On September 23, 2017, the Washington Capitals lost a home preseason game to the Carolina Hurricanes by a score of 4-1. The world did not end. It’s not just that the world didn’t end for the Caps, who would go on to obliterate all memory of that random September preseason game by drinking all the alcohol in Nationals Park out of the Stanley Cup. I mean that the whole world didn’t end that day, even though more than a few people thought it would.
Those people were listening (for some reason) to author and general crackpot David Meade, who insisted that a constellation was due to reveal itself over Jerusalem, a signpost on the final exit ramp for the Earth. When this did not happen, Meade revised the date to October 15.
On October 15 the Caps were coming off a nasty 8-2 home loss to the Flyers—another game, like the September preseason tilt, in which Alexander Ovechkin made no statistical impact whatsoever. This was obviously not great for the Caps, but for the world at large everything was more or less OK.
Undaunted, Meade amended his apocalypse date to April 23 of this year, and he wasn’t totally wrong this time: The world ended for the Columbus Blue Jackets, as that was the night the Caps completed their first-round comeback and ended Columbus’ world (where “world” is a synonym for “2017-18 NHL Season”).
The apocalypse that was predicted but never came to pass is fascinating phenomenon that recurs over and over again. Each incident has its own bizarre facets, but what fascinates me most across them all are the believers. They spend weeks or months or years preparing for an end to the world, bend their entire life and work toward that date, and then have to figure out what to do afterward, on a day they believed was never going to come.
It’s not precisely analogous to the post-Stanley Cup D.C. sports scene, but it’s pretty close. The other shoe never dropped. The bad bounce never came. The Hockey Gods sat this one out. And all the fans waiting for another offseason of disappointment were left…well, disappointed.
The Washington Capitals ended a number of streaks with this win: The franchise is no longer without a championship. Ovechkin is no longer a star who can’t get it done. They overcame their perpetual nemesis, in the Penguins, and held onto a 3-1 series lead. And, of course, they brought D.C. its first major sport championship in 26 years. All of that is important.
But just as important: They changed the mindset of an entire city.
The idea of a “D.C. sports curse” was an easy crutch, it’s true. It made for a convenient fallback narrative to explain why everything seemed to revert inevitably and depressingly to mediocrity. When in doubt about how to frame the story of a season, there was always a slightly new iteration in the old “just another typical day in D.C. sports” to turn to. It became a genuine identity for this town’s sports fandom. It was impossible for a D.C. sports fan to be a front-runner; the simple act of continuing to root for these teams was proof of a certain kind of bloody-minded loyalty and a commitment to something without any real hope for reward.
There’s a lot of flexibility in the doomsday prophecy business. When a promised apocalypse doesn’t happen, you make your excuses and you move on to the next possible date. It’s rare that something shifts the entire narrative. But it does happen. In 1956, psychologist Leon Fettinger studied a doomsday-that-wasn’t in a group called The Seekers, and found that when the predicted chaos didn’t materialize, the group decided that salvation came from their own belief and kept right on trying to garner more recruits, which is probably the most analogous to the sports situation.
A single championship zeroes the scales. It would now take until 2044 to build up a 26-year championship drought, and for the first decade of that it will just feel like normal bad luck.
The revelry following the win—for the fans and the drunken players alike—really highlighted how long it’s been. The last major championship, from the NFL team, was the third in a decade. And because you never know when a drought is coming until it’s been there for awhile, the celebration was relatively sedate. We all assumed that there would be plenty more coming up. The last time fans took the streets with full enthusiasm was probably the first of the Super Bowl wins, back in 1983. And the videos from that look prehistoric, all Magnum P.I. mustaches and permed hair and mesh-back caps. Practically speaking, this is the first local major sports championship in memory for many Washingtonians.
And it changed things immediately, in ways that were ineffable but clear. The media crew covering the team—a horde of talented, big-market writers and TV folks who have been stuck chronicling Sisyphean disappointments—got to stretch some different muscles, and suddenly offseason coverage is thrilling to read. The Nationals got to frolic with the Caps a bit, and immediately seemed like a looser, happier, more charismatic bunch. People in line at the grocery store seemed kinder and more tolerant of the folks taking forever to buy stacks of commemorative newspapers the day after the win.
Even the Stanley Cup booze cruise itself answered questions, namely “Why were the drunken exploits of John Riggins covered with fond amusement?” The obvious answer, of course, is that Riggins was instrumental in a Super Bowl win, but it’s striking when you’re actually watching it. If Ovechkin were publicly binge-drinking and rolling around in public fountains after yet another season-ending loss, I don’t think it would seem quite as endearing.
My daughter turned ten just a few weeks ago. I found this milestone incredibly bittersweet, because it means that she’s left the single digits forever. It’s a sharp reminder that time only moves in one direction, and when certain milestones are past, they’re past. Now the supposedly inevitable doomsday end to the Caps’ season is one of those.