It’s the beginning of 2016, and I’ve never seen a hockey game before in my life. I’m not a sports person in general, barring a fading allegiance to my hometown Red Sox and a casual interest in the Nats. If Ovi were to come to my door delivering pizza, I would be just as clueless as that babysitter.
Then, through an accident of fandom and fate, I become acquainted with a couple of hockey fans who talk up the local team to me. I try to watch a game or two, but get lost easily. Still, when playoff time comes around, the chatter around me is constant, so I reluctantly tune in — just in time to see the Capitals get eliminated. I don’t get a chance to get to know the team, but I do start to fall in love with the sport of hockey — its quickness, its intensity, and the sheer amount of skill required to play at the highest level. I’m left feeling lonely after the Cup is won and the season is over.
Flash forward a few months, and I’ve been to the World Cup of Hockey exhibition games in D.C., but I still don’t know the names or faces of the Caps. A friend tells me to come to a pre-season practice. I show up and am immediately amazed by the proximity — you can sit or stand right against the glass — and the hard work on display. They skate hard. They shoot hard. It looks exhausting, but they’re all still smiling.
A little later on, my friend and I manage to get some autographs. (Notably, T.J. Oshie signs that day, and he immediately becomes my favorite.) I’m struck by the accessibility and graciousness of the guys as they sign. They’re aware that they’re in their dream job, and despite the fact that they’ve just had a grueling workout, they still manage to spare a little kindness for those who admire them.
I, on the other hand, am far from my dream job. My current job pays well, and I know I’m lucky (no woe-is-me violins here), but the commute is grating on me and the work is not what I want to be doing. Increasingly, I’m looking for a way out and finding none. I’ve long held a dream of freelancing — making my own hours, doing the work I love to do on my terms — but I don’t know if I can make it happen. What if the work doesn’t come?
Then again, what if I’m stuck in this job forever?
I begin taking some days off, going to practices semi-regularly. The Kettler Capitals Iceplex, where the Capitals hold their practices, becomes my happy place. For an hour, I can take my mind off my own dissatisfaction and watch the Caps (whom I’m getting to know individually now) zoom around with huge smiles on their faces, loving what they’re doing while still working incredibly hard. They’re both an escape and a ray of hope.
I start to go to Caps games, too. And I quickly learn that there is nothing like being surrounded by a sea of red, cheering and chirping in unison. I’ve never been so elated by a home run or a touchdown as I am every time the puck hits the back of the net. It happens so fast, and so decisively, and the crowd is electric. I’m moved by the sight of this town cheering on its heroes. Imagine having that much support behind you.
I don’t have a whole town cheering for me, but when I bring up the idea of freelancing full-time to my husband, he’s immediately supportive. And though my mother takes some convincing, she backs me. Sometimes a vote of confidence from the right people is louder than an entire stadium of fans.
In mid-November, I give my notice at my job and pursue the creation of my freelance copy editing and proofreading business. Alex Ovechkin gets a hat trick at a home game. I already have two clients. I’m not free or flying high quite yet, but I’m hopeful.
Fast forward to the new year. In mid-January, my last day at my full-time job comes and goes. A few helpful friends toss me some timely referrals, and within three weeks of starting my freelance venture, I’m so busy I can barely think straight. And the Caps are on a winning streak. I structure my days so I have time to go to games and practices, always wearing my bright white hat adorned with an ever-increasing number of autographs. It feels like everything’s going just as planned.
It doesn’t last. After a while, the work dies down, and it doesn’t pick up again. I despair of ever making it. My bank account is dwindling. I feel like I’ve already emailed every last connection, bothered every last friend for referrals. I don’t know what to do next. Meanwhile, the Caps go on bye week and come out of it rusty. I go to their game against the Dallas Stars and they lose 4-2 — the first time I’ve seen them lose live — then go on to lose three more games on an abysmal road trip. I’m despondent. All I want to do is go to a practice and take my mind off my troubles.
I turn to my husband in bed and ask, “Will you be mad at me if I go to practice tomorrow?” It’s not his anger I’m worried about — it’s my own guilt at not spending every moment of every day looking for work.
He knows this. He pats my head and says, “I believe in you. Go see your boys.”
So I put on my white hat and I go to practice the next day. It’s a 40-minute drive to Kettler, not the easiest of slogs, and I have trouble getting out the door. Wouldn’t it be better if I just stay in bed? Or sit in my easy chair, browsing the few online sources of freelance jobs that pay well, composing cold emails that I’m sure HR directors won’t even read?
But once I’m in the car, heading down 395 toward Arlington, I’m feeling better. And when I arrive, and find my spot against the glass, there’s always someone to chat with about the Caps and life. Many times, it’s someone I’ve met before. I have a whole new group of friends now, folks I’ve met at practices and otherwise through Caps fandom.
It’s also fun to watch the newbies — the kid who’s there for the first time, his eyes blown wide, saying, “That’s Ovi! He’s right there!” I answer his dad’s question about where to stand for autographs, adding the usual caveats that he’ll have to wait about an hour, and that Ovi doesn’t sign. I suppose I should be ashamed to know that much, to have been to practice that often. But in the end, I’m having a good time, removed from my troubles for a while, and that’s all that matters.
Also, that day Nate Schmidt comes to the edge of the media area to sign. You simply can’t feel bad when you’re faced with a Schmidty smile.
I keep pressing. I keep looking for work. And it’s erratic, but the work comes in. Some of my earlier referrals come back to me for repeat work. I join networking groups that give me leads. It’s a pain in the behind, but it works, and I make a little money.
To boot, I’ve started running. It’s a couch-to-5K program, improving my endurance bit by bit. Some days are easier than others. When I’m getting tired, I think about Oshie or Andre Burakovsky — how they always look like they’re having the time of their lives when they’re out on the ice. They’ve worked hard to feel this free despite their exertion. I can keep working, too. I can keep running.
The Caps clinch a playoff spot. I drop a couple of pounds. Not a lot, but enough to feel like I’m just that much healthier.
And that’s where I am now. Work isn’t exactly steady, but when it comes in, I’m busy and profiting. I’m still working on mastering the ins and outs of freelancing, but I’m optimistic about the direction of my business and my ability to do what I love, on my terms.
And of course, I’m still going to practice. I show up about once a week, wearing my white hat covered with autographs (I just need a few more!), and enjoy watching the hard work and the camaraderie. It reminds me why I’ve chosen this path, and why it’s worth it to keep trying to make it work.
I wonder if there’s any way to communicate to “my boys” just what a difference they’ve made in my life. I want to tell Oshie and Burakovsky how they’ve inspired my fitness. I want to thank Jay Beagle and Braden Holtby for their infinite graciousness and patience with fans, every single day. I want to tell Brett Connolly how much I’ve enjoyed the great year he’s been having, and thank Justin Williams for his relentless smiles and good cheer on the ice. I want to gather the whole team together and tell them that no matter what happens this year at playoffs, they’ve changed one person’s life just by being who they are.
So, moved, I sit down to write an essay. Whether anyone on the team will read it, I don’t know. But it feels good to put in on paper, to see how a year and a team have made a difference in my life. When it’s done, I sit in my office, surrounded by the tools of my trade, and vow to keep chugging along, at least until tonight’s game.
And to my Washington Capitals, in case you read this:
Thank you, boys.
By Jennifer Rubio