Just before midnight, some 30 minutes after Alexander Ovechkin hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time, I stood in a swarm of 40,000 best friends with my colleague and reflected on what just happened. My colleague, a season ticket holder, stood there in disbelief and simply repeated the same line over and over: “This team. This team, man”.
With tears in his eyes, he promptly stopped talking, gave me a hug, and asked where the beer was. After years of failure, it was finally time to celebrate the team and players he so beloved.
There have been so many emotions running through this city over the past few days. From the watch parties, to the all-night celebration Thursday, and finally to the Capitals and Ovechkin barnstorming through town, this city is more alive than I have ever seen it.
Friday afternoon, I ate lunch with my mom and dad in DC and my dad asked a simple question:
“Could the Redskins or Nationals create such an environment if they were in the midst of a run?”
I thought about it. My mind scrambled from being out till 330am celebrating and answered shortly: “No. I don’t”.
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) June 8, 2018
There are a number of reasons that I do not think the Redskins or Nats could have replicated the environment. To be clear, I could be totally wrong, but this felt like a perfect storm.
For starters, there were the Washington Capitals themselves. 44 years of existence and years of losing despite being the favorite. If we only focus on the Ovechkin era, the Capitals have been to the playoffs 10 times since his rookie year (2005/2006).
The previous 9 teams were built for deep runs. The previous 9 teams were eliminated no later than the Conference Semi Finals. Think about that. 9 years. 9! It did not matter if they had 3-1 series leads, game 7’s at home, or played the 8th seed.
They lost. Every time. It was a Spring tradition.
Which brings me to my first reason that I believe, at least for a small moment in time, this is a hockey city. Losing.
Braden Holtby, the net minder who has been so brilliant for so long, summed it best in an article by Brian McNally of the Sports Capitol (you should subscribe if you have not already!):
Just read that statement. It took years of heartbreak. As a fan base, we felt that. However, the players lived and dealt with the weight of failure. Holtby, with the 3rd best Goals Against Average in the history of the playoffs, was a major figure in all the losing. One of the several faces of the systematic failures.
While Holtby has been key, no one has felt the pain of losing more than Ovechkin. The Great 8. The man who was brought here to win the Stanley Cup. The face of losing and consistently compared to Dan Marino, Charles Barkley, and Ted Williams to name just a few.
Ovechkin wanted to be here.
I cannot stress that enough. This dude fired his agent and then had his mother negotiate a 13 year contact because he believed this was his hockey home.
All Ovi has ever wanted was to bring the Cup to this fan base. There were no petty contract negotiations, no over the top branding or slogans, no empty words. None of that. The great 8 is our one true super star. My generation’s John Riggins and perhaps the greatest DC athlete since Sammy Baugh.
He wanted to be part of this great sports city.
To me, though, the single biggest reason the city rallied around these Caps is a reflection of the team and the heartbreak of so many seasons, 91 to be exact, since our last taste of victory.
So many of us, myself included, have been to game a 7 where we lost at home. Have been to a game with a chance to clinch only to watch a total dud. It did not matter the sport…DC teams would find a way to choke and no team personified crumbling like the Capitals.
That losing brought this team and city together in ways you cannot fathom. Yes, the Vegas Golden Knights were a great story. However, their fan base is young and had never experienced what it was like to suffer a truly devastating loss.
They had never sat staring at the tv, radio, field, or rink with a stomach full of despair, sadness, and emptiness.
DC fans know this feeling better than almost anyone. In fact, it is pretty much all we know. The Nats have never gotten past the NLDS, the Redskins have sucked for years, and the Wizards are a complete after thought.
Year after year, our teams give us a small taste of hope only to see it dashed in a blink of an eye.
The Nats blowing a 6 run lead in game 5 in 2012. Losing in 18 innings to the Giants in 2014. Losing game 5’s in both 2016 and 2017.
The Redskins watching Robert Griffin III’s career end against the Seahawks in 2012. Blowing a double digit lead over the Packers in 2015.
The Wizards…well, you can count the total dud in game 7 against the Celtics in the conference Semi’s in 2017.
This town, this city, this fan base is connected in a web of ineptitude.
But we broke through. And yes, it is ok to say we. Nothing brings people together like sports. Whether you were a life long Caps fan, DC fan, or just a bandwagon fan – the entire city came together to watch the Washington Capitals write a new chapter.
To loosely quote the great Capitals Radio man, John Walton, these Capitals exercised their demons on the way to the 2018 Stanley Cup.
Perhaps no one has a better pulse on DC sports than Dan Steinberg. His piece “So this is what it feels like” in the Washington Post was perfect. A writer who has seen the disappointment, written about the pain, and watched fans over the years, understood the ecstasy that came late Thursday night. He wrote:
“The people I was thinking most about were the Caps fans who had been through so many of these nights together, the people I had seen or talked to after the Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh, or the Game 7 loss to Montreal, or the other Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh, the people who remembered all the blown series leads, all the blank stares, all the emptiness. Put aside some of the other D.C. sports wounds; the Capitals torture was easily in a class of its own. It’s the dullest cliché of the week, but it really is true: All that waiting made Thursday night more glorious. That’s not to say the losses were good. But the exhale sure was”.
The exhale was indeed liberating. 40,000 people sprayed beer in the air, hugged, high fived, and cried. All together we exhaled at 11:19pm Thursday night. The exact moment the Caps hoisted the Cup for the first time.
Finally, and perhaps the most interesting part in this story of redemption, has nothing to do with the Capitals, Nats, Skins, or Wizards.
It deals with a journalist who built his reputation, brand, and career on DC Sports. Michael Wilbon, perhaps the face of sports television, was quick to bash DC after fans took to the streets for finally getting past longtime nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Wilbon in his now infamous line on ‘Pardon the Interruption’, frankly stated “Washington D.C. is a Minor League sports town”.
Nothing revved up this city more. I am a fan of PTI and a fan of Wilbon, but that comment was unsolicited. Wilbon watched the Cubs lose year after year and, of all people, should understand what it is like for a long-suffering fan base to get a sense of redemption.
All this culminated in a fervor in DC unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Watch parties, celebrations, and perhaps the greatest Stanley Cup rager of all time have come to fruition. Literally, it is the greatest celebration ever:
Best. Weekend. Ever.
— The Stanley Cup (@StanleyCup) June 11, 2018
No team could have brought DC together like the 2017/2018 Washington Capitals. They were not supposed to win, they were not as deep, and they had missed their window. Somehow, though, they won the whole fucking thing.
So, to answer the questions posed by my dad – No, no team could have brought this town together like the 2017/2018 Caps. As my colleague kept saying Thursday night: “This team. This team, man”.
Thousands of fans rocking their red will gather today. Together, we will witness the first victory parade on our streets since 1992 when Joe Gibbs and the Redskins were the toast of town.
This time, however, it will be a team that wasn’t supposed to win with a captain who could not win the big one.
So when the Great 8 hoists that trophy over his head, undoubtedly drunk, and flashes his big gap tooth smile remember this:
There is nothing minor about this team or this town.
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) June 11, 2018