Photo: Courtesy of D.C. United

D.C. United: Rocking The District from Day One

Fans will fill the 20,000 seats, angled European-style toward a pitch made of natural grass, on March 3 to usher in the first full season of Major League Soccer at Audi Field. During D.C. United’s abbreviated first season in its new surroundings, the team drew an average of 18,929 fans across 15 home games and treated them to a 12-2-1 record. The extraordinary support echoes the success of the franchise’s rallying cry “Unite the District,” which will return as a prominent marketing strategy entering spring.

“An unbelievably fiesta-style atmosphere,” says D.C. United’s vice president of events and marketing Harry Hardy when describing the fans during home games. “They’re singing songs for 90 minutes. Audi Field is becoming a fortress for us.”

In an attempt to buttress enthusiasm, D.C. United will offer a slew of promotions early in the season. The move is in part a way of mitigating the rush of fans into the stadium just before game time.

“Things like discounts on your beer [and] food if you come early to the game,” Hardy elaborates.

He adds that the club has added entry points so people can get into the building sooner, “putting a huge premium on wait times.”

Opening day features a major attraction with Audi Field welcoming the defending MLS Cup Champions Atlanta United FC. And on April 9, the team will host a Cherry Blossom-themed game – the first Tuesday night game in MLS history, according to Hardy.

This year, the club has added shading elements to the west stands since discovering the sun beats down on that area of the stadium. Those who salivate over game day concessions will be pleased to know that José Andrés’  ThinkFoodGroup will continue its operations and David Chang’s Fuku brand – with its take on fried chicken sandwiches and chicken tenders – begins its rookie year as a food provider at Audi Field.

Despite the immediate success on the pitch, the tantalizing food and beverage offerings, and the raucous reception from the DC community, the transition to a new stadium didn’t come easily for all the players last year.

“When we moved into Audi in the summer, it was a little [bit of an] awkward change for not just us players but for everyone,” midfielder Russell Canouse says.

Some of the awkwardness stemmed from an unusual schedule. During the wait for Audi Field to open, D.C. United was forced to spend much of the early season on the road.

“I’m most excited about probably not having to go on the road for four months straight,” says center back Steve Birnbaum, his sunny California voice breathing relief.

However, as evidenced by the club’s strong record after move-in day, Audi Field wound up becoming a major advantage.

“Just playing in front of the home fans gave me a lot of confidence to go out and do my best,” Canouse says. “I think the same goes for everyone else. It’s hard to describe in words how important it is to have their support.”

Hardy adds that the front office comes into work every day with the “Unite the District” vision in mind. He references the playoff game against Columbus in October – a crushing loss in penalties – when thousands of DC sports fans were singing together in support of a common cause. During the dog days of summer and the grind of a playoff run, that sort of energy can help rally a squad.

Nevertheless, the team’s performance on the pitch will ultimately determine whether D.C. United reaches its first MLS Cup since 2004.

“We have a lot of belief in ourselves as a team,” Birnbaum says, his tone matter-of-fact. “With Audi Field at the heart of the city, we feel as though we can compete for a championship.”

D.C. United opens its 2019 season on Sunday, March 3 at 6 p.m. against Atlanta United FC. For ticket information, visit www.dcunited.com.

Audi Field: 100 Potomac Ave. SW, DC; 202-587-5000; www.audifielddc.com

Wharf Winter Games on District Pier

The Wharf hosted its first annual Wharf Winter Games on District Pier featuring DJ Stacks,beer, wine and hot drinks, the Wharfarod, a Bud Light curling lane, corn hole and more games. Photos: John Gervasi PhotoArts, LLC

Hungry Human Hippos at The Wharf

DC Fray hosted Hungry Human Hippos on the Wharf ice rink for an awesome afternoon on the ice. The iconic kids game comes to life with teams of 4-6 people working together to collect the most “food” (balls) on the ice. Spectators grabbed a drink at Cantina Bambina and watched from the stands.

Photo: Ned Dishman, NBA Photos

DC Enjoys A New Kind Of Go-Go

After years of planning and construction, people in the DMV can finally travel to into the city to see live go-go. And I don’t mean go-go music, the genre founded by DC legend Chuck Brown. I mean Capital City Go-Go basketball.

