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In Las Vegas, converted fans from Buffalo swept up in Stanley Cup hysteria

LAS VEGAS – The celebrities are agog with hockey. Celine Dion has worn a Vegas Golden Knights jersey on stage at Caesars Palace. Wayne Newton has done likewise at T-Mobile Arena. Boxing legend Floyd Mayweather was in the stands Monday for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, too.

They're not the only ones who've jumped on the bandwagon.

Las Vegas is awash with people from Buffalo, and it seems the perennial struggles of the Sabres have them living vicariously through the triumphs of the expansion Golden Knights.

"If they win the Stanley Cup, it will be one of the greatest things to happen in Las Vegas since the days the real icons performed here," said Buffalo native Frankie Scinta, a longtime musical headliner currently working downtown at the Plaza Hotel. "I'm talking the Sinatras, the Dean Martins, those guys. Really. This will be unprecedented."

Unprecedented? Maybe. Impossible? Not anymore. The Golden Knights are three wins away from the most improbable Stanley Cup championship in NHL history after winning Game 1 of the Cup final here Monday over the Washington Capitals, 6-4.

The Knights have won 13 games in the playoffs this spring, while winning three series plus Monday's game. Want an ugly comparison? The Sabres have played a total of 13 playoff games over the last 11 years, a prolonged period of failure that has seen them fail to win a single series.

"I've been a Sabres fan my whole life and traveled everywhere for games, and I still think people here don't realize this should not be happening," said Rick DiTondo, a Cheektowaga native who is an elementary school principal in Las Vegas. "This is not normal."

West Seneca West and Canisius College graduate Ken Kraft has always been a Sabres fan. Now he's a Knights fan, too.

"It's not another franchise that moved to Vegas. I'm not betraying anybody. This is ours," Kraft said. "It's not like they're the Maple Leafs or somebody awful like that. I'll be happy if Buffalo ever gets it together enough to win a Cup, but that's not gonna diminish how happy I'll be if the Knights win."

Things were a little odd for Buffalo expats when the Sabres came here for the first time Oct. 17. For most of the night, it was a typically ugly performance by the Sabres. The Golden Knights led, 4-1, with 11 minutes left in the third period. But Buffalo rallied and tied the game on an Evander Kane goal with eight seconds left. Vegas eventually won in overtime, 5-4, on a goal by David Perron.

"My brother came out for the game and for me it was a win-win," DiTondo said. "I had a Sabres T-shirt on with a Golden Knights pullover."

The DiTondo family are Golden Knights season ticket-holders and regulars at the team's practice facility to watch their son, Dominic, play for the Junior Golden Knights. From left: Cheektowaga native Rick DiTondo, Anabella DiTondo (11), family friend Kaitlyn Grammas (12) and Michelle DiTondo. (Mike Harrington/Buffalo News)

The Knights season carried on, win after win: a Pacific Division championship, a first-round sweep of Los Angeles, playoff series wins over San Jose and Winnipeg. Now, they're on the precipice of history no one could have foreseen when they chose players at the expansion draft just under 11 months ago.

"Every game was like, 'They just beat the Penguins, they just beat the Lightning.' It was shocking," said DiTondo's wife, Michelle. "We were in Buffalo for New Year's Eve when they beat the Leafs. I guess you could say we always had an expectation the winning would eventually stop. It just didn't stop."

A hockey family

Michelle DiTondo is a Vegas native whose father grew up in Gowanda, and family vacations were often to Buffalo. She met her husband, a distant relative of the DiTondo family that operates the iconic restaurant on Seneca Street, on a blind date and quickly learned he was a Maryvale grad.

Rick DiTondo has played in adult leagues for more than 20 years. Michelle, head of human resources for MGM Resorts, was involved in the Golden Knights' season-ticket drive. They're a classic hockey family, driving around the West Coast to see the Sabres, and also checking out the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, World Junior games and the draft.

Their son, Dominic, is a 14-year-old playing bantam hockey for the Junior Golden Knights. He used to wear No. 11 in honor of his father's Gilbert Perreault jersey. When new uniforms were assigned this year, he got 15.

"Jack Eichel," said Michelle, referring to the number.

Michelle DiTondo has actively posted memes and scenes from inside T-Mobile on game night on social media. She took to Twitter on Saturday for what she called a "rant" that was titled, "If you think Vegas Golden Knights winning is bad for the NHL, you're not a hockey fan."

In it, she talked about the bigger picture, about how folks here have seen a major upswing in youth hockey enrollment, which could someday lead to college scholarships or maybe even an NHL career.

The Knights, of course, took on a huge role here as community pillars after the Oct. 1 shootings near Mandalay Bay resort. It's continued all season. Rick DiTondo heads Derfelt Elementary, and a custodian had an idea to send the team a large Knights flag to maybe get an autograph or two. It came back a week later fully signed.

"There are so many stories like that about this team," Rick DiTondo said. "They've done so many things well over just playing hockey."

