Back in early June, The New York Times wrote a piece about the most cursed sports cities in America. The Times used a fact based process to determine how cursed each city was based on how long it had been since said city had won a championship in the 4 major sports (baseball, football, basketball, and hockey).
D.C. is ranked the 5th most cursed sports city in America. Only San Diego, Buffalo, Cleveland and Atlanta are more cursed, with only Buffalo having a hockey franchise as well. Now, this list encompasses all of the major sports, but we want to focus on the Capitals. Here’s what they had to say:
“The Capitals have come to be known as some of hockey’s most famous chokers, having blown three-games-to-one series leads five times (Combined, the rest of the league has done so only 23 times).”
Ouch, a harsh reminder that our boys in red have not built a good track record in do-or-die games. Their playoff collapses have been felt by those who’ve been supporting the team since the 80’s to the new generation in the “Rock the Red” era. I read this article and I thought to myself, “The Caps aren’t REALLY cursed, are they? Is that why they can’t get past the second round?”
We as fans love the narrative; we love that sports are more than just the greatest athletes on the planet giving everything they have to be the best. We love that there is mysticism to sports; that the Gods above like to play favorites and affect the outcome of the games. But even those “cursed” events, when looked at through the magnifying glass of reality, had much more to do with mistakes in coaching or by one team out playing the other. As much as I love the idea that we fans, based on what jersey we wear, what angle our hat is titled to or any other crazy superstitions we may have, when we’re watching at home, that we cannot affect the outcome.
I refuse to believe that there’s some crazy excuse for the Caps lack of success in the playoffs. Let’s look at two famous incidents that have been attributed to curses; The Bartman catch in the Cubs-Marlins NLCS and Bill Buckner’s infamous error in Game 6 of the ’86 World Series. The Cubs played lousy defense after Bartman’s interference. And, that would have only been the 2nd out! They let the Marlins score 8 runs and still had a chance to win the next game, Game 7, which they didn’t. They blew a lead in that game, too. With the Red Sox, it was bad coaching. Manager John McNamara should have pulled Buckner for a defensive replacement, which he normally did late in games. The ghost of Babe Ruth haunting his original team had nothing to do with that error, especially because “the curse of the Bambino” didn’t exist until a Boston sports writer created it in the 90’s. And, they’ve won 3 World Series in the last 10 years, so they’re doing alright now.
I did some research and the only thing that even resembles a curse on the DC sports scene is what happened in 1992. The Redskins were in the Super Bowl. Before playing the game in Minnesota, a Native American shaman cursed the team with poor luck and never winning again while they had their purported offensive nickname. That explains why they’ve been horrible for over 20 years now, other than the horrible mismanagement by their owner with a Napoleon complex. There was no mention to the other sports teams in the city, thankfully.
The Caps, to this day have not been the recipients of strange occurrences, they have been outplayed or were not in the right place at the right time (and so help me if something flukey happens, I apologize up front). The game of hockey is one of inches, sometimes centimeters. Think about this; The game 7 winner the Rangers scored this past season; if it didn’t bounce off of Holtby’s pads and right to a waiting Derek Steppan, then how would that game have turned out? Washington was tilting the ice in their favor for the majority of overtime. If Mike Green hadn’t committed 2 penalties in a row, would the Capitals have held onto that 1-0 lead? They had all the momentum and the Rangers looked lost until those 2 power plays. Not a curse. Bad luck, maybe, but certainly not a curse.
The main reason for their recent playoff woes is not a curse. Our beloved Capitals have been hiding deficiencies in their front office, behind the bench and on their roster since the “Rock the Red” era began. Think about this; would this team be as good as it has been if there had been no Ovechkin or Backstrom? They’ve made this team perform better than they really are. The supporting cast has not been up to par. Yes, we all loved Mike Green when he scored goals, but didn’t you get tired of seeing the defensive lapses? We all miss Alex Semin, but his lack of effort and attitude was maddening, especially with the amount of natural talent he possessed. George McPhee’s choices as the former GM have a lot to do with this. Loyalty is great, but being realistic with your roster is more important. Boudreau is just now (as the coach of the Ducks) learning how to adapt in the playoffs. He had no answer for Halak in 2010 when having skaters in front of the goal to redirect shots may have made a huge impact. He couldn’t find a way to stop the Lightning in 2011 and was swept from the playoffs. Adam Oates was too stubborn to think that any way other than his was possible. Yes, he did help fix Ovi’s problems on offense, but a game 7 blowout and missing the playoffs in his second year is his ultimate legacy. None of this has anything to do with being cursed.
New GM Brian McClellan has shown that he will not commit the sins of the past. McClellan has been hard at work to put the right supporting cast around Ovi and Backstrom. They got the goalie now and their defense looks to be a strength instead of a liability. They added a proven playoff producer and a young talented forward. They have a coach who holds them accountable and knows how to get results. They’re controlling all the variables that make a great team. No more excuses, no more blaming hot goalies or bad calls, it’s time to make your own luck and not just hope that proven under-performers will step up.
All that being said, I will still not talk to my little brother about how the Caps are doing while they’re playing (they always lose when we do that). I will wear a Capitals shirt underneath my work polo on game days. My Jason Chimera bobble head on my desk at work is not allowed to face me while the Caps are playing. You know…don’t want to jinx them.
By Mike Lunsford