With a home court at the brand-new Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast, the NBA G-League’s Capital City Go-Go kicked off their first season in the District last November. Owned and operated by Monumental Sports, the city’s newest professional basketball team serves as a developmental team for prospects who need to improve before jumping to an NBA roster.

“It’s good basketball, a lot of talent and a lot of highlights,” rookie guard Chris Chiozza says. “The people we have on this roster are incredible. We have NBA guys, some people that should be in the NBA, people trying to get into the NBA and people that are trying to get called up. We’re a fun team to watch.”

The NBA G-League is the official minor league of the NBA, providing players out of college like Chiozza, foreign prospects from overseas or even high school grads forgoing college the opportunity to test themselves at a higher level of competition. There are currently 27 teams, and the games can be seen on ESPN, NBA TV and local networks.

For years, the Wizards sent players they were interested in to neighboring teams, but now they’ve finally established their own developmental program. However, the team is far from just a little brother to the Wizards, as the quality of play is nothing to undermine. In its inaugural season, the team is off to a successful start at 15-11, good for second place in the Southeast division.

“It’s been pretty good,” head coach Jarrell Christian says. “Nobody really knew what to expect coming in, but I think obviously we’ve won some games. Once you develop a team and the players as individuals, the wins will follow. I think our guys have done a really good job at becoming better players and better men on and off the court.”

While every pro sports team views winning as the ultimate goal, being in the minor leagues involves adjusting this mindset as individuals on the roster are constantly working on their own skills in the hopes of getting a contract with an NBA team. Several players have been on both DC teams since October including Jordan McRae, Devin Robinson and the team’s top pick from last year’s draft, Troy Brown Jr.

“I looked at a recent boxscore for the Wizards, and there were four or five guys who had played for the Go-Go this season,” Christian says. “That’s the whole reason why we’re here. The fact that we’ve been able to get those guys playing minutes before playing in an NBA game is why we exist. I’m excited about it, and we have a talented team.”

While a majority of rosters will include a number of younger players, veterans who refuse to give up on the dream of the major leagues round out the rest of the spots. Former University of Maryland guard Pe’Shon Howard is no stranger to playing in the G-League after suiting up for the Sacramento Kings’ developmental team last season.

“This [first year] has gone really well,” Howard says. “For a team that’s pretty big, with the staff and players we have, it’s really well put together for a first year. We have an identity and the coaches have us playing confidently.”

As a veteran, Howard understands the importance of balancing the team’s success with his own skill development. Scouts, coaches and fans are always drawn to teams that win, which in theory will help players get to that next level.

“For me, the main thing is competing and winning,” Howard says. “I think for me and this organization, we all know that winning is the easiest way to [personal] success. It makes it a lot easier to develop and adjust, because it’s not always about me. I always want to be on a team that wins.”

With talented players, innovative coaches and a beautiful new arena, the Go-Go have largely shunned any growing pains by establishing themselves as a tough out for other teams. Don’t miss out on the remainder of the season, as the team marches toward the G-League playoffs, because these are high-level players making music on the court.

“I think a big part of us being an expansion team is being innovative,” Christian says. “We have to continue to see what works best as a staff and for our players.”

For more information on the Capital City Go-Go or for tickets to future games, visit https://capitalcity.gleague.nba.com.


Long Island Nets v Capital City Go-Go

The Entertainment and Sports Arena Breathes New Life Into City

After more than a year of construction starting in summer 2017, the Entertainment and Sports Arena opened last September in Southeast DC. The multiuse facility, designed to host everything from concerts to e-sports competitions, is the practice facility for the Wizards, Mystics and Capital City Go-Go – and the home court for the latter two teams. On Tap spoke with Events DC President Gregory O’Dell about the $65 million, 4,200-seat arena’s local impact and future programming.

On Tap: What has the response from the local community been like so far?
Gregory O’Dell:
The response has been overwhelmingly fantastic. One of the things we wanted to do was put people to work. We had more than $10 million in construction contracts in [Ward 8], and more than 50 percent of the staff in the building are from Ward 7 and Ward 8. We thought this would be a great catalyst [for Congress Heights] and will drive foot traffic there. It’ll be the start of a wider and broader project.

