I remember going to Caps games at US Air Arena in the 80's, wearing all white, not a seat unfilled and screaming my head off for a team that annually would break my heart. But I went back year after year, not because I had faith when game six against the Penguins went to double overtime that the outcome would be different, but because it mattered.
Since the Caps shift to the Southeast division (and subsequent crumbling of the true divisional rivalries the area cared about) and since the move to Verizon Center (ticket price hike and new downtown home), something eroded from that experience. Sure the Caps became less competitive in the subsequent years, but the stadium would often be overrun by Flyers, Penguins, even Sabre fans. On the few playoff nights against Tampa Bay, indifference prevailed.
Next came, the media who steamrolled the sport as second tier. The Caps became an ignored property on it's own local airwaves. The hosts treating the game and it's perceived dwindling fan base as a waste of air. The new adage was if the Caps beat the Flames in a shootout and no one talked about it, did it actually happen?
This troubled me on numerous levels. Caps fans were passionate, now they weren't? It continued to propogate the tiresome perception that DC is not a sports town unless your name was Redskins. The frinedliest most accessible owner in town had to turn into a door to door (or in Ted's case email to email) salesman just to get people to give his product a shot.
Put aside the Caps and Flyers enterring a must see game seven tonight at Verizon Center; the biggest game in terms of interest Ted's team has played since Washington's run to the Cup Finals in 1998. Something has pushed the right button in the inner sports concious of this town and has re-energized a fan base for hockey, exemplified by the atmosphere of game one of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Suddenly, like it was 1988 all over again, the Caps mattered, and I'm thinking it's here to stay this time.
"I think we have finally dispelled the notion that this town can't support a hockey team," a beaming Ted Leonsis said in the locker room following a thrilling game one win where his Caps came back from down two goals to start the 3rd period to win 5-4.
It wasn't just about the sea of red or the building being barely able to handle the sound generated from it's suddenly raucous fan base. It was about recapturing something that was already there, rekindling a love affair the Caps created back in the 80's. "This was the most schiovanistic crowd we've had. They want to protect our building. We want to make this place inhospitable."
Was it Alex Ovechkin's season of 65 goals (a feat produced by no other player in the league in a dozen years). Is it the fact that despite popular belief, Alex isn't the team's one trick pony, indeed a line of Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Ovechkin figures to quite possibly become the NHL's next version of Gretzky, Kurri and Messier?
Was it the team's hiring of a weeble-wobble coach who's only NHL shot was afforded because he happened to win a title with 7 of the young up and comers on this team two seasons ago in Hershey? Bruce Boudreau has all but admitted he didn't think he'd even get a shot to coach in the league after toiling for years in towns better known for chocolate then sport.
Was it the final 2 months where Washington never lost back to back games, cruised to victory in their final 9, all necessitated must wins and pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in NHL regular season history to steal the Southeast division?
Or maybe it's something that everyone can relate to. "I think something special is going on here," said a buzzing Joe Beninati, play by play voice of the team to me in the bowels of Verizon after the stirring game one win.
Beninati and Criag Laughlin have become a remarkable duo in the booth, presenters of a game that by ratings standards, no one knew existed. But colorfully and artfully, they called every game for years while the rest of the city pretended it could care less.
Leonsis took his first real risk as owner of the team by spending Snyder style on effortless Jaromir Jagr among others. He had a good team and figured, a boost of star power and veteran leadership would carry him over the top. Jagr didn't like DC, and DC didn't like him or his penchent to play when he felt like it. So the strip mining of a team with an eroding attendence was a death sentence for Ted's checkbook. "I lost 100 million dollars since taking over as owner, but the team has appreciated since I bought them. What's a hundred million dollars between friends?"
In turn, the Caps started to sell a new plan, one that involved a lot of draft picks (many of which wouldn't see NHL ice for 3-4 years if at all). Even fervent hockey fans in fervent hockey towns (outside of Canada of course) would have any clue whether the front office was picking the right guys. They are European or Canadian and there is no Mel Kiper to help us break it down. The team also traded away the gut of the team, well liked Peter Bondra and Sergei Gonchar. Shipped off the old timers like Robert Lang and finally got out from under the Jagr albatross (despite paying a good portion of his slaary to watch him emerge as a star again in New York). This team was not recognizable in a division that provided locals no rival to hate.
Today, that plan is paying off. Regardless of whether the Caps beat Philly tonight or get on a rediculous run to the Cup, Ted's plan finally took shape. It's as if his dream came true, he'd wake up one day and he'd have a good hockey team. "It wasn't hard to change the team back then. The definiton of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. There was more risk not ripping that team apart."
Left was Olie Kolzig, who is ironically only along for this ride. Left is the fruition of remarkable draft selections, Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, possibly Defenseman Karl Alzner who the Caps are very high on.
This series has also shown something in DC we weren't accustomed to back in the 80's. The Caps have adjusted to the physical play of an opponent and become the aggressor. Brooks Laich, Steve Emminger and Matt Cooke might not be household names in any town, but their physicality is a huge part of the Caps not only standing up to the Flyers, but in recent days appearing to be the more physical team. It's fun when the bullies are the ones cowering.
And the best part is anyone who follows sports knows that this is only the beginning. Until toay, I'd never actually wanted to give a contract extension to a player who'd just signed a 13 year deal, but in the case of Ovechkin, lifetime contract seems to fit. Backstrom is going to be the NHL assist leader within five years. Semin might have more true offensive skill then Ovechkin. And they are tough thanks to a checking line that in my opinion has kept them in this series. They are the embodiment of the popular sports credo of being a "player or two away." And yet that time might come sooner then we thought. Get by the Flyers, and who knows right?
In the end what's most rewarding to a lifetime fan is the return of the atmosphere. In covering sports, all I ever can ask is that the fans give their heart to the team when warranted but not desert them when times are tough. And for the players, leave it on the field of play and don't disgrace the uniform. The latter half appears in good hands. The first part is up to us, not to let this be a fleeting moment, but to support what could be the beginning of an amazing run. And in truth, could it happen to a better guy then Ted?