(This was an email reply to my dad but it also works well as an essay on my odd relationship with hockey. #ALLCAPS #WEGOTTHECUP)
Hockey… the sport of kings. Or at least, the sport of those with winter bound hides who revel in any opportunity to smash into each other at high speed while on ice skates, chasing after a hardened piece of rubber known affectionately as the “biscuit”. Growing up in California and Texas, hockey wasn’t a part of my sports DNA because the rink at the Galleria Mall discouraged fore-checking into the boards. Ironically both California and Texas have healthy hockey cultures now, and in fact, my first hockey game was a Houston Aeros minor league match. I found it intriguing but also utterly foreign, somewhat akin to the first time one tries sushi. Why wouldn’t you just dip the whole thing in batter and deep fry it? It makes no sense.
However, enter the world of video games sports. While attending Florida State (and a quick but heart felt shout out to the FSU Softball team for earning their first national championship) and working at The Mill Bakery, Eatery, and Brewery I fell in with some enthusiastic young men who introduced me to the Sega Genesis version of hockey, NHL Hockey 1991. Weekend long tournaments were held. Brackets were created. Bets were made. Drinks and other substances were consumed. Some people won, others (like me) lost but had an amazing time and started to vaguely get a grasp on the rules of this sport. Icing was no longer something reserved strictly for cake. Boarding wasn’t giving the ne’er-do-wells a place to live. Two-man advantage wasn’t just a bad ass punk band from New York.
When I moved to Houston after graduating college, the first major purchase I made with my JC Penny credit card (the only card I qualified for at the time) was a Sega Genesis and the first game I bought was NHLPA 1993. This game featured stellar hockey stars in their prime and even without a license from the NHL (no team names or logos) it provided hours upon booze-and-drug soaked hours of entertainment for me and my equally insane roommates. I may or may not have smashed a few controllers over my head after particularly heartbreaking loses at the hands of that bastard Wayne Gretsky.
Flash forward several forgettable years and I found myself back in Tallahassee. Expansion hockey had moved into town in the form of the ECHL’s Tallahassee Tiger Sharks. Already primed to enjoy the fastest sport on ice (sorry, curling fanatics, but you play with brooms and there is no cross-checking… in fact I would watch curling if one were allowed to hook the opponents legs out from under them as they mosey down the ice strip, sweeping away) I went to as many games as I could (turns out taking ladies from exotic up-north locations such as Chicago or Boston to a hockey game is the equivalent of giving southern women tequila) and even got to mingle with the players at the bar of the restaurant that curried my employment at the time. The players were smaller in person than I imagined, had outrageous accents (more exotic locales such as Czechoslovakia, Minsk, or Bangor, Maine) and usually walked away from the bar with all the women and left an enormous tab for someone else to pick up. I was hooked.
When the ever expanding fortunes of the NHL came to Atlanta, Debbie and I were quick to attend many of the Thrasher’s home games of the inaugural season. Tickets were reasonably priced, the arena was brand new and very nice, and as long as you didn’t mind being constantly abused by Toronto Maple Leafs fans during a game, it was a congenial atmosphere. The Thrashers were never a good team despite some first round picks of Russian vagabonds, but they did manage to make it to the playoffs one year. Of course we had to go. We took the kids and were treated to a sweep out of the playoffs by the Rangers from New York and it wasn’t too many years later that the Thrashers folded up shop and moved to Winnipeg where they became the Jets (again) and are now poised to make deep playoff runs (having lost to Vegas this year).
We moved to the DMV in 2013 and I was very happy because DC had a hockey team. I’d never paid that much attention to the Capitals, outside of knowing that Peter Bondra was a fearsome opponent in the Sega Genesis NHLPA 1993. But we embraced the Caps as our new home-town hockey team and have gone to at least a couple of games every season… and, given our history in Atlanta, were well positioned to root for a team that performed well in the season and folded in the playoffs. I became familiar with the “close but not quite enough”, the playoff runs that went 7 games only to be lost by the slimmest of margins. I also renewed my hatred for the Pittsburgh Penguins, in particular that son-of-a-bitch Sidney Crosby who is by all accounts a nice guy but he’d better never end up in front of my car in the middle of a busy intersection. When it came time to renew our license plates, we debated between going with the Nationals or the Capitals and ended up going with the Caps. Of course, this is why the team won the Cup this year. To suggest anything different is just ludicrous.
There was talk the window was closing, that Ovi was going into a decline, that he would be a Hall of Fame player but never have the team around him needed to win the Cup. They couldn’t find the chemistry, that mystical combination of skill and talent and luck that would turn it all around. The first time I saw Kuznetzov on the ice I said to anyone who would listen that he was the piece they’d been looking for to compliment “the Great Eight” and Nick Backstrom. They added piece after piece… Burakovsky, TJ Oshie, Bruce Orpik, Devonte Smith-Pelly, Tom Wilson, Lars Eller. We went to the final game of the season this year and watched Ovechkin chase 50 goals and just barely miss the mark… but they easily won the game. I had a good feeling.
