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For 44 years, the Washington Capitals were consistently good enough to get their fans hopes up. As soon as those fans let their guard down, the team promptly self-destructed in the most soul-crushing way imaginable.
Losing a quadruple-overtime playoff game—on Easter Sunday? Check. Being eliminated, time and time again by the Pittsburgh Penguins, their most hated rivals, rubbing ample amounts of salt in the wounds? Yep. Winning the President’s Trophy as the league’s best regular season team, just to blow a 3-1 series lead to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens? Even the most cynical sports fans had a tough time bouncing back from that one.
Those postseason failures definitely affected the way many longtime Caps fans supported their favorite hockey franchise. At the slightest sign of adversity, panic inevitably started to set in. After decades of mental anguish, it was clear that Capitals fans had become conditioned to expect the worst. And, I’ll admit, I was part of the problem. If the Capitals were on the verge of being bounced from the postseason, I no longer wanted to be in the building. Rather than subjecting myself to yet another sad Metro ride home, I opted for the safety and security of my basement, where I could hunker down for the team’s annual collapse.
But a magical thing happened along the way—my 7-year-old son began regularly watching Caps games with me and, just like when I was his age, fell in love with the boys in red. While players like Scott Stevens, Al Iafrate, and Olaf Kölzig drew me in all those years ago, my son watches Alex Ovechkin “unleash the fury” on the power play, Nicklas Bäckström deliver the perfect puck through traffic, and Braden Holtby stand on his proverbial head to will his team to victory. And he can’t get enough of it. He hasn’t been around long enough to know what the Capitals have and haven’t done over the last four decades. He’s seen them win more games than they’ve lost, and that’s good enough for him.
When the postseason rolls around, my son is convinced that this is their year. And if it isn’t, there’s always next year. Watching games with him has changed the way I support the franchise. I’m far less likely to fixate on a bad call or an ill-advised penalty and much more likely to cherish the victories, big and small.
And then the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup. Charlie Brown finally kicked the football. The dog finally caught the car. The hockey franchise that was always its own worst enemy suddenly achieved true greatness.
Months later, it still seems unfathomable.
For the players, everything is pretty straightforward. Each of them got to spend a day with the cup, snag a ridiculous championship ring (retail cost: $12,018), and then watch as the team raised the championship banner to the rafters at Capital One Arena. Minutes later, the puck dropped on a new season. Their attention could no longer be focused on the past.
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“I think that the time that I spent with the Cup, sharing my happiness with my teammates, with all the fans, all the people who I know, it was something special and you just want to do it over and over again because when you taste it, you don’t wanna let it go,” Ovechkin recently told reporters at a luncheon. “Last year nobody was expecting us to win but we won and right now everybody is gonna play against us hard. But the motivation, it’s like you just want to repeat it and do it over and over because the days spent with the Cup is something that we’ll never forget.”
It makes sense for the players to turn their attention to the challenges of a new season. But what about the fans? Is it possible for someone who’s built up thick scar tissue over the decades to move on so quickly? Maybe not.
“I get that the players have business to tend to, but I, personally, intend to soak in the afterglow of that giant silver trophy until they aren’t champs anymore, and I’d encourage any fans to do the same, especially those who’ve been along for the ride for any length of time,” says Caps season ticket holder and superfan William “Loud Goat” Stilwell.
Stilwell isn’t alone in wanting to take an extra victory lap or two before moving on.
Jack Anderson, 29, pooled together enough cash to fly to Las Vegas to attend Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. He headed into the arena that night with “cautious optimism.”
After the horn sounded, Anderson spent an hour fielding congratulatory phone calls from friends and loved ones. He didn’t log a minute of ice time, but those who know him understand how much the team means to him. And when they saw what the Capitals had finally achieved, their thoughts immediately shifted to Jack. The same goes for Loud Goat, or any other long-suffering fan who chose to support the franchise decades ago and has stuck by them for better or for worse.
“I had gone over that scenario in my mind countless times, but to actually see it come to fruition was one of the more emotional nights of my life,” says Anderson. “Seeing the clock at 0.6 seconds, with just one face-off left, and then the puck dropped, and we’re the champs. The next hour was all a blur. …It’s not often we get to experience the pinnacle of our sports fandom, but as the night wore on and I celebrated with Caps fans from all over the world, it was evident it wouldn’t get better than that night.”
