It was the late, great Tom Petty who sang “waiting is the hardest part,” and whether it was the full 44 years of a founding fan, Alexander Ovechkin’s 13-year quest for the Stanley Cup or you jumped on the Capitals’ bandwagon sometime this spring, the wait is over: your Washington Capitals are Stanley Cup champions, and the party is (still) on.
Thursday night, 17,000-plus crowded into Capitol One Arena, and many thousands more flooded the streets of Chinatown, to rock the red in support of their team, even though Game 5 was played in the gleaming desert lights of Las Vegas, some 2,400 miles away.
DC has long been maligned as a second-class sports town, and the grains of truth in the stereotypes make the barbs sting all the more. The District’s affluence and transient population makes for casual fanbases that are more concerned with stadium amenities than the team itself; the Wizards are underachieving and dysfunctional; the football team’s glory days are long past, relegated to a boondoggle of a stadium and saddled with a megalomaniac owner unable to stop himself from repeatedly breaking his favorite toy; the Nationals (until recently the Caps’ baseball counterparts) are highly talented but unable to perform in the clutch.
Ever since Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals vaulted the home team past the back-to-back champion Penguins, media personalities and outlets of all stripes had come out of the woodwork to mock the mania that has swept the DMV (like here, here and here). And no one has made more hay trading in this kind of mid-tier snark than ESPN commentator Mike Wilbon, who called DC a “minor league sports town” for getting excited about finally besting their rivals in the playoffs. The same Mike Wilbon who sported his Chicago Cubs gear when the baseball team advanced to the World Series in 2016. Wilbon and his ilk would have you believe there is a “right way” to enjoy a playoff run, and this kind of orthodoxy is almost exclusively the province of the bitter. Thousands of people don’t swarm downtown or into an arena (especially not 70,000 of them in the span of minutes) to watch on jumbotrons out of mere curiosity; they do it to be a part of something special, something real. Call it bandwagoning if you will, but if it is, remember there’s no zealot like a convert.
Last Tuesday night (and in the days and weeks before, frankly), the Capitals changed all that, coming from behind to beat the Vegas Golden Knights and capture their first Stanley Cup. From the jubilation of “exorcising the demons” against Pittsburgh, to battling back from the brink of elimination to knock off the Lightning, and capture the Prince of Wales Trophy, to stealing the spotlight in Vegas, the Caps’ wild ride is one that neither they, nor anyone else in the DMV, will ever forget.
The details of Game 5 seem almost inconsequential in retrospect. The Cup isn’t won in a single game, after all. The image that will stand the test of time is Alexander Ovechkin finally claiming his hard-earned prize (and the Conn Smythe to boot). The Great 8 played like a man possessed throughout the postseason, and watching every heaving exhale of relief, primal scream of exhilaration and laser-intense stare was high drama surpassing any show on TV (also, more sports should follow hockey’s example of presenting the trophy to the team’s captain, rather than the owner).
It seems ridiculous to say, given he is two years older than me, but as #8 held that silver cup aloft, I felt as proud of him as if he were my son. My large Russian son. Every grey hair, broken tooth and past playoff disappointment melted away as he hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup in triumph, but he wouldn’t be in a position to do so without the entirety of the Caps roster (and let’s not forget coach Barry Trotz and his hot laps) pulling on the rope as well.
There was Kuznetsov elevating his game and giving Caps fans a glimpse of the team’s future leader. Devante Smith-Pelly’s big goals and physical play (the WWE Championship belt at the parade was a nice touch, too). Tom Wilson’s galvanizing fight in Game 7 against Tampa Bay. Braden Holtby’s stellar saves (Game 2 anyone?) and steadying presence. Lars “The Tiger” Eller’s game-winning goal to clinch the Cup. And of course, there was T.J. Oshie. Watching Oshie embrace his father, Tim, stricken with Alzheimer’s, was a moment almost too personal for television, one that would bring even a stone man to tears. But the sad moments wouldn’t last (as evidenced by Oshie ghost-chugging when his name was called at the victory parade), for as great as it would have been for the Caps to sew up the Cup at home, the team found themselves in the best possible place to party (and presumably listen to “We Are the Champions” on repeat) until the sun comes up.
The Stanley Cup is no stranger to multi-day celebrations, but since the scoreboard at T-Mobile Arena hit all zeroes on Thursday night, Ovechkin and his merry men have embarked on an epic bender that would make Keith Richards proud, and they’re bringing the District along for the ride. The Stanley Cup is unique among the major sports leagues’ trophies in that it’s, you know, a cup, and while past winners have utilized this added functionality to make Jell-O molds or the world’s fanciest cereal bowl, our intrepid heroes have made it the centerpiece of their Beltway Bacchanal. Drinking champagne straight from the Cup, Cup Stands and all manner of euphoric revelry have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Russian Machine Never Breaks.
While the players might be in rough shape from their days-long celebration, the hockey gods gifted the capital with a picture perfect day for the parade, and Caps fans did not disappoint. Some pretended to be busy with work before the parade, others didn’t bother with the pretense, staking out spots along the parade route as early as 3 a.m. Someone ask Wilbon if this is how minor league sports towns celebrate (by the way, there was a lone arrest during the Capitals victory celebration on Thursday night).
From my vantage point high above Penn Quarter, I could see Ovechkin shoulder pressing the Cup high above his head, which he has seemingly been doing (when not drinking from it) nonstop since Thursday night. I could even make out the usually stoic Holtby waving his arms like a madman as the parade turned from Constitution Ave. onto 7th St. On the stage on the Mall, whether it was Holtby, Oshie, Coach Trotz or the incomparable Great 8, each lauded the Caps faithful for their support along the way. And one more rendition of “We Are the Champions” left no doubt that this is truly The People’s Cup.
On and off the ice, the Stanley Cup Final is about coming together and enjoying the ride. And across the DMV, we needed a ride to enjoy right now. The Capitals’ Stanley Cup run has been the best kind of distraction from the competing circuses at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue and all the sideshows that so frequently accompany them. Our town takes more than its fair share of flack as a result, absorbing the frustrations of an increasingly divided country. It’s about time we had something to call our own, and it’s all down to an extraordinary team, and the fans who followed them every step of the way. And so, to steal a phrase from commentator Jeremy Roenick, welcome to the District of Champions. Drink it in.