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The Buffalo News (New York)

 

LAS VEGAS — The sign is in every travel brochure you see for Sin City. "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada" is its simple greeting as tourists walk up to take pictures and cars whiz by heading down Las Vegas Boulevard to The Strip.

A beacon in the desert, the sign has a much deeper meaning these days.

It's become the site of the unofficial memorial for the lives lost in the mass shooting that took place here Oct. 1. When Stephen Paddock opened fire from an upper floor at Mandalay Bay on a crowd of 22,000 concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest Festival across the street, he left 58 people dead and more than 500 injured in the worst act of gun violence on American soil.

The shocking massacre has left an indelible mark on a city that always has out its 24-hour welcome mat.

The Sabres will play their first game here against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday night in T-Mobile Arena, less than a mile from the site of the shooting. Many fans from Buffalo and Western New York expats will be in the stands.

But whether they live here or are just visiting, their trip to see their favorite team is no longer about just a hockey game.

"This community is still hurting, really hurting," said Brian Blessing, the longtime Buffalo television broadcaster who has been a sport talk radio host here since 2005. "It's not one of these things that happened from afar. It was in your backyard. When this first happened, people are still walking around in a funk and now you're trying to talk sports on the radio, but what do you do? You can't because it's about life, but eventually you have to ease back into what you do. You have to."

At the sign

Under bright, sunny skies Monday afternoon, several hundred people quietly walked around looking at pictures of the deceased. Leaving flowers and stuffed animals. Taking pictures and signing their names to the rocks and the concrete curb to offer a message of support to a still-grieving city.

Josh Schupp and his girlfriend, Terri Wappat, of Mayville got their tickets to Las Vegas in July. They made plans in September to attend tonight's Sabres game. Then the shooting happened and they knew they had to pay their respects.

"It changed our destination list for sure," said Schupp, a Sabres cap on his head and a Sharpie in his hand after signing a message on a rock. "We were coming to the Sabres' game and coming here became No. 2 after that. It's great to see how many different people from so many different walks of life are here. I just ran into a Boston Bruins fan who was at the game Sunday night and we got talking. Maybe we don't do that otherwise."

"This brings tears to your eyes," Wappat said of the collection of artifacts and messages. "I was concerned coming here after this. You never know what's going to happen. But you think to when the schedule came out, that's the first thing we were looking for: When is the game in Vegas and can we make it out there to see the brand new arena? So we were coming."

Tourists are a big part of the experience at Golden Knights games. It will be interesting to see how many Sabres fans have made the trek.

Bill and Kara Neidel of Buffalo, Sabres season-ticket holders from Section 300 in KeyBank Center, are in a group of 130 fans who came West and made a weekend out of it prior to the game on Tuesday night.

"This might be an annual thing for us. It will be a lot of fun," Bill Neidel said.

Neidel said he and his wife stayed at Mandalay Bay to celebrate their 10-year anniversary on a previous trip. They're spending this time at the Mirage but also came to the memorial on Monday.

"To see it involve Mandalay Bay was upsetting," he said, looking at the towering gold hotel a few blocks off in the distance. "We tried to keep it out of our minds but once you come down here, you can't. It's a huge feeling here. You think of people just enjoying themselves and then that happens and it affects everyone's families so much."

Golden Knights rally city

The Golden Knights have been a rallying point for the community with a 4-1 record, becoming the first NHL expansion team ever to win its first three games. They won their season opener in Dallas and then staged an emotional home opener last week in T-Mobile, scoring four first-period goals in a 5-2 win over Arizona.

The night was framed in a solemn tribute to victims and a salute to first responders, and the nationally televised ceremony became a much bigger story than the game. It included a 58-second moment of silence, one second for each of the victims.

"It was awesome, one of the coolest games I've been a part of for sure," Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb, a former Sabre, said after practice Monday at City National Arena in the Summerlin section of the city. "You saw the emotion in the crowd and there was emotion for us. It was a special moment."

"It was an unbelievable night that was much more for the city than for the team," said forward William Carrier, who was taken from the Sabres in the June expansion draft. "The emotions were high and we got three goals so quickly, we were really pumped up for that one."

McNabb was selected from Los Angeles in June and was whisked here on a 4 a.m. flight from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to be on hand for the expansion draft. He joined four other teammates on a photo shoot at the Vegas sign that day, when it was a much happier place.

"There were a lot of people there," he said. "It was cool, a fun day."

On the night of the shooting, the Golden Knights had wrapped up their final preseason game about 2 1/2 hours before the chaos began. Some players were having a late dinner up the street at The Cosmopolitan hotel when word spread on Twitter.

"We didn't really know if it was real," McNabb recalled. "We wanted to get out of there once we heard and they locked us down for a couple hours but our security team did a great job getting us out of there. They sent three cars for us and got us home safely."

