Let me preface this with a little personal history. I arrived in Washington in 1984. One of the first things I did upon moving into my apartment and getting phone service (we didn’t have the Internet back then) was to procure tickets for Washington Capitals hockey. The first game I attended happened to feature the Stanley Cup finalists from the previous year, the Edmonton Oilers, who the Caps pasted that night, 9-2.
That was the start of a long relationship with the local hockey team, one not filled with a lot of high points, if you measure such things by wins that matter. Rather, my 25 odd years or so of following the Caps is not unlike the experience of other fans of my vintage. Every autumn brought hope, every spring disappointment. Sure, we could bask in the individual achievements of a Mike Gartner or a Scott Stevens or a Bobby Carpenter (all of whom would end up leaving the Caps in what was still the prime of their careers), but for each brief glimpse of success, disappointment came down like a sledge-hammer to crush it. The upset loss to the Rangers in the 1986 playoffs, watching Ron Hextall score into an empty net to drive a nail into the coffin of the 1989 playoff hopes, the four-overtime losses to the Islanders and the Penguins (any other teams have two four-overtime losses in the Stanley Cup playoffs on their own ice?). And the demons… early in franchise history it was the Islanders always finding a way to snuff out any playoff hopes. Later, it would be (and still is) the Penguins.
And for me personally, I couldn’t even enjoy the most satisfying comeback in Caps history, when the boys came back from a 3-1 series deficit and the short end of a 3-0 score in Game 7 against the Flyers in 1988 to win the series on the most famous call of an overtime goal in Caps history. No, on that night I trudged to Capital Centre nursing a case of the flu and ended up having to leave after the first period when the Caps were in that 3-0 hole. I had to watch the biggest finish in team history under a blanket in my apartment. All in all, it made one wonder how one could have much passion for this club. But a lot of us did.
Caps fans who have come out on the other side from a 25 or more year journey in following the team come by their being a fan in a fashion hard-earned.
Which brings me to this morning’s column by Mike Wise in the Washington Post, the self-appointed spokesperson for the new Caps fan, who sees codgers like me as a little too snobby about our position on the NHL fan scale of value, who sees us too self-centered and self-absorbed with our brand of fandom to allow “bandwagon jumpers” such as himself on board the Caps juggernaut.
Mike, you have it all wrong – 100 percent. For fans like me, the problem isn’t new fans. Trust me (I was there), going to games in 2003 or 2004 was not especially pleasant. The team was awful, and the arena on F Street was quiet and deserted. Even when Alex Ovechkin joined the club, there were a lot of rows of seats left empty for games those first couple of years. But to see Verizon Center now, a sea of red jerseys, all sorts of quirky characters, a team that lights up the night and the scoreboard, and the kids… all the kids who are there with signs and painted faces and their miniature jerseys. No Caps fan who has been around is saying, “take a hike” to those fans.
It isn’t the new fans, it is the “discovery” of the Caps by folks such as yourself in the media who have been here a few years with a hockey team in your midst, but one deemed unworthy of the slightest coverage. There are media personalities in this area who to this day express little but contempt for the sport and cover it out of what seems only an economic obligation to their sponsors. Fine, hockey is not everyone's cup of tea. But when you and many of your colleagues jump on board merely because it's the "in" thing to cover, attaching the label of "fan" to yourselves rings rather hollow.
Mike, you accuse Caps fans such as myself of “acting like no one can cheer for a hockey team unless they've read Toe Blake's private journals on power-play rotation.” The truth is, the media have acted in this community for the past couple of decades as if the Caps were the equivalent of an appendix – a useless organ that occasionally flares up to no good (as when the Caps got coverage during the "limousine” incident some years ago), but otherwise can be ignored. For years, the Caps and their fans were treated with contempt – a bunch of quirky whiners who didn’t understand the dynamics of sports journalism, who didn’t understand that knowing whether Mark Rypien eats Wheaties or Cheerios for breakfast is of paramount importance in the competition for column inches or air time minutes.
Fine, there are some fans (we’d like to think we are among them) who “get it.” The Redskins are the straw that stirs the sports drink in these parts, and will for some time to come, whether the Capitals win a Stanley Cup or not. The Redskins come by that rank honestly; they have provided a lot of thrills and memories to folks in these parts.
But after having endured disappointments on the ice, empty arenas, and little to hope for year after year as a fan, to come out on the other side to see a team people want to see, a team people are thrilled to watch, a team with players who genuinely connect with fans – what Caps fan who has endured the bad times is going to say, “sorry, this is our party?”
Quite the contrary. In my experience, folks I come across who have looked at hockey as something of a puzzlement seem genuinely curious about the club, if not a rock-the-red fanatic. It’s a pleasure to talk to them about the sport. Folks who couldn’t pick Alex Ovechkin out of a one-man lineup ask about what he did the previous evening or remark about having seen his latest highlight on television last evening. Folks who wouldn’t have known a hockey puck from a bread truck stop and talk about whether Jose Theodore or Semyon Varlamov should get a start in goal against the Rangers.
Verizon Center is a big place – holds 18,277. Lots of room for the old fan and the new fan. It’s just difficult to see those who would use their column space to accuse us “old-school” Caps fans of holding newer fans in contempt be blind to the contempt they have for those of us who for stuck around.