Light It UP! Scores Funding For Alexandria Basketball Courts

It’s truly amazing what a group of citizens can do when they partner up on something they care about – even if it’s something as simple as installing lights at outdoor basketball courts.

Started by Alexandria, Virginia natives Chris Denby, Bruce Falk and Mike Porterfield, community group Light It UP! (LIU) has gained enough support to partner with the City of Alexandria to provide lights at the basketball courts at Potomac Yard Park. Through fundraising efforts in the area, the group’s connections with Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson and councilman John Taylor Chapman, and sheer patience and determination, this $150,000 project has become a reality.

In 2016, the trio noticed there was inequity at the brand-new facilities at Potomac Yard, whether they were just passing by or in Porterfield’s case, picking up his son from the park just after dusk. There were lights on the tennis courts but not on the basketball courts. His son was shooting baskets in pitch black, but light was coming from the tennis courts, which didn’t seem right to him.

“As I’m waiting for him, I’m texting [Mayor] Wilson because we all know he’s dialed in,” Porterfield says. “He responded saying, ‘You’re a little late to the party; there’s already two guys [Falk and Denby] who are on it.’”

Mayor Wilson, along with the Alexandria City Council, supported the creation of a public-private partnership to help fund the new project, giving the guys the freedom to really make it happen.

“From there, Mike was a huge help, spurring us along with connections, energy and fundraising expertise that Bruce and I didn’t have prior to this,” Denby says. “We also took advantage of a lot of the opportunities [nonprofit] ACT for Alexandria provided to get well-known in the community. Their fundraising efforts were great and gave us some more clout.”

ACT for Alexandria’s annual Spring2ACTion event aims to strengthen the local community as a “giving day” to support all the nonprofits doing incredible work locally, which benefited LIU’s progress as well.

“We got some camera time, and experienced good camaraderie with people organizing Alexandria-specific events,” Falk says. “John and Justin came out to dunk on our mini-hoop; those things also lead to productive, positive photo ops that we can leverage on Facebook and elsewhere – things that are individually small but amplify one another.”

LIU is all about extending the use of the basketball courts and their overall time availability, but there’s also increased opportunities for local rec leagues and others that might be able to take advantage of the courts in a structured way “that’s beneficial to specific organizations and the city in terms of revenue and maintenance,” Falk says. “We think of it as a positive feedback loop.”

Of course, only time will tell the long-term impact LIU will make, but it’s clear the project is creating opportunities for the overall community.

“The legacy of what this could be [includes] more kids who are staying occupied, doing healthy activities and not hanging out playing video games when the weather is good,” Denby says. “You’ll get adults that are staying fit, staying happy and they’re outside being good citizens for good health. There’s no measure for that, but you know that it’s going to be the result.”

Falk touches on an invisible benefit for people that have been going by Potomac Yard, seeing lights from the tennis courts and darkness on the basketball courts.

“For people inclined to make use of the basketball courts, there was an implicit message that they are somehow less important, or their needs are somehow less important,” he says. “Now that the lights are going up, we are showing the city values everybody equally.”

Not only that, the usage of the courts will increase significantly, raising an excellent point about the numbers of the sport.

“In basketball, you’re going to get at least 10 people playing and sometimes more,” Falk says.

Denby adds, “There’s always someone saying, ‘I got next game.’ The force multiplier is huge. You’re rotating through [players] on a good day.”

The lights have been ordered by the City of Alexandria and the LIU team is waiting eagerly for the installation date. Signage is being finalized and funds are completely transferred. Now all that’s left to do is host the unveiling later this spring.

“The unveiling should be awesome,” Falk says. “[We’ll] have two rec kids’ teams, and we’ll have them play under the lights. We’re excited be able to recognize all our donors and major supporters.”

Light It UP! is successfully bringing lights to the community basketball courts at Potomac Yard Park thanks to PARKnerships with the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities (RPCA).


To learn more and receive updates about the LIU project, visit www.fb.com/pg/lightituppotomacyards.

DC Fray’s Late Night Glow Snow Tubing Trip

DC Fray, the champion of things to do in DC, were at it again with their Late Night Glow Snow Tubing that kicked off during happy hour at Kelly’s Irish Times for the pre-game, the continued with the BYOB #Fraylife Bus ride all the way to the slopes at Avalanche Express. Photos: Cristina O’Connell

Photo: Moultrie Tisdale

Fray’s Britt Rheault Promotes Inclusivity

Britt Rheault is taking the social sports world by storm one city at a time. The born and bred Boston sports fan turned DMV lady boss has spent nearly five years lending her passion, experience and knowledge to United Fray, where she currently oversees leagues in Phoenix, Jacksonville, New Orleans and the District from the company’s home office in Northeast DC’s Brentwood neighborhood.

When Fray’s director of sports operations first participated in the Sport & Social Industry Association’s annual conference for all social sports companies in the U.S. and Canada, only 10 percent of attendees were women. Last month, she went to the conference for the fifth time and the number of industry females in attendance had risen to 40 percent.

