Vegas Strong

After Overcoming Tragedy In His Hometown Of Las Vegas, UNLV Hockey Coach Nick Robone Returns To The Game With Some Lofty Goals In Mind
By: 
Pat Evans

In April, Nick Robone stepped on the ice.

He hadn't played hockey in nearly eight months, an unusual hiatus for the 29-year-old who grew up playing the game, first on the streets of Las Vegas and eventually on one of the few sheets of ice the desert city had to offer.

It wasn't a nagging sports injury, illness or lack of passion that kept Robone off the ice, but a gunshot wound suffered during the worst mass shooting in U.S. history on Oct. 1, 2017, when 58 people were killed and more than 800 injured, including Robone.

His path back to the ice was mentally and physically demanding, but there was one common thread through that kept him pushing: his love of the game. 

As the assistant coach for the University of Nevada Las Vegas hockey team, Robone missed fewer than a dozen games behind the bench, eager to help the young program achieve its goal of a national championship and eventual promotion to NCAA Division I. (The team did manage a top 10 finish in its first season in ACHA Division I.) 

And like many in Las Vegas, the presence and success of the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights helped heal so many wounds, physically and mentally as it bonded a city together in a time of need.

As he stepped back on the ice for his first hockey game in months, it all came back and felt like he hadn't missed a beat.

"You don't realize how much you miss it until you realize you can't be involved with it," he said. "Last year obviously was a bit of an eye-opening experience, so I definitely don't want to take it for granted again. 

"[Getting back on the ice] was incredible. You're inches from death and you think you might never do it again and then you're back out there with the guys and it wasn't weird. I was back where I wanted to be."

There's no doubt that October night changed his life forever, even though it started as such a routine Sunday. As he finished up his weekly men's league game at City National Arena, Robone hurried down to the Las Vegas Strip to meet his brother, Anthony, and good friend, Billy Tufano, to catch the last few hours of the Route 91 Music Festival. He arrived just in time to see Jason Aldean start his set, during which the horrendous act of violence began. 

Both Nick and Anthony are extremely open about the experience, almost as a way of healing. Amidst the chaos of the shooting, neither knew the reality until Nick was shot and called out for his brother. The bullet entered the left side of his chest and barely missed his lung. Anthony, a firefighter, did his best to apply appropriate medical treatment-which possibly saved his life.

"I didn't know what was going on, even that we were being shot at, until I spun around and saw him," Anthony said. "I've seen people in a lot of messed up situations, but it's definitely different when it's personal. I snapped into instinct mode, but it was tough. It's an image that will haunt me the rest of my life, but at the end I day, I still get to be with him alive."

As the first ambulance loaded with critically injured victims left the scene, the brothers and Tufano took shelter behind a police car and waited for a second ambulance to take Nick to Sunrise Hospital. While they waited and not sure whether he was going to live or die, Nick did his best to keep himself composed, knowing panicking would only make it worse.

Zee Khan, the UNLV hockey program general manager, had accompanied Nick the previous two days at the festival and saw him at the game earlier that night. He knew that his friend was heading down to the festival so he sent a text to make sure he was OK. He received a response from the ambulance that he'd been shot and was headed to the hospital. Then he stopped getting responses. 

After 20 minutes in the hospital, the doctors were finally able to see him and immediately wheeled him into surgery, which lasted four hours and left him in an induced coma until October 3. Then the tough road to recovery began. 

"Initially, mentally there were a lot of emotions: frustration, anger, and why? But after the second day, it was like, 'You know what, it doesn't matter why it happened. You have to figure out how to get back to normalcy," Nick admitted. 

He tried to find the balance of pushing himself to recover quicker and getting the necessary rest to ensure he didn't make the situation worse. 

"The dude is tough as nails," his brother said. "I had to tell him to slow down a few times, but he's fortunate he was in as good of shape as he is. That all helped with his recovery on the backend, as well as during that night." 

Within a month, he was back coaching with the UNLV hockey team. Being around the team provided him the fuel to power his recovery. And with lofty goals hanging overhead, there was some unfinished business to attend to. When Robone joined Khan and head coach Anthony Vignieri Greener four years ago they all had the same goals: win an ACHA national championship and become an NCAA Division I program.

"Nick is a big part of this program," Khan said. "We've done a lot together ... we needed him and he needed us just as much."

Not to be lost in the equation of his recovery-as well as the city of Las Vegas-and the rise of the UNLV hockey program was the arrival of the Golden Knights. The shooting occurred a few days before the team's inaugural season started and the team's presence and ensuing success in a Stanley Cup Final appearance helped unite the city. 

The Golden Knights built a locker room in City National Arena for UNLV so it can now call the rink home, a boon for recruitment. Golden Knights President Kerry Bubolz sits on the UNLV hockey board and helps in any way he can. In addition, several Golden Knights players visited Robone in the hospital.

"They were incredible," he said. "They went out and helped heal a community that needed it most. For these guys to come and show their support, be at blood drives, visiting hospitals, it brightened my day and it did tenfold for my recovery process and had to have done so much for others, on and off the ice."

The hockey community in Las Vegas is booming and youth participation is up, meaning the barely a decade-old UNLV hockey program's roster could include more Nevadans in the not too distant future. 

As a Las Vegas native, UNLV graduate and assistant coach on a program with plenty of unfinished business, Nick is content where he is, but his brother has different feelings.

"He's got so much potential; one of the smartest dudes I know," Anthony said. "He's a humble guy and I know they want to make this an awesome program and he doesn't want to use his situation to further his career, but without a doubt, coaching is what he wants to do and he's damn good at it."

Whether he's coaching full-time or just around hockey as much as possible, Nick Robone will be happy. There's so much good coming out of such a tragic event and many of those affected have a new outlook on life.

"Life is a very precious thing," Nick said. "You never know what can happen. You get into this pattern and routine and think life will always be this way and you get comfortable. Then something like this happens and you have to think, are you really doing what you enjoy in life and cherishing the relationships that make you happy?

"When it comes down to it, you have a short time on Earth, so make sure you enjoy it and if you don't, you're in trouble. For me, hockey is something I love and I'll continue to put a lot of effort in it." 


Pat Evans is a freelance writer in Las Vegas. 

 

Issue: 
2019-01

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