OT: Now that it’s been operating for a few months, has the arena met expectations?
GO:
It has. We’re seeing the diversity in the programming that we wanted. People are coming from across the city and it gives people access to Congress Heights, which will bode well for the future and the community.

OT: How has the relationship with the Wizards, Capital City Go-Go and Mystics bolstered the arena’s programming?
GO:
I’ll give lots of credit to Mayor [Muriel Bowser] and [Monumental CEO] Ted Leonsis. The Wizards enjoy the training facility, [as well as] the fans of the Go-Go and Mystics. They’ve all been supportive of us and we enjoy having them there.

OT: Have there been any unforeseen setbacks?
GO:
Everything has gone smoothly. In fairness to the city, they’ve done an incredible job with the infrastructure job of the campus. There are growing pains for everyone when there’s construction, and we’ll have to make adjustments with the growth, but it’s nothing to complain about and we’re pleased.

For more information about the arena and news about future programming, visit www.esaontherise.com.

The Entertainment and Sports Arena: 1100 Oak Dr. SE, DC; 202-249-3000; www.esaontherise.com

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 03: Evgeny Kuznetsov #92 of the Washington Capitals skates with the puck in the first period against the Dallas Stars at Capital One Arena on November 3, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

Caps Finds Footing in Post-Championship Season

Alan May knows a thing or two about commitment after playing in the National Hockey League as a hard-nosed winger in a career that spanned several seasons. That’s why it’s been easy for him to notice a lack of intensity in the Washington Capitals during the early part of their 2018-2019 season.

May, who played with Washington for five seasons in the early 90s and became a fan favorite with his tenacity, says it’s understandable the Capitals got off to a lukewarm start given how much energy was spent gutting through a grueling playoff format last season. That ended, of course, with the team bringing home a championship to DC in the form of the Capitals’ first-ever Stanley Cup.

“I believe they’ve been underachieving,” says May, now a hockey analyst for NBC Sports Washington, which involves regularly covering the team he once played for. “It’s not that they’re not trying, or they don’t give a damn. It’s an emotional hangover from last year and the playoffs. April, May and June were so intense. It’s nothing the players here had ever seen.”

The Caps and DC sports fans alike let out a collective sigh of relief after they won the cup, which represented the first championship for the town since the Redskins won the Super Bowl following the 1991 season. The party began almost immediately after the June 7 victory in Vegas against the Golden Knights and continued through the summer.

But then September and training camp were upon them and it was back to business. The team returned mostly intact, minus checking center Jay Beagle and backup goalie Philipp Grubauer. The key change came behind the bench where Barry Trotz was replaced by Todd Reirden after having served as head coach for four seasons.

It is rare for an NHL head coach and his team to part ways after winning the Stanley Cup, but it reportedly came down to Trotz and Caps management being unable to agree on a contract extension. Trotz initially came onboard with a four-year contract, and he coached the team in lame duck status last year. He ultimately joined the New York Islanders where he now serves as their head coach.

The spilt between Trotz and the front office also had much to do with the respect felt for Reirden. He served as an associate coach under Trotz and was widely considered around the league as a top young coaching candidate. The Caps are comfortable with Reirden, and continued success is expected under his tutelage.

“They all love the coach,” May says. “They’re all supportive of Todd Reirden and I think that transition [from Trotz] was easy.”

So, what could have contributed to the team’s lackluster start besides an emotional hangover? It wasn’t a terrible beginning, as the Caps were 10-7-3 with 23 points as of November 20, and they appeared to have begun picking up the pace. But when a team is led by stars like captain Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Braden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov, it’s expected they will be competing near the top of the standings on a consistent basis.

May says the team was noticeably different without power winger Tom Wilson, who was suspended for 20 games after what the NHL deemed was an illegal check to the head of a St. Louis Blues player during preseason. The rugged Wilson, who plays on the top line with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, saw the suspension reduced by a few games after an appeal and immediately made his presence felt by scoring a goal in his first game back November 13 against the Minnesota Wild.