“The sports industry has always been a male-dominated world, but it keeps growing and women’s involvement keeps increasing by the day,” she says.

Rheault credits Fray’s founder and CEO Robert Kinsler with embracing female empowerment, noting that the company has more women in leadership roles than men.

“I feel like we have a pretty solid split on the women-to-men ratio. It keeps increasing. In the sports industry, you don’t always have that, so I’m very appreciative.”

Fray has offered participation in women’s leagues throughout the years, and the numbers have always fluctuated. To try and meet in the middle, Fray offers open divisions so there’s no gender requirements.

“It can be a team of all women or all men, or half women [and] half men. It’s to bridge that gap so we can get that opportunity of all women who want to play together.”

Rheault went to Worcester State University where she played softball and basketball. To stay active, she now plays in several Fray leagues including kickball and Skee-Ball, and occasionally cornhole and softball.

“[The leagues] are definitely just for fun, for the social and the drinking [aspects]. I could care less if we win.”

She’s helped come up with more creative ways of getting female players involved, including river tubing, speed dating and yoga.

“We’re trying to offer as many options as possible to get as many different females and males involved with what we have going on,” she explains. “The goal is to keep increasing those opportunities so we can be as inclusive as possible. Bringing as many people in to join the Fray family is what we want.”

After receiving her master’s in sports management at Northeastern University, Rheault joined DC Fray as a sports coordinator for permitting. Now, she has a total of nine direct reports at the rapidly expanding company.

“I’ve been on such a journey with this company. When I started, it was me and two other guys who were doing everything. We’ve gone from that to now [having] 20 full-time employees with Fray and [expansion to] three other cities.”

She’s seen immense growth among the sports leagues too, with the number of players rising from 25,000 to more than 60,000 among Fray’s four markets. But the expansion hasn’t stopped there.

“Embracing those other avenues in events and media – and growing us to be more than just a sports company [and] offering something to everyone – that’s probably been one of the most incredible things to see.”

Spring registration for team sports is open through March 26 and for bar sports through April 2. Find your league at www.dcfray.com/leagues.

Photo: Courtesy of D.C. United

D.C. United Forges a Distinct Identity

“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades” is an axiom my seventh grade science teacher once taught me. It was basically a grim way of saying, “Close don’t cut it,” and it’s a refrain that D.C. United may hear in 2019.

After a demoralizing loss in penalty kicks to Columbus Crew SC left D.C. United short of the MLS Cup semifinals in 2018, one has to consider whether or not to look at the season on the whole as a success.

“Our run ended a little bit short, but that’s playoffs,” midfielder Russell Canouse says. “You lose in penalty kicks – it’s frustrating. I felt, and I know everyone else felt, that we could’ve went to the MLS Cup last year. It just didn’t feel right when the season ended against Columbus that early. I don’t think anyone was thinking that was going to be our exit.”

Canouse’s faith in his team has plenty of merit. The club went undefeated in its final 10 games, lifting them to a winning regular season record and securing them a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Even in the playoff loss, the team seemed to pull yet another rabbit out of their hat when they tied the game at 2-2 in the 116th minute to force the fateful penalties.

Granted, a favorable string of home games at the end of the year – 16 of the final 21 games were played at Audi Field – likely provided an unusual advantage amid the stunning comeback. But one could argue that over the course of the season, D.C. United’s absurd, lopsided schedule represented a negative sum.

“Being able to open up at home with a similar core group that we had to finish last season is going to be great for us,” says center back Steve Birnbaum, highlighting a welcome return to normalcy in the team’s schedule. “We have that confidence or swagger leading into the season because we know we have the pieces to succeed.”

Canouse is an important one of those pieces, and his ability to stay on the pitch will be vital. In 2018, he only appeared in 20 games because of a knee injury. This followed an abbreviated 2017 season in which he only appeared in the second half as a late-season addition from Germany.

“2017 was obviously a little flawed,” Canouse says. “I came in in August. There were only 10 games left to play and I started all 10. The ideal situation would be to play all 34 games.”

His presence will be even more magnified after his experience with the U.S. National team during its training camp this winter. A full season from Canouse could pay dividends for D.C. United while boosting his chances of being considered for a spot on the 2022 U.S. Men’s World Cup team.

But to make a run at the MLS Cup, it will take a concerted team effort. Part of unifying a team and optimizing its skills is to administer a sound strategy; following a season that ended in heartbreak, changes to the club’s strategy were inevitable.

“We’re going to play a little bit more out of the back this year,” Birnbaum says. “I think we want to be a more possession-based team. We did that toward the tail end of the season last year. We’re building upon that, and kind of creating a new style of play.”

He adds that box defending, a strength of the team in 2018, will be crucial to repeat this season.

“I think that’s a major factor in creating shutouts and making us hard to score on,” Birnbaum continues. “That’s one of the things that I try and focus on a lot throughout the year. We have a motto: to be the first contact to the ball in the box. The most important thing for us is getting the ball out of the box and away from danger.”

Though Birnbaum’s comments suggest a more defensive approach, Canouse expects an aggressive identity to characterize the group’s play on the field.

