I was eight years old in 1998 when Joe Juneau scored on Dominik Hasek in overtime to send the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup Final, only to be swept by the Red Wings. I don’t remember any of it, which is probably for the best, since we would have plenty of postseason let-downs to come.
We all know the brutal details of the springs from then until now, and there are more than enough articles breaking them down, so there’s no need for that here. It goes without saying that the Capitals have given us all more than our fair share of disappointment. Tonight however, 25 days after watching the Capitals hoist the Cup and on the eve of my 29th birthday I started to reflect on what the Capitals have really meant to me.
Sports are rife with numbers and stats, so I’m a little ashamed to say that I can’t tell you exactly when I became a Capitals fan. The only points of reference I have are that by the year 2000 I had a blue Screaming Eagle baseball cap, a matching jersey that I had received for Christmas and had taped a picture of Olie Kolzig inside my sixth grade locker. I don’t even have a cool story about how I became a fan.
I grew up in Southwest Virginia, about three and a half hours from DC and our cable provider had the Comcast Channel (now NBC Sports Washington) and they aired every game, so the Capitals became my team. Joe B. and Craig became familiar, friendly voices that I couldn’t wait to hear every fall. No matter what else was going on in my life hockey was always there, almost every other night for six months a year.
I was 21 when I went to my first Capitals game. It was spring break my senior year of college and I had a friend who had an apartment in Arlington and said another buddy and I could crash at his place. The three of us watched in awe as a young backup goalie named Braden Holtby recorded his first ever shutout against the Oilers.
I was 22 when I cheered as Joel Ward scored on Tim Thomas to the second round. I had just accepted my first “real” job after college a few days earlier and was out that night with a friend, and fellow Caps fan to celebrate. That goal compounded our celebration and, until this spring, was probably one of my favorite capitals memories.
I was 23 when my father passed away and, the night before the funeral, my friends got me out of the house and out to a sports bar to watch the Caps. I don’t remember the score or even who they played that night. I just remember that for a couple of hours, in the middle of the worst days of my life, I was just watching a hockey game with my friends.
I was 28 when I watched Game 3 of the Finals with some of those same friends inside the Green Turtle. We spent the day in DC surrounded by Caps fans, without a hint of negativity or trepidation about the game to come. I called my wife at home to have her try to spot us as we jumped around behind Barry Melrose and the NHL Network cameras. I got to take a picture with Craig Laughlin and Michael Jenkins, and they were two of the nicest people you could hope to meet. After the game we spilled out onto the street chanting and jumping in front of the cameras from the post-game show. I high-fived and hugged my life long friends and total strangers alike. Cars drove around the throngs of people and honked, not out of anger but in the familiar, chant inciting, three note “Let’s Go Caps” tune. My voice was gone the next day and I don’t think I stopped smiling for the whole three-and-a-half-hour drive home.
Of course, I was 28 a few days later when Lars Eller got his stick on a puck that leaked from between Marc Andre Fleury’s pads and put it in the back of the net to give the Capitals the Stanley Cup for the first time ever. I watched through misty eyes as Alex Ovechkin gave us one of the most memorable, genuine celebrations I can ever recall seeing, and I cried later on listening to TJ Oshie talk about winning the Cup and his father’s battle with Alzheimer’s.
As I type this I’m 29 and the Capitals are the reigning Stanley Cup Champions. A lot of these feelings might seem silly to some people, but I imagine most of the people reading can relate at least to some degree. It’s not just about sports or cheering on a team or players. It’s about the experience of it all, no matter if you saw it in Vegas live or thousands of miles away on TV, or if you’ve been a fan for three months or 44 years, if you watched in a crowded bar or had to be quiet to keep from waking the kids. This spring we all got to be part of something special and I’m sure it meant something to each of you, for me it was an exclamation point highlighting almost two decades of great memories.
By Bo Painter