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My dad first took me to a Capitals game when I was 6 years old. Forty-two years later, we saw the Caps raise a Stanley Cup championship banner. And we both cried. As my dad told me, we were seeing something that “I never thought I would see in my lifetime.”
There’s no one else I would have rather been at Wednesday night’s game with than my dad, because I don’t know if I would have been a big Caps fan without him. He’s a native Washingtonian who first attended hockey games as a teenager in the late 1950s, when he would go to the Uline Arena to see the long-forgotten Washington Presidents of the Eastern Hockey League.
When the Caps arrived as an expansion team in 1974, he quickly became a fan, and wanted to make me a fan, too, so he started taking me with him to the Capital Centre a couple years later.
At a young age, hockey was pretty easy to fall in love with—there’s constant back-and forth flow and movement on the ice, as well as a siren and a huge crowd explosion when the home team puts the puck in the net. And I fell hard, even though the Caps were consistently terrible in those early years. (It took them until their ninth season to even make the playoffs.)
Then when they finally got good, they spent more than 30 years being the team that was just good enough to make you believe they could win a championship—before they lost in the most excruciating way possible.
My dad and I were there to see the first time they lost a playoff series after leading 2-0 (1985, New York Islanders), and the first time they lost to a team they finished 30 points better than in the regular season (1986, New York Rangers), and the first time they lost a four-overtime seventh game and a 3-1 series lead at the same time (1987, Islanders). And I haven’t even gotten to the losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins yet.
But we don’t really need to outline that painful history anymore, because it no longer defines being a Caps fan.
So while I was emotional on Wednesday night mostly because I saw my favorite team raise a banner commemorating their first championship ever, some of that emotion was due to what the Cup means for the future of the Caps and hockey in D.C. The banner is tangible evidence that the Caps are now just a normal team, one that no longer has the words “chokers,” or “star-crossed,” or “cursed,” or “disappointing,” or “frustrating,” or “heart-breaking” permanently attached to its name.
The Caps may lose to the Penguins in the playoffs this season, but there’s no need for Caps fans to enter every game of that series expecting the worst anymore. My 4-year-old son can grow up a Caps fan, and even if the Caps don’t win another Cup anytime soon, I won’t have to explain to him why everyone in the arena expects imminent disaster to break out at any moment of a Caps playoff game—because we can always look up at that banner and say, “Sometimes, it ends happily.”
And I was also emotional Wednesday night because of what the Cup and the banner mean to the place of the Washington Capitals in the D.C. area. Over the last decade, I’ve sort of developed a hobby of critiquing the quality and amount of media coverage the Caps get in Washington. There’s no question that the coverage has improved substantially since the first Alex Ovechkin-led playoff teams 10 years ago, but there still has too often a tone or an attitude (especially from media members who have been here a long time) that the Caps season were a diversion to pass time in between football seasons.
But in October 2018, with a Stanley Cup banner hanging in Capital One Arena, we’re in a new era. I long dreamed about winning the Cup, but I don’t think I realized until it happened how big a deal it would be. The Caps have now become a real part of the fabric of this area. No discussion of the greatest athletes in the history of D.C. can be held without Ovechkin at the top of the list. The celebrations in the streets during the Cup run and the players partying throughout the city afterwards will be a part of D.C. lore for decades to come.
People all over town were wearing Caps gear hours before Wednesday’s game, which ended up being a dominating, 7-0, victory over the Boston Bruins. And all that exposure to the Caps and hockey is creating so many more current and future moms and dads who fall in love with hockey and want to introduce it to their children—just like my dad did for me and I’m doing for my son. So maybe decades from now they’ll find themselves crying together watching a Stanley Cup banner being raised in D.C.
Although it would be great if we didn’t need to wait that long. Maybe the Caps will raise another next October.
Eric Fingerhut is a native of the Washington D.C. area and a longtime but no longer suffering Caps fan.
Photo by Geoff Livingston on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.