The Vegas Golden Knights are riding one of the most unbelievable runs in professional sports history, and Abbotsford’s Ryan Craig is one of the architects behind the club’s stunning success.
An National Hockey League expansion team has never played for the Cup in its first year, so when Craig and the Golden Knights hit the ice it will be a historic moment.
Craig played 198 games in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets but never got past the first round of the playoffs. He also captained the Lake Erie Monsters to a Calder Cup in the American Hockey League in 2016.
He retired from professional hockey last June to take the assistant coach role with the Golden Knights, and said once the team started to develop chemistry he knew something special was brewing in Sin City.
“Before we started we knew first and foremost that George McPhee [Knights general manager] and Kelly McCrimmon [Knights assistant general manager] picked good, hard working and character people,” he said, during an off-day in Nevada. “We figured we would be a hard working team and knew we had a great goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury. We knew we could compete every night, and as the season progressed our confidence grew and our expectations began to rise.”
Craig, who primarily works with the team’s forwards and power play units, said the players deserve much of the credit for the team’s surprising run.
“They were put together as a brand new group and they have come together in the true sense of the word team,” he said. “Each guy has accepted and filled his role, and we have guys who are having the best years of their career.”
The Knights finished in first place in the Pacific division during the regular season, and then swept the Los Angeles Kings in round one. They dispatched the San Jose Sharks in round two, and then eliminated the Winnipeg Jets in the Western conference final.
Craig said it’s been a joy to work with head coach Gerard Gallant, assistant coaches Mike Kelly and Ryan McGill, goaltender coach David Prior and video coach Tommy Cruz. He said that, similar to the team, the staff developed chemistry very quickly and Gallant helps to motivate everyone.
“It’s been a privilege for me to work with guys that have done it for a long time in my first year coaching,” he said. “They’ve really trusted me with some responsibility and one of Gallant’s biggest things is just the trust and patience he puts into people. He helps you believe you will get the job done. A lot of people, like our players for example, don’t want to let him down so we all work that much harder to try and do what’s best for the team.”
He said Las Vegas has really embraced the team, and that the fans have been supportive from very early on. The team’s first regular season game came only four days after a mass shooting killed 58 at a music festival on the Vegas strip.
“There was all the horrible stuff that happened there in October and we were all new to the city a that point but we all banded together to get through it,” he said. “I think hockey was a bit of a relief for people in the city. And since then it’s just kept growing and the atmosphere is unlike anything I’ve ever seen or been a part of.”
The Knights now challenge the Capitals in the final, and Craig said it should be a tough series but that he and his club are ready.
“We’re excited and we have a lot of confidence in our group,” he said. “They [Washington] are a great team with a lot of depth and skilled star players and they’re going to play us hard. It should be a long series, but we like where we’re at.”
Craig still has a lot of connections in the Abbotsford community, with his parents and brother still residing locally.
“I’ve always received great support from Abbotsford and my family and friends out there and it’s always greatly appreciated,” he said.
Craig and the Knights open in Las Vegas on Monday at 5 p.m.