Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Capitals Win the Stanley Cup

The Washington Capitals have finally won their first championship, in their forty-third season! It's also the first championship for DC in one of the four major sports since 1992 (although soccer team DC United has won four times in that span). I do most of my sports posting and commenting on fan blogs and social media, and I'm not going to post the 50 plus links I've collected, but I felt obliged to post something here. (The celebration parade was today in DC.)

Sports fandom can be a bit of a silly thing. Most of us inherit our favorite teams from parents or other relatives. Maybe we develop fandom from where we live or once lived. And dedicated fans feel excitement and disappointment, sometimes significant amounts of it, all based on the actions of a person or group of people we can't control. Fans can pour enormous time, energy and money into following sports, which might be better spent elsewhere. It's pretty irrational, really.

But fandom can still be glorious. The main reason we watch sports is because it can be entertaining and thrilling – watching two teams (or people) in opposition, with set rules, but an uncertain outcome, makes for good drama. (Brecht once observed, essentially, that bad theater wasn't as gripping as good sports, and theater should strive to be at least as engaging.) And some athletic feats are just impressive. There's a beauty to a good pass in football, soccer, basketball or hockey. Fandom is often communal – gathering with friends and family, celebrating and commiserating with fellow fans in a bar or in online communities during games. And surely sports are a healthier form of competition or even aggression than, say, war or other actual fighting.

As a lifelong Packers fan, I was thrilled to see the Packers win the Super Bowl in 1997 after a 29-year drought and several years of serious contention. Their underdog run in 2011, winning six games in a row just to make the playoffs and then winning the championship, was also amazing. Likewise, as a lifelong, masochist Cubs fan, seeing the Cubs win the World Series after over 100 years was astounding. Both fandoms have entailed considerable heartache due to playoff losses. (I never fully celebrate a Packers game until it's done, having seen some heroic finishes but also last-second defeats.)

But the Capitals' championship is particularly special because it's their first. And they are – or were – serious contenders for heartbreak kings. The Caps have been really good for a significant amount of time without winning a championship, facing epically bad luck or just not pulling it off. As The Washington Post's Thomas Boswell puts it:

In the past decade, the Caps lead the NHL in regular season points with 1,019, ahead of the Penguins (1,008) and the Chicago Blackhawks (988). Nobody else is close. In those 10 years, the Penguins and Blackhawks have won six Cups — three each. In the NHL’s luck-laced playoffs, no one team, no matter how good, is assured of winning a title in any particular year. But sustained excellence for so long, as Pittsburgh and Chicago illustrate, is usually rewarded.

(The rest of the column, explaining more Capitals mishaps and how this season was different, is well worth the read.)

The Stanley Cup is easily the coolest and most storied trophy in sports (at least in North America), and it's arguably the hardest to win, with luck playing a significant role in addition to the usual skill and grit and all the sports clichés one can summon.

I first started following the Caps in 1998 or 1999, after their first Finals appearance. I didn't follow them at all as a kid; their TV ads in the DC area were cheaply made, the team didn't seem to be that good (I know now they did make some playoff runs), it seemed a bit silly to me that hockey was being played in a fairly Southern city, and I played soccer as a kid. But one day during a brief return stint in DC, I read a piece in The Washington Post about the Capitals making the Finals – and being swept – but how they had exceeded expectations and were actually pretty good now. I thought it'd be interesting to finally check out a game. The next season, I went down to the then-MCI Center and got the cheapest seat possible – a $10 or $12 "Eagle's Nest" seat, which meant the last one or two nosebleed rows at the ends of the arena. In theory, they're the worst seats possible, but you can see the action developing pretty well, especially odd-man rushes. I saw the Capitals play their arch-rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, losing 4-3 in overtime. But the game was exciting and amazing. It had the gorgeous passing and weaving I loved in soccer, but it was accelerated, in a condensed space, and with the potential for sudden reversals when one team pressed and missed and the other team could potentially break out the other way. I was hooked. I dragged some family members to a game, and even though I was moving out of town, I got a partial season subscription that year, picking games when I could be in town and the most interesting matchups otherwise, and gave those game tickets to my father. (He kindly repaid me for those tickets, although I told him he didn't have to.)

