SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale discusses the Nationals’ hot streak, if they can compete with the Yankees, and how much trouble the Dodgers are in.
USA TODAY Sports
It’s a series with significant stakes, with a buildup leaving Nationals star Bryce Harper sleepless at night, swept by an adrenaline rush that sometimes keeps him up until 3 in the morning, his body exhausted, his mind racing.
The series is determining the right to supremacy, standing last after a grueling season, and a championship parade to unite the city.
Oh, you were thinking the Nationals-New York Yankees two-game series, the one being billed as a World Series preview?
Harper has something a little bigger on his mind.
To Harper, the biggest game of the season is 2,086 miles away from Nationals Park, starting at 9 ET Wednesday night.
It’s the one where he’ll be wearing a gold, black and steel gray uniform, perhaps a helmet perched on his head as he settles in front of his vast TV.
This is where he’ll be watching his beloved Vegas Golden Knights hockey team play Game 3 of their Stanley Cup Western Conference finals at T-Mobile Arena against the Winnipeg Jets, the best-of-seven series tied at 1-1, with Harper wondering how much more his heart can take it.
“I get more nervous watching them than anything I’ve ever done in my life,’’ Harper tells USA TODAY Sports, “even playing ball. I don’t get nervous watching my team or when I play at all. I really don’t.
“But when I’m watching them, I get so nervous. I’ll sit on the couch with my wife, going nuts.
The Golden Knights, vying to become the first expansion team in a major sport to win a championship in its inaugural season, and already the first hockey team to reach the playoffs in its first year in nearly 40 years, are just three victories shy of going where nobody in their right mind believed they would reach.
Yes, the Stanley Cup Finals.
Forget the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team; maybe the Golden Knights are the unlikeliest miracle on ice.
No one gave them a prayer this season – an NHL-worst 500-to-1 longshot to win the Stanley Cup – except for this certain 25-year-old who happens to be one of the greatest baseball players in the world, and will soon become rich enough to buy his own casino.
“I’m really not surprised,’’ Harper says. “They’re a great team. There’s a lot of guys on that team that have chips on their shoulders because they got let go on other teams they were playing on.
“Look at us. We’ve got one of the best goalies of all-time in our net in (Marc-Andre) Fleury. He was the leader of that team that won three Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh. If we didn’t have a goalie on our team like that, it would definitely be tough. (Wild Bill) Karlsson is having one of the best years of his career. He has six goals in Columbus last year and now has 43 for us.
“We get (Jonathan) Marchessault from the Panthers, and look at the way he’s been playing. Reilly Smith. That whole front line has been unbelievable. Deryk Engelland and Schmidty (Nate Schmidt) coming from the Caps. James Neal, who was with Pittsburgh and Nashville.
“They’re all just such a great group of guys. Just a bunch of really cool dudes who are fast and quick and put the puck into the net. I could go on and on.’’
The Golden Knights have taken Las Vegas by storm, and, oh, can you tell who has caught hockey fever?
Harper and his wife, Kayla, don’t even have kids yet, but Harper already has chosen the sport he wants them to play.
“I’ve fallen in love with hockey,’’ Harper says. “When we have kids, I want them to play hockey. How awesome would that be? I can’t imagine being on the ice and playing such a cool sport.’’
Harper has become Barry Melrose without the colorful high-fashion outfits, soaking up as much hockey knowledge as he can these days. Do you know any other professional athlete who attended virtually every Golden Knights home game during the winter, wearing their jerseys at every opportunity, and occasionally wearing a helmet watching them on his living room couch?
Do you know any other ballplayer who drops in on their practices, sends dozens of autographed bats with the Golden Knights logo to their locker room, drops the puck against the Washington Caps wearing an Alex Tuch jersey, and is already tentatively planning to see them if they’re playing in the Stanley Cup Finals on a May 24 off day?
“It’s the first team I really had a passion rooting for,’’ says Harper, born and raised in Las Vegas, and, yes, blessed with the ability to ice skate. “Growing up, I didn’t really root for many teams. I always liked the Lakers. Liked Dallas in football.
“But those are all the winning teams. Even baseball, I’d get home and watch the Braves on Turner, or the Cubs on WGN, right after “Full House’’ and “Family Matters.’’
“But now, I can’t get enough of them. I watch them religiously. I love hockey.’’
Who’d ever have imagined that Las Vegas would become a hockey town, with every game sold out? Really, it’s the gateway to the gambling capital of the USA turning into a sports mecca.
It already hosts about four conference basketball tournaments every March and within two years will welcome the Oakland Raiders and a $2 billion, retractable-roof stadium that will surely host Super Bowls, Final Fours and college football playoffs.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has not discouraged Vegas as an expansion possibility, while NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has largely driven the bus on pro leagues heavily regulating – and ultimately profiting from – legalized sports gambling long before the Supreme Court’s monumental ruling on Monday that enabled states to go worth with sports betting.
As the nation gets ready to tackle the gambling issue, it is Harper’s hometown that may enjoy the greatest makeover.
“I remember everybody kept saying, “Hockey in the desert, how’s that going to work?’’ Harper said. “Well, it was 95 outside, 35 inside and one of the greatest atmospheres I’ve ever been to in my life.
“Just the perfect storm of them coming in, having a great team, a great front office, and an ownership that really embraced the city of Vegas. And we really did a great job showing up and supporting our team, keeping other fans from filling our arena.’’
Is there reason to believe the Raiders won’t generate the same passion?
“I don’t know,’’ Harper said. “Will they be the fans of the sport or fans of fantasy football?
“What really made this work was that it was an expansion team. It was our team. It wasn’t like someone just bought a team, and said, ‘OK, here’s your team, go support it.’ You want something that’s Vegas-born and the locals can grow with it.’’
Who knows, perhaps one day before Harper retires, long after he becomes the first player to receive a $400 million, or even $500 million contract, he’ll be able to play for his hometown team.
Manfred is not shy about his desire to expand to 32 teams one day, and in the decade it would likely take for that to become reality, Vegas may well be a fully mature market.
“For it to work, I think it has to be an expansion team,’’ Harper said. “Still, it would be tough in Las Vegas because we have a lot of Dodgers fans. A lot of Diamondbacks fans. Yankees fans. Chicago Cubs fans.
“I think having an expansion draft, and having a team grow up in Vegas, would definitely work. We’ll see, but for now, I just want all of the spotlight on the Knights.’’
The future of baseball in Las Vegas can wait, Harper says. There’s still five more months before the start of the World Series.
But for now, he says, there’s a Stanley Cup to win.
“I can’t wait,’’ Harper says. “Let’s do it.’’
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