From that point, the Golden Knights became ambassadors, much like the Yankees were in New York after 9/11 and the Red Sox were in Boston following the marathon bombings. But those were teams with decades of tradition. This team had yet to play an official game.

"Guys went around to fire stations and have met a lot of people," Carrier said. "The city is really enjoying having a hockey team. We're in the middle of the desert and people are coming in and out from Vegas so you didn't know. But people have enjoyed having us, especially now."

"It's been a crazy time," McNabb said. "The hockey has been a lot of fun and when the tragedy happened, we all knew we wanted to get behind the city. Then you get the first three wins and it's huge for our franchise and our fans."

On the air

Blessing is back to talking sports, like he did on Channel 4 from 1980-1994 and as he did at Empire Sports Network on the Sabres' "Hockey Hotline" postgame show until it went bankrupt in 2004. Blessing says he's thankful the Golden Knights' last preseason game played the night of the shooting was an early start.

"Had that been a normal start time, the odds are high there might have been 7-8-9,000 people still coming out of T-Mobile Arena," he said. "They might have needed to quick go back in and go in lockdown. But it was a 5 o'clock start. I left the arena, got home and was nodding off."

Blessing's 37-year-old son, also named Brian, woke him up.

"He said to put the TV on and that something was going on at Mandalay Bay," he recalled. "It was on locally for 7-8 minutes and then it started getting picked up by CNN, FOX and all the networks. I bet I was up until 3 a.m. watching."

On opening night at T-Mobile, Blessing was particularly moved by the words of defenseman Deryk Engelland, who has lived in Vegas for many years. Said Engelland, closing a brief and touching speech: "To the families and friends of the victims, we'll do everything we can to help you and our city heal. We are Vegas Strong."

"The organization was bang-on with the way they did the tone of the pregame ceremony and the 58 seconds of silence was amazing," Blessing said. "Eighteen thousand people and you could hear a pin drop. Then Deryk Engelland's speech was hair-standing-on-your-arms stuff.

"The game starts and the first 20 minutes, with the emotion in the building, the Golden Knights looked like the Central Red Army."

Blessing said he and his callers have talked of the way the Golden Knights, the first major-league sports team to come to Vegas, have quickly meshed into the town in the wake of tragedy.

"It's a hodgepodge of guys thrown together, a team only here for a few weeks and they all dove right in," he said. "They went out immediately to blood centers, visited with police and first responders. They got out in the community very much so in that first week. It enhanced their sense of community and quicked connected the town to the team."

Expats are ready

Frank Scinta came to City National Arena hoping to see the Sabres practice Monday. He didn't get to see them as the team was given the day off following its win Sunday in Anaheim, its third game in four days.

Scinta, 36, is a die-hard Sabres fan and a Kenmore West graduate. He's a regional manager for Life Storage, the former Uncle Bob's that started in Buffalo. On Oct. 1, he was going to bed to watch Netflix when everything changed.

"My friend texted my wife to put the news on," Scinta said. "As it turned out, I didn't go to bed until 3 a.m. It was crazy. One of my managers was at the concert and left an hour before the shooting started because he wanted to beat traffic."

If the name sounds familiar, it should be. Scinta is the son of Frankie Scinta, the Buffalo native who has spent many years as a musical headliner in Vegas. Now working downtown at the Plaza Hotel, Frankie Scinta did an emotional show two days after the attack.

"After 9/11, entertainers didn't know what to do," his son said. "Do we go to work? But that's what we do. People are stressed out, you go to work. Two days after the massacre here, my dad came out and told the audience that times were tough right now but we're here to laugh. Entertainers' jobs since the beginning of time is to take your mind off what's going on in the world.

"There's firefighters there, the mayor was at the show. It hits home so hard. It was a very emotional show. A lot of tears, a lot of hugs. It took people's minds off things just for a little while."

Evan Wozniak is a 2017 UNLV Law School graduate whose family moved him here when he was 3. He'll be in a group of 10 at Tuesday's game, all of whom have either moved to Vegas or traveled here from Buffalo.Wozniak said it was "worth every penny" to attend the home opener.

"That is a lifetime memory considering the circumstances ... I've never seen an arena almost at capacity 30 minutes before game time. Everyone wanted to be in their seat and see what was going to happen.

"It was impossible not to be choked up. It was this complete and overwhelming sadness but there was joy in celebration in what this team and organization is trying to do for the community putting something together that special."

Wozniak said he's amazed at how in touch the Golden Knights have been in the face of the tragedy.

"This is a community that has been yearning for a pro sports team for 30+ years," he said. "Once we were awarded the team, it has been a buzz since that day. There was more than a year of anticipation and buildup. Then tragedy strikes. How does this brand new team respond to this situation? They've checked every box."

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