by Nick Hart
The Vegas Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final has shocked the hockey world. Back in October, no one in their right mind made the claim that the NHL’s newest expansion team would be playing for the league’s ultimate prize in its first season. Yet here we are, about to start a championship series that features the Golden Knights.
Vegas’ rapid ascent has had substantial influence from Northeastern Pennsylvania. Former Penguins players Marc-André Fleury and Deryk Engelland lead the playing roster, and former team captain Ryan Craig is on Vegas’ coaching staff.
But behind the scenes, the Golden Knights brought in strength and conditioning Coach Doug Davidson and associate head athletic trainer Kyle Moore from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to help steer the team to unexpected heights.
Both Davidson and Moore held those positions last season with the Penguins, and look back on their time with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as invaluable to preparing them for their NHL debuts in Vegas.
“With Wilkes-Barre, you get an idea of how things are supposed to be done on the pro side,” Davidson said. “For me, coming from the private sector, I got more comfortable in my two years with the Penguins organization.”
Of course, little about the Golden Knights’ inaugural season could be considered standard. Davidson and Moore were put to the test well before the first puck was dropped on their exhibition schedule on Sept. 17. Moore remembers working feverishly to get everything in line for the team’s first ever training camp, which included loading their newly built practice facility with workout equipment and heavy weights.
“You could say I got back on my workout routine,” Moore said with a laugh.
Once the players arrived, the two former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton staffers had to figure out how to form a rapport with their new group that they were responsible for keeping in top shape. The nature of the expansion draft that put the Golden Knights together ended up providing a unique way for Davidson and Moore to construct that relationship.
“If you think about it, all our players came together from different organizations around the league,” Moore said. “Every player had his own experience as to how things go at the rink. So we worked on what we wanted to do as a staff by taking input from players in terms of what worked with their old teams while also establishing our own culture within our locker room.”
As the year wore on, the players and staff acclimated to one another quickly. Both Davidson and Moore credit the overall affability of the players in the Vegas locker room for their group’s transition to one cohesive unit. However, it wasn’t always easy for those two.
Anyone can understand how difficult it is to uproot one’s life in a flash to go to a new city where you have no real understanding of the area or no friends to lean on. Las Vegas was uncharted territory for Davidson and Moore, but thankfully, they had their existing relationship from their time with the Penguins to ease the stress.
“Having that as a starting point was huge, especially because we were both in a new city where you don’t know anyone,” Davidson said. “Kyle’s a guy who over the past few years, we’ve built a really good professional and personal relationship. We complement one another well.”
When the season got going, it was full speed ahead for the Golden Knights. They came out of the gate hot, winning their first three contests, including a 5-2 trouncing of the Arizona Coyotes in their first-ever home game. Their success carried steadily throughout the regular season, building more and more buzz around the team.
There was a general interest and excitement around the Golden Knights at first, given that they were Sin City’s latest attraction, but now the team is a full-on phenomenon. Their practice facility, located about 20 minutes outside of downtown, has a line spilling outside the doors of its merchandise store on a daily basis. The wait time from line to checkout sometimes reaches two hours.
Davidson and Moore worked around a passionate fanbase during their entire time in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and then would see the city of Pittsburgh rally around the NHL’s Penguins when they were working with the Black Aces during the team’s previous two runs to Stanley Cup titles. Now, they’re witnessing the same enthusiasm blossom in the desert.
“Our stands are full, and I mean full, for every morning skate and practice at our practice rink,” Davidson said. “If you go grocery shopping, everyone has Golden Knights gear on. It’s inescapable.”
Inescapable, just like Davison and Moore penchant for going deep in the playoffs. Considering they were around as part of the Black Aces for Pittsburgh’s back-to-back championships, this is now the third-straight year that Davidson and Moore have made it to the Stanley Cup Final.
It has made for some awfully long seasons and rather short summers, but they’ll happily trade in the vacation days if it means that the Golden Knights can continue its unthinkable season and go dancing on the Vegas Strip with Lord Stanley.
“It’d be nice to get some time to recharge in the summer, but if I’m working in June, I’m in a good place,” Davison said. “You’re not getting me to complain.”