This post season the Caps seemed to be poised for another quick exit, down two games in the first round to the John Tortarolla (a persistent thorn in the Caps crown) and the Columbus Blue Jackets. They’d lost two overtime games when the “puck luck” had gone against them. Then they changed goalies, righted the ship, and dealt the Blue Jackets as sound a defeat as Nathan Bedford Forrest ever had (a cheap but historically relevant shot). Next up were the hated – HATED – Penguins, who have historically had the Caps number come post season. And as quickly as you could say “Sidney Crosby has a venereal disease which has disfigured his ball sack in such a way as to render it unrecognizable as a human sexual organ” the Capitals had dispatched their rivals.
An odd thing began to happen. People around here started to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this was the year. But hockey disappointment around here is a structurally sound part of the fan base. The frustration of the early expansion years. The sweep by the Red Wings the only time the Caps made it to the Finals in 1998 (the Red Army line was still clicking for the Wings). Playoff bounce after playoff bounce even though the team seemed better than that. I can’t speak for long time Caps fans who have waited since 1974 for something to finally go their way. I don’t feel their pain, as I’ve only been a fan since 2013 and honestly these have been pretty darn good years to root for them despite their lack of the ultimate playoff victory.
The prognosticators said that we couldn’t beat the Tampa Bay Lightening. They were too fast, too skilled. But the Caps went out and played a style of hockey I hadn’t seen in years: a variation of the neutral zone trap, which forces the opponent into playing dump and chase and takes away the speed factor. Rough forechecking and backchecking, smash mouth hockey, coupled with skilled goal tending and a powerplay that featured Ovechkin lurking around the right faceoff circle ready to unleash his deadly one-timer. We were in the Cup.
Vegas had a storybook year. As someone who watched an expansion team struggle to win even a handful of games in Atlanta, it was really cool to watch from afar as Vegas lead their division all year. They had a great playoff run. They had a goalie in Fleury who had bedeviled the Caps before when he was with the Penguins. They were a high scoring offensive machine. But the hockey gods are as cruel and capricious as Crom or Cthulhu. Shots rang off the post. Open chances were blown. Those crazy bounces that always seemed to go against the Caps finally started to go their way. We won a road game. The two wins at home were dominating. Even the one loss at the Medieval Times – I mean Vegas Knights – home rink was a barn burner. And then came game five…
We went to eat at the Bungalow Alehouse, a local pub here in Prince William County. Arthur the Bartender has been an ardent Caps fan since he moved here from Georgia. He even went to Vegas and saw game one. He also made a $1,000 dollar bet on the Caps to win in 5 games at 35:1 odds… and couldn’t find his betting stub, lost somewhere in transit. He chastised us for not staying for the game, but we had tickets to the Potomac Nationals (minor league affiliate of the Nats) and left the bar before the puck dropped but promised to return if it looked promising. While watching the P-Nats drop another game to some damn team or other, we kept an eye on the ESPN scoreboard. 1-0. 1-1. 2-1. 2-2. 2-3 at the end the second period and I said, “Well, let’s just go home, I don’t know about this.”
When we got home, I took off my Caps gear because whenever I wear the shirt and hat and all that we seemed to lose. We sat down and watched as they tied it up on a Smith-Pelly goal that he scored falling onto his face. Then Lars Eller poked one in and we were up 4-3 with 7 minutes left. We were on our feet and like the song, breathless. Fleury was pulled from the goal and we missed several chances to salt it away but the clock kept running (even if the arena clock didn’t, a last minute bit of magical buffoonery that could only have been the work of Penn and Teller). I knew they’d won it, even before the final faceoff with .6 seconds on the clock.
I’ve watched the Cup raised many times (in video games and on TV) and always liked the notion that the names of the players were on the trophy. That’s just cool. No one else does that. And when they won… well, I was… I was perhaps a little underwhelmed. But hear me out. I’m a johnny-come-lately. I’ve only been a fan for a few years. I have a lot of admiration for the team but even in the few years of my fandom, they’ve really let down the side and that got to me. I had to put some distance on it this year, my blood pressure couldn’t take it if I was too invested. I was resigned to yet another fateful ending. Only this time, the hockey gods decreed it was the Capitals year. The puck luck was on their side. I was happy, but not in tears. And yet…
Seeing the look on their faces as they hoisted the Cup over their heads was priceless. It’s such a hard thing to do and it really is a great accomplishment. I’m so happy for the fans who have been with them since 1974 and never wavered. I’m happy for DC, which really does need something to celebrate in this Era of Idiocracy.
But I’m really sad for Arthur the Bartender. $35,000 dollars just went up in smoke even though his dreams of a Cup came true. The vagaries of life… now that’s something to ponder.