“Play a little more aggressive out of the back,” he says. “But also manage it the same way.”

Birnbaum says the game management aspect of D.C. United’s strategy looks promising.

“The preseason has been encouraging so far,” Birnbaum says. “When we played against Cincinnati, we kind of dictated the game. We’re controlling the game with our possession, which is encouraging for us because it makes us not have to defend as much, and that makes my job easier.”

Although possession will be a heavy emphasis, the job could be made even easier by the attacking unit’s resurgence, which again features the legendary Wayne Rooney, who led the team with 12 goals last year despite only starting 18 games. D.C. United finished the season sixth in the league in goals scored with 60, and they were efficient with their attempts. The team attempted the fourth fewest shots of any team in MLS with 396. That’s the sort of quality that will attract fans to every game and fill Audi Field during its first full season.

“I think they can expect some exciting soccer from us,” Birnbaum says of the fans. “I think that we’ve got a lot of guys who can do a lot of creative stuff. Our front, attacking guys are really special.”

If the team as a whole can prove to be on target too, they might not have to settle for a game of horseshoes come late November.

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

Photo: Jeremy Reper

Offseason of Change Brings Optimism for Washington Spirit

After losing 41 of the past 48 regular season games, one could hardly blame the Women’s National Soccer League’s (WNSL) Washington Spirit for hitting the reset button. Through various changes in the front office, ownership and on the field, this young team is looking to reverse its recent fortunes and begin building a foundation for lofty championship goals.

Starting at the top, longtime owner Bill Lynch sold his majority stake in late 2018 to Steve Baldwin. Shortly after, the team announced Richie Burke would take over as head coach and technical director. Burke has an extensive track record in youth soccer around the DC area, making him the logical fit to lead the team’s youth movement.

“Being involved in the professional game is an incredible buzz,” Burke says. “It’s an incredible reward. It’s like a drug you get drawn back to all the time. The project itself has a lot of really good people involved, and it was an opportunity that was hard to turn down.”

Burke and the Spirit agree that the team is a project. As the squad gears up for training camp and preseason matches this month, everyone is focused on the simple goal of improving habits and team culture rather than agonizing over results.

“Last year was kind of rough,” forward Ashley Hatch says. “We feel we could have had better results, but we got unlucky and things didn’t go our way. We’re a very talented team that works hard, so I want to help us get the results we deserve.”

During the 2018 campaign, the Spirit finished with a record of two wins, five draws and 17 defeats. Despite this, Burke insists he’s not simply bringing a new style and structure with him, as he’s crystal clear on his extremely high expectations for the team to work toward.

“I’m very organized and very structured, and I want to play an aesthetically pleasing game,” the coach says. “I do know that we’re going to work hard and play hard. Success for me is winning the WNSL championship. I set the goals high. I want to win and win with style.”

One aspect of this season that every WNSL team must overcome is this summer’s 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Already this year, the Spirit has had three players train with the U.S. women’s national team including Rose Lavelle, Mallory Pugh and Andi Sullivan. The league has implemented a 12-day break in the schedule to account for the international tournament in early June.

“You have mixed feelings,” Burke says. “I’m thrilled for the players and the franchise. I couldn’t be happier for the players themselves. I hope they score goals out the ying-yang.”

Instead of fretting about the World Cup, the Spirit is solely focused on things within the players’ control such as play on the field and the ways they plan to integrate all the changes. In addition to changes in the front office, the Spirit was featured heavily at the January WNSL draft, making four selections in the first round.

“I think that with all the changes going on, it’s going to be a very exciting team,” says Sullivan, the team’s midfielder. “I really just want to help the new team and culture take off. I want to make the transition easy for everyone and be someone that can connect the pieces.”

The DMV native, along with the aforementioned Pugh and Lavelle, are heavily featured in marketing for the coming season. The trio is often mentioned when the best young U.S. soccer players are brought up and are a huge reason Burke feels confident in his steadfast belief the team will achieve success in short order.

“It’s a fresh start,” Sullivan continues. “Capitalizing on that energy is going to really up the standard and level [for the team]. It’s a great opportunity, and it’s an optimistic look toward the future. It makes now seem like a great time to go for it, and that’s how we’re approaching [the season].”

The transition won’t be perfect. Rebuilds in professional sports are often rocky, rife with growing pains and career firsts, however the Spirit can only rise up the standings. For soccer enthusiasts in the DMV, catching a team right as they begin to figure it out is one of the most fascinating rides for any fan. With this much talent and potential on the roster, it’s only a matter of time for this core.

“The best part about having young players is we’re hungry,” Hatch says. “We want to prove ourselves as a team and individuals. I think it will definitely play in our favor.”

The Washington Spirit begins the preseason on Saturday, March 16 at the City Stadium in Richmond, Virginia. The team will begin the regular season versus the Sky Blue FC on the home field at the Maryland SoccerPlex on Saturday, April 13. For more information about the squad, visit www.washingtonspirit.com.

Maryland SoccerPlex: 18031 Central Park Cir. Boyds, MD; 301-591-0927; www.washingtonspirit.com

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