When Craig Laughlin, who joined the Caps as a player during the 1982-83 season and is now a color commentator on the team’s television broadcasts, first arrived in D.C., the franchise had trouble selling tickets and then-owner Abe Pollin was considering moving the team out of Washington.
“Now, all of a sudden, you can’t get a seat,” Laughlin says. “So, I just think the Caps got to relish the fact that this franchise has finally won a Stanley Cup.”
Mike Rucki became a season ticket holder 19 years ago, when Ted Leonsis acquired the team. He and his wife have watched the good, the bad, and the ugly from the 400 level for nearly two decades. That’s a sizable commitment in terms of time and money, which is why he’s happy to heed the advice of Stilwell and enjoy the ride for as long as possible.
“This accomplishment will not be repeated,” Rucki says. “Winning back-to-back would be incredible, but nothing will compare to the euphoria this first championship brought to Caps fans and to D.C. As it must have been for Cubs and Red Sox supporters, the decades of frustration and anguish made the long-overdue victory that much sweeter.”
Whether Caps fans are prepared to turn the page or not, the next season has officially begun. In talking with several current players, they were genuinely blown away by what they saw in D.C. during the improbable march toward Lord Stanley’s most precious hardware. Seeing Capital One Arena packed to the rafters with enthusiastic fans at a watch party because the actual game was taking place in Las Vegas definitely made an impact in the locker room.
“I don’t think fans sometimes realize the effect that they have on players, whether that’s positive or negative,” defenseman Brooks Orpik tells City Paper. “I remember last year in the playoffs, in a positive way, there’s times where you’re pretty low on energy and the energy that the fans create definitely injects itself into us. It kinda gives you that extra edge over your opponent and can be overwhelming for other teams.”
And that energy—or lack thereof—goes the other way too, according to Orpik.
“I’m not gonna lie to you, guys feel that nervous energy,” he says. “Especially when home fans are just waiting for something to go wrong and I think everybody as a player knows it, if you’re approaching games, not to make mistakes, you’re in a lot of trouble against good opponents. Hopefully we kinda broke through on that and hopefully it’s more of the positive energy going forward.”
Forward T.J. Oshie echoes Orpik’s sentiments. He hopes now that the team has achieved true greatness, everyone involved will stick together even when things aren’t going very well. As John Walton, the radio voice of the Capitals, once said, “It’s okay to believe.”
“I think there is maybe a renewed confidence in what we’re able to do,” Oshie says. “I think all the talk of jinxes and things like that, people can kind of get out of their mind. I think we’ve learned how to play in big situations through some heartbreaking failures. And I’m not saying we’re going to win every one, but I have confidence that this group can stay cool under pressure in those moments.”
Look, I get that winning the Stanley Cup might not change the way every single fan watches future games. If nothing else, my hope is that seeing those names engraved on the most magnificent of trophies will at least impact the reactions, or overreactions, during or after games. There’s no reason why a random Tuesday night loss in February should carry the same weight it might have in the past.
So enjoy the ride, Caps fans. Soak it in for as long as you see fit. As Oshie said, their names are etched onto the Stanley Cup for up to 65 years, so this party can continue for a while longer. And even if the Capitals fail to defend their title this season and some other hockey-loving town gets their turn to do push-ups in a local fountain, no one can ever take this away from you.
“All the years of pondering which way the Caps would dash our hopes on the rocks of another all-too-early playoff exit. All the years of poring over the numbers around blown series leads, disappearing power plays, suddenly shaken Caps goalies, suddenly superhuman opposition goalies, the night terrors whenever the word ‘overtime’ even comes up in conversation, they’re in the rear view mirror,” Stilwell says.
I’ll leave it to Mike Vogel, the team’s senior editor and content strategist who has been with the organization since 1999, to effectively sum up this entire experience for the players—and the fans.
“You dream of this your entire life and then it happens,” Vogel said, “and you realize you didn’t dream big enough.”