LAS VEGAS — T-Mobile Arena goes completely dark and a Shakespearean voice begins to speak.
“The Golden Knights have vanquished the Kings, feasted on Sharks and grounded the Jets. Conquering enemies on land, sea and air, the West belongs to Vegas. The Golden Knights army has grown.”
On cue, a spotlight finds four female archers standing in front of a medieval-looking castle that is located at the far end of the 300 level. They shoot flaming bows at the ice. What happens next is a mashup of Game of Thrones, Cirque du Soleil and Monty Python.
There are pyrotechnics, a glowing drum line, cheerleaders, circus performers and much, much more.
At the centre of it all is Lee Orchard, a 43-year-old corporate DJ and British expat who plays the role of the Golden Knight character by strapping on a pair of skates and 60 pounds of armour. Performing a choreographed sword fight that is literally straight out of Medieval Times — he was a director of that show for six years in Spain — it is Orchard who “defends the fortress” and vanquishes the enemy, whether it’s a swordsman or a fighter jet.
Too much? Maybe, but then it wouldn’t be Vegas.
“There are some people who don’t like the show — but the 18,000 people inside the arena love it, which is all that matters,” Orchard said. “I compare it to a cult. If you’re in the cult, you love it. If you’re not in the cult, you think it’s really weird.”
The Golden Knights do their pregame show like no other because they play in a city that is like no other in the NHL. This isn’t Toronto or Winnipeg or even Washington.
T-Mobile Arena, which is steps from the Las Vegas strip and across the street from where singer Ricky Martin is currently performing a residency, is as a non-traditional a sports market as you will find. And the team is using that to push the boundaries of the fan experience.
Nothing is off limits. In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final on Monday, famed ring announcer Michael Buffer handled the player introductions. Gladys Knight sang during the first intermission. During breaks in the action, contortionists and circus performers balanced on objects.
There was no kiss cam. No one did the wave. Someone did, however, blow what looked like a ram’s horn.
“We knew it couldn’t be a traditional style,” said Jonny Greco, vice-president of entertainment production. “Being in the entertainment capital of the world, we needed to live up to that level of entertainment experience. It’s just a good time.”
Greco has worked for the Columbus Blue Jackets and Cleveland Cavaliers, but it was the six years he spent at the WWE that has shaped Vegas’ in-game experience.
“That taught me a lot,” he said. “Whenever you’re in the entertainment industry, the conversation quickly turns to, ‘What about … ” and you then throw things against the wall.”
When the Golden Knights advanced past the second round and were waiting to see they were gong to play Winnipeg or Nashville in the Western Conference final, head coach Gerard Gallant was devising a game plan on how to shut down either Mark Scheifele or Filip Forsberg.
Greco, meanwhile was wondering, “Do we cut up an airplane in half or bring out a live tiger and do something with that?”
Ironically, the Golden Knights put so much emphasis on the in-game entertainment because they thought the team’s fans would need a distraction from what should have been a losing season. Instead, it’s caused the rink to be even louder.
“When you’re in the arena, you feel it,” Orchard, who hadn’t been on skates for more than 20 years before getting the job, said of the crowd. “When I skate out onto the ice, it’s just pure noise. I mean, I missed an audio cue last night because I couldn’t hear the music and the music was at 100 per cent. My main aim was to not fall over on TV.”
The players, unfortunately, don’t get to see much of the pregame show because they are still in the dressing room. But some can’t help but sneak a peek.
“The sword fight’s the only thing I’ve seen,” forward Alex Tuch said. “It’s unbelievable. All my friends and family love it. It’s entertainment before entertainment. It’s Vegas style and it’s cool.”
“I think here it’s a whole different world here,” forward James Neal said. “It’s pretty amazing what they do to keep the crowd into it for 60 minutes.”
As for what’s in store for Game 2 on Wednesday, Greco wouldn’t tip his hand, but encouraged fans to tune into the game early.
“We talked about real fire for some of the aerial gimmicks we’ve had,” he said. “Being in Vegas, it’s been pressure to constantly raise the expectations.”
The right note from Day 1
During Greco’s experience in the Golden Knights’ first season, nothing compares to his role in the expansion team’s home opener.
Coming less than a week after the shooting deaths of 58 people at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas strip, the Golden Knights scrapped their initial plans and instead honoured the dead and injured and the first responders in a pregame ceremony that hit all the right emotional notes.
The moment that everyone — including Greco — will remember is when defenceman Deryk Engelland took the microphone and told the sold-out crowd that “we are Vegas strong” and promised “we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal.”
“It’s the most important thing we’ll do this year — and maybe in my lifetime,” Greco said. “There were a lot of last-minute decisions to honour the first responders and give Las Vegas this group hug moment where they could celebrate and cry and be joyful.
“No matter what happens this year, that will be the most important.”
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