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‘Tis better to have bet and lost than never to have bet…

I cherish wagering like nothing else, so eventually I’ll recognize the beautiful truth in that paraphrase. But it’ll take some time. For now, I just feel like a loser. And a sucker. And all I recognize is that the stinkin’ Capitals folded like a stinkin’ blanket. Again. And cost me $500.

All Washington had to do was win the Stanley Cup.

Let’s digress. To March 1, when hope was born.

That’s when general manager David Poile engineered that reckless, Armageddon-is-coming trade with the Boston Bruins: Jim “The Kid” Carey for Bill “The Dad” Ranford, Adam “The Granddad” Oates, and Rick “The Great-Granddad” Tocchet.

Poile’s recklessness made more sense back in late February: The Caps were seven games under .500 and on the bubble to even make the playoffs, this after 15 straight postseason appearances. And what had happened to Carey? Only last season the netminder was tabbed as the franchise’s savior. But over the first half of this season Carey showed himself less capable of making a save than Marshall Applewhite. Even so, playing ability aside, Carey remained the lone marketable quantity on the Caps’ roster, and shipping him north seemed foolish, especially with so many MCI Center seats still to fill.

“David Poile, you know-nothing!” I and my know-nothing hockey brothers inside the Beltway howled.

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Our howls didn’t last long. The Caps started whupping people. First the Islanders. Then Calgary, with Oates getting the game-winner. Then Colorado. That Rockies game, in which the newcomers skated around and through the defending Stanley Cup champs and current Western Conference leaders, 6-3, left me completely sold on Poile’s genius. What had been a soft, slow bunch in blue-and-gold could suddenly hit like the Hansen Brothers and score like the Gallagher brothers.

And when Carey, in his Boston debut, got yanked less than a period into his Bruins career, we local dumbasses changed our tune to, “Poile, you the man!” Maybe he wouldn’t be fired after all. Coach Jim Schoenfield, in that same post-trade daze, showed incredible chutzpah, and not much foresight, by blasting all those fans who would be “jumping on the bandwagon” in the days and weeks to come. I was already on it.

As luck would have it, I ventured to Las Vegas the weekend after the big trade, right at the beginning of what I assured myself would someday be viewed as the most incredible turnaround in the history of hockey. Never mind merely making the playoffs, I was thinking: These rebuilt, reborn Caps were the team to beat come the second season.

So imagine my shock/glee when I discovered that the sports book at the Riviera offered 50-1 odds on Washington’s Stanley Cup chances. FIFTY TO ONE! I wouldn’t wager against the Caps for even money, and I could get crazy odds like that?

I felt as if I’d stumbled onto a gold mine. “Guess they didn’t hear about the turnaround yet,” I giggled as I ran to the betting window to place a $10 futures bet. “Suckers!” I sneered as I contemplated how to spend the money that would be coming my way just as soon as Messrs. Ranford, Oates, and Tocchet skated away with the Stanley Cup. As they surely would. I even tried convincing my traveling companions to get a piece of the action, the way a guy on Wall Street would have whispered, “Buy Microsoft” about 15 years ago. None of my buddies bit.

On Sunday, March 9, 1997, I made that wager. And that’s when everything went south. On the ninth day after the big trade, the Caps’ turnaround turned around. You can look it up: The Flyers pounded the Caps 5-0 that afternoon.

Because of my bet, and only because of the bet, I followed the Caps’ progress for the rest of the season. But the Flyers’ rout snapped me back into reality, and reminded me that, as much as I’d like $500, I don’t even like the Capitals anymore. And I remembered why I fell away as a fan: Sure as Valium, this team will only bring you down. Usually, the collapse comes early in the playoffs; this year it climaxed Saturday night, when the Caps were finally eliminated from playoff contention. The way the NHL is currently structured, missing the playoffs is like getting hit by a comet, but the Capitals brain trust pulled it off.

The last game that mattered, fittingly enough, came against the Islanders. Just as in the old days. I’d written off my chances of taking any of the casino’s money long before that. Even so, I listened to the Caps’ meaningless final game—on the road against Buffalo—on the radio. I hoped to hear Poile beg for his job, and he obliged. Injuries, and not administrative errors, were to blame for the playoff streak’s end, said the general manager.

“I know we’re a much better club than we showed,” Poile whined. “I don’t think we need to make a lot of changes.”

Translation: Don’t fire my ass, Abe! Please don’t fire my ass!

To which I and my fellow know-nothings say: Fire his ass, Abe! Please fire his ass!

Poile staked his reputation (and job security) on that deal with Boston, and at season’s end the team was seven games under .500, just as it was with Carey in the net. All because of Poile, instead of a loser team with a marketable young goalie, Pollin’s stuck with a loser team with three has-been geezers.

And all because of Poile, I’m stuck with a worthless piece of paper from Vegas. I bet the Riviera wouldn’t give me 50-1 that Poile will still be with the Caps when the new arena opens. Now, those are odds worth taking.—Dave McKenna