Wilson is expected to solidify the lineup while bringing a physically intimidating edge back to the Capitals. The winger was signed to a six-year contract extension after having a career year last season with 14 goals, 21 assists and 187 penalty minutes.

“His suspension really hurt the team,” May says about Wilson’s hiatus. “He brings a maximum level of intensity. He’s a physically dominating player and he scares the daylights out of the other teams’ defensemen.”

Besides missing Wilson, other aspects of hockey that are not as evident as goal scoring such as killing penalties and play away from the puck plagued the Capitals in the early going.

“The way that they’re playing when they don’t have the puck has to be a lot better,” says May, adding that overall physicality and mental awareness had been lacking.

It’s not often that a team misses the playoffs the year after winning the cup. The Los Angeles Kings were the last to suffer the indignity in 2015, and before that it was the Carolina Hurricanes in 2007. Do not expect this Capitals squad to endure that fate. While it is common for championship teams to start out sluggish due to fatigue, they usually find their footing and get back to a winning formula. The Capitals will certainly want a chance to defend their title come spring.

For more information on the Washington Capitals’ current season, go to www.nhl.com/capitals. Follow Alan May on Twitter @MayHockeyNBCS.

Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC; 202- 628-3200; www.nhl.com/capitals

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 24: John Wall #2 and Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards pose for a portrait during media day at the Entertainment and Sports Arena at St. Elizabeth's on September 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Wizards Hope New Additions Will Help Shake Slow Start

The Washington Wizards should be reminding themselves it’s early, because it is. Even though our hometown team has started slowly out of the gate, the nucleus of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. are undeniably talented. And in an Eastern Conference that’s more top-heavy than deep, these three athletes should be more than enough to get the team into the playoffs.

And as the Wizards’ new additions get acclimated in head coach Scott Brooks’ system playing with the aforementioned stalwarts, the squad should play better as the 2018-2019 season continues.

Fresh faces include future Hall of Fame center Dwight Howard, combo guard Austin Rivers and veteran Jeff Green. Each player brings a skill set missing from the Wizards roster in past seasons, as the team often sputtered due to its lack of depth.

The team shifted from longtime starting center Marcin Gortat to Howard, a player who’s undoubtedly been one of the greatest at his position for the past decade. Though he’s only 32 years old, he’s been playing in the NBA since the 2004-2005 season so he has some mileage on his legs, which could be a cause for concern later in the season.

He’s averaged nearly 18 points and 13 rebounds per game during his career, providing a consistent presence on the boards and in the paint on both sides of the court. Because of early injuries, Howard has missed much of the team’s lackluster start to the season; however, he should make his triumphant return in early November.

Meanwhile Rivers can play the point and off-ball, and is a capable scorer who averaged 15 points per game last season for the Los Angeles Clippers. His flexibility gives the team a reliable third guard, a piece they’ve been searching for since signing Wall and Beal to big extensions in the past few years.

As of late October, the team is 1-5 with several noticeable areas they could improve. Their rebound rate is dead last in the league with a paltry 42.9 percent. Considering the Wizards play with the third-highest pace, they’re leaving ample rebounds unaccounted for, giving other teams opportunities to get second and third shot attempts.

Howard should help with this significantly upon his return, as the team has been forced to go small and play undersized guys like natural power forwards Markieff Morris and Green at center for extended minutes.

Green is another newcomer who should help the Wizards down the stretch of the season. The power forward provides shooting and athleticism off the bench, and always has the potential to score 20-30 points in any game. The knock on his game throughout his career is the inconsistency of these flashes, because as exciting as they are when they’re happening, it can be maddening to watch when they’re not.

Returning players rounding out the team are Morris at forward, small forward Kelly Oubre Jr., center Ian Mahinmi, guard Tomas Satoransky and center Jason Smith.

Wing Troy Brown Jr., the team’s first-round pick of the 2018 NBA draft, should also provide punch off the bench as he gets more comfortable playing in the league. At 6-foot-7, his length will help on the defensive side of the ball against Eastern Conference teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors.

