Who would’ve thought that an exhibition boxing match between a YouTube personality and a former NBA star would light a fire under one of hockey’s most bitter current rivalries? It appears that there remains such ill will between the Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks that some playful social media chatter over a meaningless bout between Jake Paul and Nate Robinson would lead to an online confrontation between members of the two Pacific Division clubs.
After Evander Kane took to Twitter to challenge Paul following his knockout victory over Robinson this past weekend, Kane’s former teammate Robin Lehner engaged with the Sharks star in some playful trash talk. However, things got decidedly edgier once Lehner’s Vegas teammate Ryan Reaves, no stranger to fisticuffs himself, and his brother Jordan got involved. Reaves scoffed at Kane challenging anyone to a fight and his football-playing brother suggested that 29-year-old “sit your soft ass down,” to which Kane took a dig at the “Reaves sisters” in a tweet he later deleted.
Apart from some of the truly great shots taken here (“That Shark logo on your jersey is the toughest thing about you”), the Twitter spat highlights the real animosity lingering between the clubs. Sure, their shared division and relatively close proximity help foster some natural enmity, but no one would have expected things to get so heated so quickly when, just three years ago, the Golden Knights were an expansion start-up and the Sharks were a perennial juggernaut.
Standings aside, these two teams just really do seem to loathe one another. The spat between Kane and the Reaves brothers probably won’t lead anywhere anytime soon, but it offers a chance to look back on how this feud grew to be among the most bitter across the NHL.
The Playoff Battles
One might expect Vegas to have a more natural rival in the Los Angeles Kings or Arizona Coyotes, each of whom reside approximately 250 miles closer in proximity than the Sharks. And perhaps that might have been the case had the Golden Knights not battled San Jose in the postseason in consecutive years.
The two teams have split their two playoff clashes, with Vegas winning in six games as part of their expansion Stanley Cup Final run and the Sharks exacting revenge in seven games the following year. Facing any opponent 21 times (regular season and playoffs) across two seasons is sure to instill some bad blood — and the feelings of these two clubs towards each other is no exception.
The Cody Eakin Penalty
While technically it happened during one of their aforementioned playoff battles, the infamous five-minute major assessed to Vegas’ Cody Eakin in Game 7 of the 2019 Playoffs warrants its own entry here. Eakin’s penalty, which came when he and Joe Pavelski got tied up and Pavelski fell head-first to the ice, swung the deciding game dramatically. Vegas saw a 3-0 lead halfway through the third period evaporate completely, as the Sharks scored four times with the man advantage, including an overtime winner by Barclay Goodrow.
It seems that every fan base has an officiating error against their team that they place too much emphasis on. In the case of Eakin, however, it’s fair to wonder if the outcome of the entire series would have been different had the penalty not been called. And if there were any lingering questions about the validity of the call, the NHL put them to rest by acknowledging that the wrong call was made. Seeing the Sharks celebrate the series win and ultimately reach the Western Conference Final certainly fanned the flames of bitterness among Golden Knights fans.
Ryan Reaves vs Evander Kane
The recent Twitter spat between Reaves and Kane was hardly the first run-in that the two have had. In fact, both men have been surprisingly open and candid about their mutual enmity towards one another. A much-anticipated Game 3 fight between the two in their 2019 series prompted Kane to label Reaves as the “Muffin Man,” just part of an endless back-and-forth war of words between the two. Reaves regularly mocks Kane for his fake toughness, while the two-time 30-goal scorer often retaliates by questioning his rival’s relevance.
The funny thing about their animosity is how much the two have in common. Their intertwining careers date back to when both men played in the Western Hockey League (WHL) and continued on while Kane was with the Buffalo Sabres and Reaves suited up for the St. Louis Blues. Both men, who represent a small minority of Black NHL players, are members of the newly former Hockey Diversity Alliance. Still, as Reaves admits, “I just don’t like [Kane]” — I’m sure the feeling is mutual.
The War of Coaches
Things have even gotten a little heated between the clubs behind the bench. At the center of it all is current Golden Knights head coach Pete DeBoer, who joined the organization after being fired after filling the same role in San Jose for four-plus seasons. It was DeBoer who was behind the Sharks’ bench for each of the two playoff matchups between the clubs. During the heated 2019 series, he was referred to as a “clown” by then-head coach Gerard Gallant, the man he would replace seven months later, following accusations that Gallant had been chirping Vegas players.
At the time of his hiring, DeBoer was the rival coming in to usurp the job of Gallant, who was surprisingly axed 18 months after winning the Jack Adams Award. Now, he suddenly finds himself on the other side of the rivalry, which may have been the intention of Golden Knights owner Bill Foley and general manager Kelly McCrimmon.
When it comes to a postseason head-to-head, fans may have to wait a while before the next chapter in this feud. As the Golden Knights gear up for a run at the Stanley Cup, the aging Sharks are coming off their first losing record since the 2002-03 season and have lost locker room leader Joe Thornton. While Thornton’s late career production hardly makes him irreplaceable, the loss of the franchise icon could signal an impending rebuild. Then again, given the level of animosity in play here, regular season — or in the case of the social media war, offseason — fireworks can never be ruled out.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.