Some years I was so busy I couldn't follow the Caps well, or they were so bad I didn't have the heart to check in constantly. But for the past several years, I've followed every single one of the 82 regular-season games, listening to most of them on the radio app on weekdays, possibly catching the end of the games when just getting home, watching recaps, and celebrating and commiserating on fan sites. I've attended a game or two every time I've been back in DC during hockey season, and for a few years have attended the Caps-Kings game here in Los Angeles (which makes me feel slightly bad, because the Kings are my second or third favorite team). The Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy for most points/best record in the regular season the previous two seasons, and have done that three times in the past 10 years. In those seasons especially, it seemed like they would finally break through and win a championship. But they kept on getting bumped out, in the past 10 years by the Flyers, Canadiens, and Lightning once apiece, the Rangers three times, and the Penguins three times. The screwy playoff system of the past few years, which eliminated reseeding after rounds, meant the Caps and Penguins kept meeting in the second round instead of the conference finals, even though they were arguably the best two teams in the Eastern Conference (possibly in the league, but certainly in the top four or so). As a fan, you can tell yourself that, statistically, your team should win eventually (hey, the Cubs finally did it again after more than a century), but life as a Caps fan has meant plenty of thrills during the regular season, and excitement and agony during the playoffs, finishing with crushing disappointment and despair at the injustice of the universe (or as head coach Barry Trotz might put it, "the Hockey Gods").

As a result, in recent years, my Caps devotion has probably been my most intense or at least tumultuous fandom. I do follow every Packers game, and can get engaged enough to live and die with every play, especially come playoff time. But there are only 16 games in a season, plus the playoffs. And the Packers lead the league with 13 championships, and won one in the past 10 years, all of which honestly has taken the sting out of some pretty brutal playoff disappointments, at least for me. It's unrealistic and greedy to expect a championship every year, and healthy fandom necessitates enjoying the ride. Meanwhile, for the Cubs, I periodically check in on the standings, look at the scores, and will put a game on in the background in the rare event it's on, but I don't study in detail every recap of their 162 regular-season games and typically save following closely until the playoffs loom and if the Cubs have a chance. I've been diehard with the Caps, and this Stanley Cup run and win will probably be the zenith of my fan experience with sports, because it's the Caps' very first championship, and for both players and fans, it represents a host of demons slain. (I'm reminded of a good friend who's a lifelong Angels fan and finally got to see them win the World Series in 2002. Likewise, unless I have other rooting interests, I always cheer for the team that hasn't won a championship or has the longest drought.)

Most NHL pundits and fans thought the Caps would compete for a playoff spot, but few thought they would win the division. This Caps team was not as talented or deep as were the teams of the previous two seasons, but somehow, it was the one to win the championship. Why? Lower expectations? More youth and speed? More adversity and working through it? So much was improbable. Defenseman Brooks Orpik scoring a game-winning goal in the Finals after last scoring on February 26th, 2016 (yes, 2016). Jakub Vrana and Andrei Burakovsky both being scratched in games and then each coming back and scoring two goals in later games. Devante Smith-Pelly scoring only seven goals in the regular season and then scoring seven clutch goals in the playoffs, including a game-tying goal in what wound up being the series finale while being tripped and falling down. Beating the Penguins on the road with Backstrom and Wilson out and playing a bunch of rookies. Evgeny Kuznetsov leading all players in the playoffs with 32 points and scoring gorgeous, silky-smooth goals, including winning the series against the arch-rival Penguins in overtime. Goalie Braden Holtby shutting out the excellent Tampa Bay Lightning in two successive elimination games, and in the Finals making a jaw-dropping stop known as The Save. Backstrom being quietly productive as usual. Ovechkin scoring through skill and persistence and being a force of nature. The Caps winning all four series after being behind, and winning all four on the road, and winning all four games when they could eliminate an opponent. Ovechkin winning the Conn Smythe for playoff MVP (both Kuznetsov and Holtby also would have deserved it), and more importantly, winning the Stanley Cup, silencing the largely inane, idiotic criticism he and the Caps have been subjected to for years. This postseason was nerve-wracking and thrilling and magical.

Here's the official NHL recap of Game 5:

The Capitals put together a nice video from their perspective on the game, including "backstage" footage, "We Are the Champions":

Here's the handshake line, one of the great traditions in the sport:

Then there's the presentation of the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin accepts the Conn Smythe, but watch the footage and you can see that this is one he really wants. Just look at Ovechkin's unbridled joy. And the first person who gets the Cup after him, of course, is Nicklas Backstrom:

Video of the team photo, with two late but important additions:

Now that the season's over, it'll be nice to have more time back for other pursuits, and less stress, but I'm glad to have gone through all of it. The St. Louis Blues are probably now the most overdue team for a championship in hockey, but I hope every devoted fan in every sport gets an experience like this.