So yes, the Wizards have gotten off to a slow start, fielding a bottom-10 offensive (104.9) and defensive (114.5) rating so far this season. But with the talent of the roster and most of the season still ahead of them, it’s not time to panic yet. The new additions will help, but Wall, Beal and Porter Jr. will be relied on heavily to steady the ship as the calendar progresses – something they did two years ago.

For more information about the Washington Wizards and to purchase home game tickets, visit www.nba.com/wizards. If you want to hear more basketball opinions from Trent Johnson and a few of his friends, check out his podcast Trolling the Paint on Spotify, iTunes or Anchor.

Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC; 202-628-3200; www.capitalonearena.com

Photo: Courtesy of Red Bull

Red Bull Brings Esports Tournament Final to District

Thousands of electronic gaming enthusiasts will descend on the new, state-of-the-art St. Elizabeths East Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southeast DC this month for four days of ferocious fighting.

The November 16-18 battles won’t put flesh-and-blood fighters in a ring or a cage but rather virtual brawlers projected on massive video screens, as the nation’s best efighters square off in the Red Bull Conquest National Final. The event is expected to draw spectators from around the nation as fighters from 15 different regions vie for prizes and bragging rights as the ultimate competitors in “Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition,” “Tekken 7” and “Guilty Gear Xrd REV 2.”

It’s a moment city officials hope will put DC on the map as fertile ground for the rapidly blossoming – and potentially hugely lucrative – esports industry. In fact, the new $65 million arena in Congress Heights, which will also serve as the home court of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and Wizards’ G League affiliate Capital City Go-Go, was designed in part with esports competitions in mind.

Jimmy Nguyen, national competition director for Red Bull Conquest, tells On Tap that the nation’s capital does not yet have the egaming reputation of California, New York or Texas, but it is rapidly earning its place on the map. He also says DC has a natural appeal for major showcases because it’s an attractive draw for tourists.

“It could be the next area that could flourish and become a stage where we do all of our big events,” Nguyen says. “What we’re trying to do is create opportunities and grow together, and see where we can take this for years to come.”

Events DC, the convention and sports authority for the District, has been angling to get the city involved in the esports realm for years, and finally scored big when it landed the Red Bull Conquest.

Max Brown, chairman of the Events DC board of directors, says the new arena is a natural fit for the virtual sports competition and was built to accommodate such events.

“The arena was built with extreme Wi-Fi and the fastest ethernet to be able to create memorable experiences that are ideal for esports tournaments and its fans,” Brown says. “Tech is shaping the future of entertainment and with the cutting-edge capabilities of the new arena, esports is just another opportunity for us to showcase DC on a global stage – and attract even more events and visitors to the city, similar to Red Bull’s Conquest Final.”

Earlier this year, Events DC also partnered with industry leader NRG Esports to establish a new training home for elite egamers based in DC.

Nguyen says while Red Bull is famous primarily for its wildly popular energy drinks and sponsorship of extreme sports competitions, it has been aggressively moving into the esports realm for the past two years.

“The next big thing is esports and gaming,” he says. “It’s something that we see as viable to the culture.”

Nguyen also rejects the notion that esports are strictly for kids or “computer nerds.” He says that mode of thinking is seriously outdated.

“Back in the day, it was easy to say this a little hobby that nerds and geeks do, but now we’re all geeks and nerds. The more mainstream it gets, it’s hard to say gaming doesn’t matter anymore. We recognize that, and we want to give everybody the opportunity to get involved.”

In the realm of DC-based egaming, perhaps no figure looms larger than Austin “Boo” Painter – star player for the Wizards District Gaming, a virtual NBA team that just completed its first successful season in the burgeoning NBA 2K League. The 24-year-old former State Department security specialist from Luray, Virginia quit his job last year to become a professional egamer with Wizards 2K.

Painter is among roughly 100 paid players in the new league chosen from among 72,000 contestants nationwide. The league pays for his housing and provides a salary that he says allows him to “live healthy” doing what he loves, which includes playing live ebasketball that is streamed to thousands of fans weekly.

“I wake up every day and play [NBA] 2K,” he says, hardly seeming to believe it himself. “When I have kids, I’m never going to tell them to get off the video games because this could happen to them. Esports are growing, and now every little kid looks at video gamers like they want to do this all day too.”