At the pizzeria

Off the Strip in the neighborhoods of Vegas, you get quite a Buffalo vibe. Hockey games are big business for bars and restaurants, including places like Naked City Pizza, owned and operated by Kenmore native and St. Joe's grad Chris Palmeri.

"It feels like the 2006 Sabres team with Danny Briere and Chris Drury," said Palmeri, 37. "The town is swept up by it. Go to any bar around here and it's going to be packed with people watching hockey, which is not the thing I ever thought I'd say about Las Vegas. It's just like Buffalo. Every pizzeria you go by, every restaurant you go by and there's something in the window about the Knights."

Palmeri was a former executive chef at Brierwood Country Club in Hamburg and came west to turn his chances as an executive at the MGM Grand. He then branched out on his own with a gourmet hot dog cart, a sandwich shop and now his four-store chain of pizzerias. He knows if there's an order for beef on weck or a chicken finger sub, it's probably someone who came from back home.

Naked City Pizza co-owner Chris Palmeri stands for a photo near a Buffalo-themed wall at Naked City Pizza on May 29 in Las Vegas. (Ronda Churchill/Special to The News)

In his restaurant on Paradise Road, there's a giant mural by the counter filled with pictures of Buffalo sports, from the Sabres to the Braves and Bisons. There's even an old Larry Felser clip from The Buffalo News the day after the Bills clinched their fourth trip to the Super Bowl. These days, there's a wall for the Golden Knights, too.

When the Sabres played here in October, Palmeri was conflicted.

"I didn't know what to do," he said. "The Sabres would score and I would go 'Yes!' and the Knights would score and I had the same reaction. It was strange."

Palmeri has had T-shirt sales in his parking lot that have attracted several hundred people, many of whom waited in line for up to two hours.

"I've been in Vegas for 15 years, and having major professional sports here is pretty awesome," he said. "We used to go to Wranglers games and 51s games but it's not major league sports," referring to the former East Coast League hockey team and the Triple-A baseball team. "We would go see the Sabres and Bills when they were on the West Coast because that's all we could do. To have this in Vegas is really, really cool."

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Practice rink abuzz

The Knights practice at gleaming City National Arena in the Summerlin section of the city, about 20 minutes from the strip. After opening in August at a cost of nearly $30 million, it has instantly become known as one of the best team facilities in the NHL. It is a hub of Vegas youth programs, has multiple rinks, a full-service restaurant and a souvenir shop that has been buzzing all season.

And, of course, it has a Western New York native as its operations manager.

St. Joe's and Niagara University sports management native Christian Glowinski is one of City National's top dogs. He grew up on the West Side of Buffalo and has worked at rinks in North Buffalo and at Niagara's Dwyer Arena. He couldn't have imagined this.

Christian Glowinski, center, with rink crew teammates Matt Coles of Buffalo and Jeremy Brant of Niagara Falls. (Mike Harrington/Buffalo News)

Glowinski, 33, marveled at what he's seen in recent weeks. The Knights have allowed fans to attend practices all season, but fire marshals stepped in during the playoffs to make sure crowds were contained 600-person seating capacity in the main rink. Glowinski and fellow staff members started handing out wristbands for admissions – and people have been lining up as early as 6:30 a.m. to see the 11 a.m. practices.

"It's amazing to be a part of," Glowinski said. "The line for the gift shop was going through the enter of concourse and now we're starting a line outside for that because it got a little crazy in here."

The DiTondo family is at City National so often it has built up frequent diner points in the restaurant.

"A majority of people had not watched a hockey game before this year and now they're out here waiting two hours just to watch practice," Michelle DiTondo said. "That shows how much the Knights have meant."

'Maybe someday'

Las Vegas, of course, is a different world than most NHL cities. The league took the plunge to become the first big-time sport in town, beating the NFL's Oakland Raiders by a couple of years before they move here in 2020. And hockey has quickly made inroads.

"We're about casinos, gambling, restaurants and shows," said Scinta, the Vegas musical performer and Buffalo native. "Now everyone in this town is a hockey fan. It's unimaginable."

Just imagine if the Sabres were closing in on the Stanley Cup. Would you allow yourself to think about the moment or push it to the back of your mind fearing something would go wrong just before the magic moment happened?

"Do I think about it? Are you serious?" joked Kraft, a senior technical project manager for International Game Technologies, which manufactures slot machines. "No way. I'm from Buffalo, dude."

Then Kraft admitted that the final has forced him to ponder the moment.

"Imagine a parade down the Strip," he said. "It would be insane, right? It would be a bigger party than New Year's Eve."

"I'll always love my Sabres and I'm a fan till I die," said Scinta, a longtime friend of Buffalo coach Phil Housley. "But the Vegas Golden Knights have given us something as hockey fans we haven't seen in a long time and continue to hope for. I would have loved it to be the Sabres. Maybe someday."

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