Goat was at a loss for words. The Washington Capitals had just won their first Stanley Cup title in franchise history and the 43-year-old season-ticket holder, who goes by William Stilwell outside the arena and leads chants of “Let’s go Caps!” at home games, stood with his hands over his head, stunned into silence. Finally his friend, 41-year-old Chris Li of D.C., opened his mouth to say something. First in a whisper, and then a little louder. The two had met at a Capitals game decades ago, and here they were, emotionally sapped and a bit shocked, embracing in a hug.
“It was okay to believe,” Li eventually said, his eyes welling up with tears. “It was okay to believe.”
Believe it, D.C. After 26 years, the city has finally—finally—won a championship title in one of the big four professional sports leagues. Years of playoff heartbreak and inexplicable failure fell aside as the final buzzer sounded at 11:07 p.m. The Capitals defeated the Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion team in its first season of existence, 4-3, to win the series on the road in five games.
This much maligned sports town could finally celebrate. The capacity crowd inside Capital One Arena exploded with pent-up joy. Strangers hugged and high-fived one another and friends cried on each other’s shoulders as “We Are the Champions” by Queen blasted over the speakers. Red, white, and blue confetti fell on kissing couples. Fans tried to storm the court before being held back by security.
“This,” Stilwell said, “is the most beautiful thing.”
The celebration on the streets was just beginning. Thousands of fans streaming out of the arena joined the thousands of fans already outside for outdoor watch parties scattered around the city. It was impossible to maneuver between certain intersections.
Earlier chants of “We want the Cup!” became “We got the Cup!”
Fans danced along to the trombone players performing in front of the Walgreens on 7th Street NW. Others climbed light poles or bus stop shelters, or really any structure they could get their hands and feet on. People roamed the street openly carrying a six-pack. The smell of marijuana was ever present. Police officers seemed to either not notice or not care.
Around the corner, slightly away from the epicenter of the commotion, Josh Eiermann, Laura Hersch, Steve Lanciotti and Jake Fagliarone, all recent transplants from other states, posed for a photo with a special Stanley Cup champions edition of The Washington Post that vendors were selling for $3 per issue. Eiermann, a 27-year-old Washington resident who is originally from Chicago, has attended parades for the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks in 2015 and 2013, but those moments were short the euphoria of Thursday night in the District.
“Tonight just feels more loving, more embracing—because Chicago expected to win,” Eiermann said. “D.C. is a little more pessimistic. …I love Chicago, but here it feels more full.”
It was past 1 a.m. and Capitals fans still packed the National Portrait Gallery museum steps. The streets surrounding the arena were filthy with broken bottles, beer-soaked towels, soggy cardboard, random discarded T-shirts and shoes—the evidence of elation and revelry. The Metro was about to close its doors. But fans that have known nothing but loss were in no hurry to leave.
Anthony Moton II doesn’t consider himself a big hockey fan. The 24-year-old D.C. native and Forrestville, Maryland resident played defensive end for the Bridgewater College football team in Virginia. But he was among the die-hard Capitals supporters screaming his voice hoarse, as Thursday night became Friday morning.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Moton said. “Everyone is out here. This is so exciting. I can’t fucking explain it, it’s so crazy. …All that’s going on in our country, this city needs this so bad. We haven’t had a winner. Our city needs this and I’m here for it.”
Downtown was a sea of red shirts and jerseys hours before the game—which, as a reminder, was being played 2,400 miles away in Vegas. Fans who received a ticket to the arena watch party filed in early for the Washington Mystics game (an 88-80 loss to the Minnesota Lynx) and hundreds began gathering outside near the National Portrait Gallery museum where several screens were set up.
A guy with a bullhorn led chants while riding around on an “Ovi for Prez” podium. Two 26-year-old roommates from Adams Morgan brought along a project they spent four hours working on this week—a Stanley Cup replica made entirely out of LaCroix cans topped with a colander. Jack Clauff and George Davis had been saving the cans for the past month, and when the Capitals made the Stanley Cup Final, they decided to build their cup.
They posed for photos with admirers of their handiwork and made plans to celebrate with it later that night, saying that they would probably drink from the colander.
“This is the best D.C. sports event I’ve ever been to,” Davis said.
When the puck dropped at 8:23 p.m., the crowd inside Capital One Arena roared as loud as it ever has, even though the fans were watching the action on Jumbotrons. Capital One Arena’s capacity is 18,277 and while there were dozens of empty seats in the upper level, the arena shook each time the Capitals scored.
After the Knights took a 3-2 lead in the second period, a palpable sense of unease began to spread. NBC Sports Washington anchor and reporter Al Koken appeared on the screen and asked, “We still feel all right. Right Caps fans?” A portion of the crowd responded with a not so convincing, “Yeah!”
But instead of fading, and letting the air out of the arena, the Capitals scored in third period to tie the game. Then they scored again with 7 minutes 37 seconds remaining. Then they did something a D.C. team hadn’t done since 1992, and hadn’t had a chance to do since the Capitals reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1998. They won.
And in the process, they made D.C. sports fans believers once again.