The Red Bull National Conquest Final takes place Friday, November 16 to Sunday, November 18. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit www.redbull.com/us-en/events/conquest. For more information about the Wizards District Gaming, visit http://wizardsdg.nba.com.

St. Elizabeths East Entertainment & Sports Arena: 1100 Oak Dr. SE, DC; www.esaontherise.com

Photo: Nicholas Ciafolo, iHeart Media

LOCASH Brings Energy to Pepsi Tailgate Tour Experience at FedExField

The Redskins/Cowboys rivalry alone is enough to get a crowd out to Maryland’s FedExField for the 4:25 p.m. kick-off, but one thing about Sunday’s game-day parking lot party was different from the past four 2018 Washington Redskins home games. Fans were welcomed with an ultimate tailgate experience thanks to the Pepsi Tailgate Tour, which has amplified game days at five NFL stadiums so far this season with three more to go, including the Army vs. Navy game on December 8 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

The popular beverage brand’s tailgate experience features live music from LOCASH, classic outdoor tailgating games like cornhole and surprise guest appearances by NFL cheerleaders and players. At Sunday’s tour stop, guests were treated to an upbeat, energetic set from country duo LOCASH, and appearances by former wide receiver Santana Moss and retired running back Clinton Portis of the Washington Redskins.

Baltimore-native Chris Lucas and Preston Brust of LOCASH are giving football fans something to be excited about on this Pepsi Tailgate Tour. Their one hour pre-game set features new single “Feels Like A Party,” their 2016 hit “I Love This Life,” a cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and more, and this line-up of songs couldn’t be more perfect for the occasion. “We’re positive, upbeat country,” Lucas said. “A good time is what it’s all about.”

The tailgate lot filled up fast before the duo took the stage due to the lively atmosphere. “You got the cheerleaders doing their routines, live music from us, food, former sports stars stopping in, it’s crazy,” Brust said. “It’s celebrity central because it’s Pepsi, such a classy organization. Everybody wants to be around Pepsi.” Lucas and Brust noted that this particular stop might have been the best one yet, despite the chilly weather. “The tailgating we’ve seen for this Redskins game is incredible. It reminds me a lot of a college tailgate.”

The experience elevates the pre-game fun for fans by even introducing them to a new genre of music that they might not be familiar with, which sets the tone so well for this kind of sporting event. “This is putting us in front of different clientele,” Lucas said. “A lot of people that don’t come to football games [regularly] and don’t know about country music and our brand are having a good time. It’s football, it’s fun, it’s music. It doesn’t get better than that.”

LOCASH couldn’t be more thrilled to partner with Pepsi – being husbands and fathers it’s important to them to maintain a tight-knit vibe on the tour. “It’s like having family everywhere we go, it really is. They stick with us, they watch our songs, they ask how our kids are doing. It’s an amazing feeling to have such a huge marketing team,” Brust said. “It’s been a great learning experience, we know what they need from us, we know what we need from them and we execute together perfectly.”

Though LOCASH is newer to the country radio scene than other artists, they’re really just enjoying the ride and soaking in the opportunities to expand since recently signing with Broken Bow Records and planning an album drop in January. The two are enjoying “just experiencing it and showing NFL and country music together. It works, it fits,” Lucas said.

You can catch LOCASH performing three holiday tunes at the National Christmas Tree Lighting on Wednesday, November 28 on the National Mall, or on the rest of the Pepsi Tailgate Tour. Visit www.pepsitailgate.com for more details on the exclusive football experience.

FedExField: 1600 Fedex Way, Landover, MD; www.redskins.com/stadium

PFL 10 in Washington DC

On Tap visited popular sports bars around DC and Virginia including Buffalo Billiards, Bracket Room and Kirwan’s on the Wharf to promote the upcoming PFL 10 happening on Saturday, October 20th at the new St. Elizabeths Entertainment and Sports Area. Use promo code ONTAP50 for 50 percent off your ticket to the playoffs!

