Chase Petersen/Getty Images
Four games short. That’s how many wins the Washington Capitals needed to capture the Stanley Cup in June of 1998, falling short in a series sweep of the repeating champion Detroit Red Wings. As the 20th Century drew to a close, and the new millennium arrived, the once competitive Caps began to tear down what was once a veteran-laden team hoping to capture the franchise’s first championship run and begin a mediocre period of lackluster hockey.
The product of that rebuilding effort, of course, was the opportunity to draft Alexander Ovechkin first overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. And since that time, hockey in the District has been defined not only by the almost-perennial contending rosters that have taken the ice in Washington, but by Ovechkin himself. For fans like myself (a late June 1998 baby), born just before and/or after the Ovechkin era began, The Great Eight has been the defining figure of our hockey fandom, one of few constants on a team that reached the ultimate pinnacle of success in 2018 by winning the Stanley Cup in five games, after numerous postseason heartbreaks.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Admittedly, the gravity of just how big a privilege it has been to watch the career of the Capitals’ No. 8 came crashing fully down on the night the longest-serving captain in the history of the franchise notched his 800th career goal; not that I had not known nor appreciated the undisputedly notable milestones that he had achieved to that point, but simply coming to the almost-certain realization that there will quite possibly never be another player to do what he has done nor in the manner in which he has done so.
Growing up, I was no stranger to the players that had donned the Capitals sweater in the past, being in a family whose fandom of sports was always bound to bring back the “old days” in conversation. But it is the Caps and Ovechkin (along with Nicklas Backstrom), whose arrival and 18 seasons in the DMV has seen a tremendous growth of the sport and opportunities to access the game in the community, that has defined my lifetime as a fan, and as the 25-year anniversary of the team’s run to the ’98 Stanley Cup Final approaches in a few months’ time, and so too another trip around the sun for myself, the magnitude of what Ovechkin has meant and means to the area has truly come into focus.
When the Caps re-signed Ovechkin to a five-year contract in 2021, it not only signaled the end of the greatest player in the history of the franchise’s previous 13-year deal, but a sudden feeling of just how, for lack of a better word, spoiled fans of my generation have been to have not only been able to watch the unique blend of offensive prowess and physicality that has made Ovechkin so inimitably difficult for opponents to stop, and also how I, personally-speaking, had taken his presence on the team in many ways for granted. The expectation and assumption in the past that he would score close to or reach 50 goals in a season, the naivety of how many other franchises in the league have never had nor maybe never will a player of Ovechkin’s pedigree and achievement.
And now, as The Great Eight continues to not only climb the NHL record books and stack his franchise resume, the real possibility of him becoming the league’s all-time leading Goal Scorer (and still lighting the lamp at age 37), my mindset has changed; perhaps “wisdom” that has come with age, but more than likely something else. Alex Ovechkin doesn’t “need” to score 50 goals, nor win the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal-scorer like he has on so many occasions in seasons past. Sure, they would be nice, but in my mind, he has nothing left to prove to cement his legacy as not only Washington, D.C.’s greatest sports figure, but one of the best generation talents to lace the skates in an NHL barn.
At 37 and with three seasons after this remaining on his contract, myself and other fans of my generation will one day wake up to a gameday without No. 8 taking the ice in his trademark yellow skates, nor hear “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” at Capital One Arena after the red light turns on. As he chases history, I will take the chance to soak in the immensity of what the last 18 seasons and counting have entailed, and try to relive those memorable moments that I once took for granted.
By Michael Fleetwoo