builds more and more.”
That extends to games that don’t even matter. The Sharks and Knights combined for 114 penalty minutes in a preseason game on Sept. 29, including six misconduct penalties and a fight between Valentin Zykov of the Knights (career penalty minutes: 4) and Sharks winger Evander Kane.
“It’s never an exhibition game when these two teams play,” said Kane.
That was also the game in which Kane earned a three-game suspension from the NHL for abuse of officials. Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland held Kane’s stick following a hit. Engelland cross-checked Kane, and Kane responded with a slash that appeared to also make contact with linesman Kiel Murchison. As Kane skated back up the ice, Murchison grabbed the front of Kane’s jersey, apparently trying to prevent an escalation with Engelland, and they tumbled down to the ice.
“I get kicked out of the game for getting jumped from behind by a referee. I’ve never seen a ref take five strides,” he said after the 5-1 defeat. “If you look at his face, he’s getting all this power and he’s trying to drive me into the ice, which is what he did. That’s unbelievable. Talk about abuse of an official? How about abuse of a player? It’s an absolute joke,” said Kane.
The Knights found humor in it, too, but for different reasons. They turned Kane into a punchline on opening night, even though he was out of the lineup. The fans booed his image during a highlight montage. One fan created a sign that mimicked the back of a milk carton and read: “HAVE YOU SEEN ME? LAST SEEN WHINING UNDER A LINESMAN.”
“Very disappointed” Reaves said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, of being denied an opportunity to face Kane. “It’s too bad. Would have been nice to see him out there,”
The rivalry between Reaves and Kane is the molten core of their teams’ feud and might be the most intense individual rivalry in hockey. They hated each other in the Western Hockey League, when Kane was with the Vancouver Giants and Reaves with the Brandon Wheat Kings. They hated each other when Kane was with the Buffalo Sabres and Reaves was an enforcer with the St. Louis Blues. They would jab at each other and jaw at each other — Kane once called Reaves the team’s “babysitter.” Last postseason, they finally dropped the gloves …
Evander Kane and Ryan Reaves finally fight after chirping all night pic.twitter.com/Rla9W0ktX4
– Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) April 15, 2019
… and Kane continued the fight in the media, calling Reaves “the Muffin Man” and wondering if he “lost a bit of his allure” as a tough guy and saying that Reaves was less a hockey player than a professional wrestler in waiting. “For a guy who plays three-and-a-half-to-four minutes a night, he sure does a lot of talking. I think he thinks it’s the WWE. He’s probably going to end up there pretty soon with the way his game looks,” he said.
Reaves took advantage of the suspension to get his shots in at Kane.
“Poor Evander. So tragic,” he said. “He’s weak. He gets taken down by a ref. It happens. Gotta get in the gym, no?”
Great rivalries feature these individual grudges. Sometimes they last as long as the rivalry does, and then players move on.
Pacioretty knows this better than anyone. In 2011, Zdeno Chara rammed him into a stanchion near the benches. Pacioretty was stretchered off the ice. Canadiens fans were so enraged that some called the local police to report Chara for assault. But they’ve spoken through the years, and Pacioretty said Chara has apologized for the hit.
“In the moment, it’s a heated rivalry. Whatever it takes to fight for your team, you’re going to do so,” he said.
Could Kane and Reaves find that solace one day?
“We haven’t liked each other for a long time,” said Reaves. “I don’t think me and Kane are getting a beer any time soon.”
Their fans, on the other hand, have shared a few.
The bars around T-Mobile Arena on Wednesday night were filled with Knights fans and Sharks fans imbibing together, playing some cornhole and ribbing each other. Some rivalries manifest in fights in the stands. This one was decidedly more laid back — and strangely costumed. Not just the Elvis impersonators taking photos with fans — because Vegas, baby — but the Knights fans who decided to wear their anger.
Fans like Pat Hudges. He’s wearing a black-and-white-striped referee’s shirt with a rubber shark’s head draped over his own. He is sporting a large pair of sunglasses and a red and white cane. The joke is glaring as the Vegas sun.
“I think we all know it was a bad call at the end of the game. So this is a play off of what everyone didn’t see,” he said. And how do Sharks fans react to his getup? “There’s confusion. And then they’re wondering if the refs will be supporting us this time.”
Hudges is doing an interview with a local TV affiliate when a man in a Sharks jersey walks by and hands him a business card. On one side: a photo of Sharks forward Barclay Goodrow scoring the series-winning goal in overtime to eliminate the Knights. On the other side, these words: “San Jose 5. Las Vegas 4. Final OT. Thanks for the memories.”
Arthur Cardoza gave out stacks of these cards on opening night, to appreciative Sharks fans and … less-than-appreciative Knights fans. “I’ve met some Knights fans that get it. But then there are some blind Knights fans, just like there are blind fans for every team,” he said. “Hockey is all about the spirit of the game. All of these Knights fans? I respect them for their fan base. I would never attack them personally. But your team is s—, and they don’t know the struggle,” he continued. “The only reason I made those cards was [because of] the backlash against the refs, saying they cost them the game. No! [Coach] Gerard Gallant should have called a timeout after that second goal. Game got tied up. Everything that happened prior to that is now irrelevant.”
An unlikely source agrees with Cardoza’s take: Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt, who got over the anguish of Game 7 by coming to the realization that his team’s playoff defeat was caused by more than one terrible call and a penalty-killing collapse.
“I look at it a little bit broader than just one game,” said Schmidt. “I thought we had chances to close that series, more than once, before that happened. If you put yourself in a situation where that can happen to you, you gotta be better than what you did. You win Game 6 at home, and you’re never in that situation.”
“We had chances,” he continued. “We had chances to finish the job and we didn’t. That’s how I took it. I tried to make it a broader situation than to bring it down to one play, without trying to say ‘Cody’ … ‘five minutes’ … ‘majors’ … ‘all-you-can-eat power play’ … you get rid of all those words and you understand you lost that series for more than one reason.”
Opening night offered a modicum of catharsis for Vegas and its fans. The Knights rolled the shorthanded Sharks — without Kane or star defenseman Erik Karlsson, who missed the game for the birth of his daughter — and skated away with an emphatic 4-1 win.
“We didn’t want to give them too many in the first 10, and we gave them two goals,” said Sharks captain Logan Couture. “And it’s tough to come back in this building when you’re down.”
There were some intense moments, but the game was at a simmer rather than boiling over like some thought it could after that previous preseason game.
“This is what hockey needs, man. It doesn’t have to be pure hatred. It doesn’t have to be ‘tomahawk the guy in the face’ type of games. These are the type of storylines that make the games interesting and special and get the buzz back,” said Schmidt before the game. “That’s why a rivalry is a rivalry.”
Another reason a rivalry is a rivalry? When one team absolutely despises losing to the other.
“Oh I hate [losing to the Golden Knights],” said Sharks center Tomas Hertl. “These are my favorite games. The fighting, the defense, I love these games. I’m just sad because it wasn’t there, for myself [tonight]. I know I can do better.”
It’s not like there won’t be a slew of other chances for redemption during the regular season and, potentially, in the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
“We know if we want to go far in the playoffs, we know we have to meet them,” said Hertl.