When he first joined the San Jose Sharks in 1991, Kelly Kisio said it was immediately apparent things would be different while playing for an expansion franchise.
"Probably when I walked in the Cow Palace," Kisio said with a laugh. "First time walking in there and going, 'oh my.'"
When Kisio came to the Sharks, what is now SAP Center was under construction, and the on-ice product was also a work in progress. San Jose lost 129 of its first 164 games, but the man who scored the team's first game-winning goal only has fond memories of his time there.
"As you can tell by our record, we were not very good, but the fans treated us like gold," Kisio said. "Every city we went to, there was always lots of teal in the stands and people followed us. They always gave us the benefit of the doubt. As long as we worked hard, they were fine with it."
Over a quarter of a century after he first came to San Jose, Kisio finds himself with another expansion team with rabid support, albeit one that is very good. He's now a pro scout for the Western Conference-leading Vegas Golden Knights, who will make their first regular season trip to SAP Center on Thursday.
In the club's inaugural season, the Golden Knights have already set a records for wins by an expansion franchise (35), with a 10-point lead over the second-place Sharks in the Pacific Division.
In one season, Vegas has won more games than San Jose did in its first two (28).
"Let me tell ya, it's a lot better now than the Shark days," Kisio noted with a laugh.
Kisio joined the Golden Knights in Sept. 2016, over a year before the team played any games. After ending his playing days with the Calgary Flames, he spent the next two decades of his post-playing career in the city.
He first worked as a Flames scout for three seasons, then in a variety of roles with the Western Hockey League's (WHL) Calgary Hitmen for the next 18. The Hitmen won two WHL championships in Kisio's tenure, and sent numerous players to the NHL, including Sharks goaltender Martin Jones.
The Golden Knights came calling, but Kisio said he was left with a tough decision.
"It was very difficult, but after awhile you get stale," he said. "It didn't look like things were going to move on for me with the Flames...so I had to decide if I wanted to stay in junior or like you say, take a chance with the Vegas Golden Knights. It took me a few days for sure to decide, but I knew the guys that were running the operation very well."
Kisio played alongside Vegas general manager George McPhee in the NHL, against assistant general manager Kelly McCrimmon in junior, and he knew director of player personnel Vaughn Karpan from scouting. That familiarity made his decision to join Vegas easier, he said.
As a pro scout with the team, Kisio now primarily covers their Pacific Division rivals. He, and the rest of the scouting department, have played a vital role in the team's initial success.
They were tasked with not only finding good players, but ones that would be available in last June's expansion draft.
The 30 other teams protected seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goaltender, or eight skaters and a goaltender. The Golden Knights, then, were able to select one player from each team that was left unprotected, and had to draft at least 14 forwards, nine defensemen, and three goalies.
With those rules in mind, Kisio and the Golden Knights staff set out to identify players that would be available for selection.
"We basically hit on the head on most every team, and we were pretty happy with that." Kisio said. "When you do that, the process becomes a little easier because you basically knew who was gonna be available and which guy you were gonna get."
Kisio said McPhee, McCrimmon, and Vaughn directed the scouting department to find players who were strong skaters, had a high hockey IQ, and would benefit from a chance in a bigger role. That doesn't mean they saw this success coming.
"If you told me that [28-goal-scorer William Karlsson] would have as many goals as he does, I don't think anybody would tell you that," Kisio said. "They'd be lying if they knew that was going to happen, or how well some of the other guys are doing."
He said the front office expected Vegas to "be competitive in most every game," but the Golden Knights have been more than competitive. With 29 games to go, Vegas is just a point behind the Tampa Bay Lightning in the President's Trophy race, and entered Thursday on just under a 104-point pace, according to HockeyViz's projections.
It's all a far cry from Kisio's days at the Cow Palace. Although the success is unexpected and largely unprecedented, he said it would not have happened without McPhee, McCimmon, and Karpan's direction.
"All I did was go out and watch players give them my two cents worth, as all our guys did, and see where it went from there."