Producer: James Lawler, Virgil Price and Steve Meyer Director: Cruz Angeles Screenplay: Cruz Angeles Cast: Bill Foley, George McPhee, Gerard Gallant, Marc-André Fleury, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Deryk Engelland, Ryan Reaves, Wayne Newton and Lil Jon Distributor: Gravitas Ventures/Osmosis Films
Uplifting sports movies in which underdogs triumph are a cottage industry, and this documentary about the first season of the Vegas Golden Knights might remind you of “Miracle,” the 2004 Disney picture about the U.S. hockey team’s implausible victory over the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics. It carries special resonance, however, because of the team’s emotional connection to a horrendous tragedy—the mass shooting that occurred in the Nevada city on October 1, 2017, killing fifty-eight and wounding more than three hundred others.
Cruz Angeles’ film, which juxtaposes newly-shot interviews and archival footage, starts at the beginning—the apparently quixotic effort of Bill Foley to convince the NHL to extend an expansion offer to Las Vegas, a city not only without a major sports franchise but, being in the desert, hardly the logical place for a hockey team. As a tourist Mecca it also appeared to lack the sense of natural communal spirit that provides solid public backing for a squad
Nevertheless the NHL awarded the intrepid Foley and the backers he courted the opportunity to field a team, though it set the financial bar at a very high figure. The amount was duly raised, though, and after Foley secured the services of George McPhee as General Manager and Gerard Gallant as Head Coach, a peculiar draft was held, in which each existing franchise offered a player they were willing to lose. The result was a team of cast-offs, who shared the status with McPhee and Gallant, both of whom had been fired from their previous jobs.
Expectations were not high when the Vegas Golden Knights—a name chosen by Foley for its connection with the U.S. Navy (he’d attended the Naval Academy)—took to the ice in October, 2017. But despite an injury to their marquee player, goalie Marc-André Fleury (as well as mishaps that befell his replacements), the team enjoyed an improbable string of victories that took them into the playoffs and vaulted them into the championship series against McPhee’s former team, the luckless Washington Capitals.
The film follows the season with highlights from the most notable games, including the championship face-offs, with commentary provided by broadcast announcers, sports reporters and players. On the technical level it’s thoroughly conventional, with good if somewhat prosaic cinematography (Axel Baumann), editing (Malcolm Hearn) and background music (Michael Levey).
What sets it apart is the underlying theme about the bond that the team built with the city by becoming a symbol of strength and resilience in the face of the tragedy of October 1. Embracing the victims of the shooting and their families, the Knights came to serve as a rallying point for Vegas citizens, building a sense of community that, it’s suggested, hadn’t existed before in a place largely populated by transient visitors.
The picture concentrates simply on the creation of the Knights and their first season, emphasizing how the team’s unlikely success helped Vegas cope with the trauma it had suffered and move on with new determination. It’s a crowd-pleasing sports story, of course, but more importantly an uplifting tale of how a city can strive to overcome a time of unimaginable loss and pain; and it’s well-told.