Photo: Courtesy of Washington Capitals

Capitals’ New Head Coach Todd Reirden Enters Unique Situation

Championship teams are hard to keep together. Whether it’s players leaving for bigger contracts, veterans retiring or staffers jetting for more lucrative opportunities, the likelihood of a carbon copy from year to year is nearly impossible.

An obvious cog for any sports team is the head coach, and though it’s unusual for a championship organization to hire a new leader months after tasting absolute victory, the Capitals are now in the midst of this transition.

Out is Barry Trotz, the man who directed the team to last year’s Stanley Cup championship, as he resigned shortly after hoisting the trophy earlier this summer. While the team could have rocked the boat and brought in an outside candidate, the front office instead opted for continuity, promoting former assistant coach Todd Reirden. The 47-year-old was given a unique set of circumstances surrounding his first National Hockey League head coaching gig.

“This is an extremely unique one,” Reirden tells me in his office adorned with more Capitals gear than a stadium gift shop. “More often than not, you see an assistant coach take over because it went poorly. In this situation where you’ve won the ultimate prize in your sport, it’s obviously different. I had no ill will or misgivings to Barry. It was his choice not to return. It had nothing to do with my situation.”

Officially hired on June 29, Reirden touched base with Trotz to thank him for the opportunity. Four years ago, Trotz hired him as the assistant coach, bringing him into the organization where he’s now charged to lead.

“It’s been a real comfortable situation thus far,” he says. “Two years ago, I ran the training camp. So this is not new to me as far as where we’re at right now – only thoughts of excitement and opportunity for this group, who for the most part is returning.”

Those returning include legend and Stanley Cup MVP Alex Ovechkin, forward T.J. Oshie and defenseman John Carlson, to name a few.

“Every season is a little bit different, so it’s tough to totally forecast where your team is going to have success or [what they’ll] struggle with,” Reirden says. “[Because of] what we were able to do last year, there won’t be a lot of changes. We’re just trying to emphasize the speed with some of our young players.”

One group of people happy to see him instituted as head coach was the players, who had firsthand experience as he helped guide the team to a championship last season. Though he has a different role, the team believes he can help them achieve a title repeat.

“First of all, he’s very smart,” says veteran center Nicklas Backstrom. “He’s very good at adjusting during the game and making sure you’re screwing with the other team a bit, which I think is positive. People don’t notice that. He’s alert. He’s on top of his game, every game. That’s what you need in this league.”

Along with his mind for the game, Reirden is a great communicator, which is something he’s using to help the Capitals avoid
a title hangover.

“My strengths are in communication and developing relationships with the players,” he says. “I was in constant contact with them and let them know a clear vision of what I expected the camp to look like. They’ve all come back in excellent shape and ready to work. The response from the veteran players and everyone right through is a high energy level and an even higher conditional level than in the past. You have to communicate with the players, you have to talk to them, you have to connect with them. They have to be able to come to you about good things, bad things, whatever it is, and you have to have them trust you and believe in you.”

With a new coach comes new philosophies and tendencies, which carries the possibility of a slow start. However, with Reirden being on staff for the past few years, players aren’t worried about the prospect.

“Potentially,” right defenseman Matt Niskanen says of Reirden’s coaching style. “You get used to a coach’s tendencies – his feel for how he runs the bench, runs your scheme, your practices. So far in camp, there’s been the same types of drills just to get people moving again because everyone’s familiar with them. But we’re going to start filtering new stuff, tweaking the system and details as we go. It should be a pretty seamless transition.”

Though it’s early, everything out of Capitals camp sounds so far, so good. And as the season opener against the Boston Bruins on October 3 approaches, all Reirden and the team can do is put their heads down, get to work and enjoy the journey.

“My goal doesn’t have anything to do with a set number of wins or losses, or this or that,” Reirden says. “I want to create an environment that’s challenging for our players. I want them to enjoy coming to work every day. They need to enjoy coming to the rink and being challenged that way to get back to what we accomplished last year.”

Don’t miss the Caps’ home opener on Wednesday, October 3 at 7:30 p.m. against the Bruins. For more information on the team and their 2018-2019 season, visit www.nhl.com/capitals.

Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC; www.nhl.com/capitals