Tuesday, November 23, 2010 2:29 p.m.
By Ron ThompsonCSNwashington.com
Given the number of athletic squads packed into its boundaries, Washington, D.C., isn't exactly a hockey-crazed city; certainly not like the squads of Boston, New York, or Chicago, born in the 1920s. Those towns are legendary for the maddening loyalty of fans who may as well have been baptized at birth wearing team jerseys for swaddling cloths. The Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, and Chicago Blackhawks are storied, multiple National Hockey League champions. Fans of each are more likely to bemoan their respective lulls between titles than count the banners hanging from their rafters. Despite some past season-ending stumbles, the Washington Capitals have the pieces to join that fraternity, capping Coach Bruce Boudreau's dreams of hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup to the Verizon Center's roof. They may also bring the team and that sport higher recognition. The road between their arrival in D.C. and the start of their current season deserves a glimpse here, and offers an instructive lesson on what makes certain teams special.
The Capitals, an NHL expansion team, hit their home-ice at Capital Center in October 1974, and then-owner Abe Pollin aimed to make a big impact. Their first regular-season home outing was a 4-3 win over the Blackhawks. But that year's remaining schedule and their ensuing seasons often found the Capitals on the losing end of contests against teams like the Hawks. The following two decades saw Washington's capital ebb and flow. At times, they piled up a string of losing seasons, became frequent playoff contenders, suffered playoff droughts, notched a series of epic and close-scoring losses, then joined a backdrop of hopefuls in the NHL's southeast division. Leonsis became owner in 1999, and has seen more reliable fortunes since. His early years were marked by gradual improvement and an overtime classic. His marketing acumen from multimedia ventures lifted the Capitals' standing and made household names of several figures. Some with high profiles were added by reputation and performance; others were later dropped due to swollen salaries, egos, or waistlines.
Overall, the Capitals have steadily become synonymous with top NHL talent, Where Pollin spotlighted Rod Langway and Olie Kolzig, Leonsis has helped make superstars of Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alex Ovechkin. The team has made the playoffs in six of the last ten seasons, with the more recent years bringing the most notable improvements. In 2008, the squad won its division title and Boudreau accepted the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year. Ovechkin took the Art Ross Trophy as the league's top scorer, the Maurice 'Rocket' Richard Trophy, and the first of two consecutive David Hart Memorial honors for most-valuable player.' 2009-10 closed with the Capitals taking the President's Trophy for most games won per-season. They are a twenty-five man roster boasting only four native-born Americans, but buoyed by a mosaic of thousands at home. Like the team, they are a coalition of the willing and show no signs of melting.
That brings us to the home ice, and the fans. Opened in 1997, Verizon Center sits on what was a long-blighted lot within an area that once had the National Portrait Gallery as its most popular attraction. The team hasn't become as fearsome as that neighborhood once was, but the arena is now just that for Capitals opponents. On game nights, fans clogs arteries leading to the building and Metrorail platforms stacked beneath it for a chance to give full-throated opinions on the visiting teams. While hockey is a blood-sport, Verizon's 18,277 seats only run crimson during its dizzying 'Rock the Red' promotions, seen chiefly during playoffs. Capitals fans are nearly as raucous after wins or losses, and seldom seem inclined to put their vocal chords to booing their team or its coaches. Fan loyalty is stunning: in February 2010, they drove, rode, and trudged through a historic, hip-high snowfall for a 5-4 overtime win against the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins. Without claiming expertise on the sport, this analyst saw Coach Boudreau's post-game remarks as an early summary for that remaining season, and the ingredients toward making any game or sport irresistible. 'This is what people pay to see,' he noted. 'The superstars shined and there is tension and excitement and physical play. You could see the passion on both sides. This is what hockey is all about.'
Georgetown's Hoyas, Maryland's Terrapins, and George Mason's Patriots join still more college, high-school, and professional teams that have slid and dived on the Capitals' floor. So, too, have Washington's Wizards and Mystics. They have all suffered nearly as many personnel- and performance woes as the Capitals. But the Caps are particularly noteworthy for having ended their previous season with an exemplary record, having seen their top players push the team toward record playmaking, and benefiting from an unwavering fan base. At this posting, they sit atop their division at 14-5-2, which is the best record of any professional team currently playing in the metropolitan area. It's a decent start despite more games ahead.
As a kid growing up in D.C., football and basketball were the most popular sports, not hockey. Ted Leonsis, Bruce Boudreau, Alex Ovechkin, and their teammates may hope to reverse that. If they don't score there, they'll likely be just as glad to toast themselves and their fans with Lord Stanley's Cup while serving as a model of what a talented, patient, disciplined organization and supportive community can do.