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All of a sudden, Las Vegas is crazy about hockey and Mark Shunock is at least partly to blame (6 photos)

As the fledgling Las Vegas Golden Knights battle it out with the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference Final, it's one Sault man's job to keep fans pumped

“Hockey in the desert is unlike anything else. Everyone knows the world is watching, so get up on your feet because it’s Knight time!”

Anyone who has attended an NHL game in Las Vegas is now familiar with this message as it is delivered, with his face on the video scoreboard, by Sault Ste Marie native Mark Shunock. 

“My task is to get everyone up on their feet,” said Shunock, the Golden Knights in-game host.

It would appear he is doing a great job as Vegas fans and their home T-Mobile Arena, have garnered a reputation of providing a very loud environment.

The Golden Knights have definitely given their fans something to cheer about after breaking records for wins and points by an expansion team, but the postseason has seen it go to another level.

The Vegas Golden Knights go into tonight’s home game tied 1-1 in the best-of-7 Western Conference final against Canada’s only remaining team in the playoffs, the Winnipeg Jets. 

“It’s nuts,” said Shunock. “I get what’s going on, and our solid fan base, they get it. But, for the new fan it’s kind of fun to watch.” However, the expectations of new hockey fans to ‘win it all’ may not be unreasonable. Afterall, the Knights are only seven wins away from Lord Stanley’s Cup.

“We’re playing with house money,” said Shunock. “No one thought we’d get this far.”

“I’m just pumped,” he said. He estimates more than 10,000 people attended an outdoor viewing party for Game 1 in 85-degree weather. “We got people dressing up their dogs,” said Shunock of fans’ enthusiasm, referring to a dog named ‘Bark Andre Fleury’, who Shunock said recently met Golden Knights’ goalie Marc Andre Fleury face-to-face. 

"The city is nuts, and I’m just honoured to be along for the ride,” he said.

Born and raised in Sault Ste Marie, Shunock, a graduate of St. Mary’s, still comes home at least twice per year. Pursuing a career as an actor, Mark spent 10 years in New York and eight years in Los Angeles before moving to Las Vegas to play in the musical ‘Rock of Ages’ in 2013. “I knew a lot of people from Sault Ste Marie came to Vegas, but when I was doing Rock of Ages it was like every weekend or every other weekend I’d have somebody from the Sault in the audience, which was great.”

Shunock recalls one night in particular walking on stage and hearing someone in the crowd shout “We’re from Sault!”

Once rumour began getting around that Las Vegas was going to apply for an NHL franchise, Shunock felt the need to get involved. He contacted Knights owner Bill Foley.

Foley started a campaign called ‘Vegas wants hockey’ — “It just reminded me of home so much,” said Shunock. “My dad (Dr. George Shunock) put a team together to save the Hounds in ’88. It kind of brought all those memories back; I remember being on Queen Street doing a Loonie drive trying to raise dollars to buy the Greyhounds.”

“I was essentially born with skates on and grew up in Memorial Gardens” he told the Vegas crew. The committee became known as the 'founding 50’. “Our job was to basically spread the word of hockey to people in Vegas and to convince them it was a good move to invest in a seasons ticket.” The group surpassed expectations of season ticket sales, having 14,500 commitments to buy. 

When the NHL announced that Las Vegas would be their 31st franchise, Shunock said it was such a relief.

“Hockey people knew what was coming,” he said. “We have a great product too, so that doesn’t hurt."

As an actor, Shunock wasn’t looking for a 9-to-5 job or even a full time position with the Golden Knights, but he did want to help with the entertainment aspect and the hype. He began working with entertainment director Johnny Greco, whose previous gigs included the Cleveland Cavaliers and the WWE, and was hired as host. “But I’m also there giving my two cents when they ask for it,” said Schunock.

The Golden Knights is Las Vegas’ first professional sports team, but after following the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings “I was almost a season ticket holder without being a season ticket holder,” said Shunock.

He said he took in as many games as he could and was there the night the Kings raised the Stanley Cup for the first time.

“When we had the chance here, I was like wait a minute, it is my job to tell you how great this will be for the city.”

On October 1, when a gunman opened fire on the Las Vegas strip leaving 58 people dead and 851 injured, days before the Golden Knights home opener, it drastically changed the team's launch plans.

“Originally we were planning to have this big party, a big hockey launch. Instead it turned to paying tribute to this great city and those that were affected,” said Shunock. “I think October 1 put the Golden Knights in a different light for a lot of people of Las Vegas.” Shunock said.

Whether they were hockey fans or not, what the Golden Knights did to pay tribute to the city and to first responders, gave residents something to get behind. 

“It was the responsibility of the hockey team to make sure the city healed in a way it never had the opportunity to heal before.”

Since that opening game, the Knights have been on a steady rise, and the locals are noticing. Shunock said even Uber drivers were talking about Winnipeg's Game 7 against the Nashville Predators, and dealers at the casino ask his dad if he's with the Golden Knights when they see his 1993 Soo Greyhounds Memorial Cup ring. 

Game 3 of the Western Conference final is tonight with Sault connections on both sides. Sault native and former Greyhounds captain Colin Miller plays defence for the Golden Knights while the Winnipeg Jets are coached by Paul Maurice.