For most people, mention of the word “penguin” conjures up images of cute little birds waddling about Antarctica in their tiny tuxedos. Perhaps cartoon commandos from Madagascar, or an antiquated Batman villain. Washington Capitals fans have a different reaction to the word. For us, “Penguins” is an ever-present dull ache in our fan psyche, an involuntary twitch in our collective fan soul.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the authors of so much of our heartbreak and springtime disappointment. They are responsible for television remotes smashed in anger, jerseys torn in anguish, and countless cursings of the hockey gods. As a child, I was taught “hate” was a bad word, too strong a word to describe something I simply disliked or people I have never met. Pittsburgh makes that a hard lesson to heed.
Countless defeats at the hands of the Pens, literally decades of playoff domination, have hardened my disdain. Should Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime winner last Spring temper my distaste for all things Pittsburgh? Maybe. But some scars are too deep, some wounds too open to heal that easily. Winning the Stanley Cup brought immeasurable joy to D.C., but it doesn’t put the Penguins in the rear-view mirror forever. Whenever Pittsburgh comes to town, wearing their smug penguin sweater crests and Velveeta-colored goalie pads, there is a little extra juice, some extra electricity running through the city. It’s okay to feel the anger, to let it flow, because, sorry Mom, I still hate the Pittsburgh Penguins.
I come by the feeling, honestly. The first Caps game I attended was against the Penguins in the early 1990s. Mine is a hockey fandom burnished by the vicious rivalries of the old Patrick Division battles with the hated Pens, the filthy Rangers and the despicable Flyers. My buddies and I practically swung from the rafters of the Capital Centre, cheering our hockey heroes and disparaging the enemy. We bore witness to so many formative moments in that barn: penalty filled games stopped to scrape the blood from the ice, games that featured more fights in the seats than on the rink, and serenading goalies including making sure Tom Barrasso knew his last name could easily be made to sound like the naughty word for rear end. We witnessed playoff victories and bitter playoff disappointments. Many of those defeats, admittedly, at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Playoff misery wrought by Mario Lemieux, with his loathsome cocky smirk, and Mario Jr (an anagram of Jaromir, trivia buffs!) with his mullet flowing freely down the ice. Two punks in a pod. Architects of so much of the Capitals’ hapless April mythology. Longtime fans can recite the moments and other villains as easily as their ABC’s: blown 3-1 series leads, Petr Nedved in quadruple overtime, Sergei Gonchar gagging in OT, Ron Tugnutt turning into a modern-day Ken Dryden. Except for one magnificent series in 1994, the Caps simply couldn’t do anything but bumble and fumble opportunities against Pittsburgh.
Then, suddenly, in the Summer of 2001, things turned strange. Jaromir Jagr landed in Washington via a blockbuster trade. Fans did not know how to react. It is difficult to turn off the kind of loathing that I reserved for Jaromir Jagr. As my friend eloquently put it at the time, “Look out, the Devil’s come to church.” Fans didn’t want Jagr in Washington. The irony, of course, is that Jagr did not want to be in Washington either. Whether fair or not, Jagr was often tagged with descriptors like mercurial, brooding, and selfish. I would describe his two-plus years in Washington as underwhelming, wasted, and can-we-just-get-this-over-with. Jagr’s play was not awful in Washington, yet he was not nearly the player he was in Pittsburgh. Was he unhappy? Was he better suited to be a Robin than THE guy a franchise pinned its hopes on? Were his skills diminishing as he reached age 30? Don’t know, don’t care. I simply know that the player who posted 121 points in his final season in Pittsburgh barely matched that total in his two full seasons as a Capital. By the middle of the 03-04 season Jagr was dealt to the Rangers in the beginning of the fire sale that led to the dark times. The forgettable pre-Ovechkin era. The failed Jagr experiment, including the fact Caps owner Ted Leonsis had to continue to pay a large portion of Jagr’s salary while with the rival Rangers, further fueled the contempt for all things Penguin.
Of course, the Jagr debacle eventually led to the Alex Ovechkin era which led directly to the Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby rivalry. The two superstars brought out the best in each other, particularly in head-to-head matchups, yet, as before, the Penguins dominated when it mattered most. Despite a new cast of characters, the heartbreak remained the same. No matter how impossible it seemed, Pittsburgh had Washington’s number in the postseason. My Penguin animosity, dormant for a short time while the Caps were terrible, flashed again with a white-hot fury. New villains emerged. Crosby, trotting out his aw-shucks act while slashing opponents’ fingertips and spearing opponents below the belt. Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang leveling dirty hits and scoring clutch goals. No name pests like Patric Hornqvist and Jake Guentzel raising their game when the Caps could least afford. Game 7 failures and Bonino in overtime. With seemingly biased announcers crowing about it every step of the way. More of the same, again and again.
Maybe that is why it is so hard for fans. The players change over time. None of them have experienced all the failures versus Pittsburgh. Yes, they know the history, but they haven’t felt all the pain. Many of us fans have been through every bit of it. Punched in the gut each time a game winning goal snuck by Don Beaupre, Olie Kolzig, or Braden Holtby. Muttered to ourselves watching our guys shuffle through the handshake line. Cursed under our breath as Mario or Sid hoisted the Cup. So, yes, I hate the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last season, was as fun as it was unlikely. I jumped off my couch as the players jumped off the bench to mob Kuzy behind the Penguin goal. Demons were slayed; some measure of revenge exacted. But last season did not erase the deficit; there is still a debt to be paid. Payback is still owed, and the next installment comes due as the rivalry continues Wednesday night. I can’t wait.
By Bryan Hailey