The hidden side of politics

Permission for optimism: The Caps take on D.C.’s pain

Reported by ESPN:

TAMPA, Fla. — Wes Johnson is a Washington, D.C., sports fanatic.

He went to a Redskins Super Bowl, but then witnessed 27 years of middling results. He has watched the Bullets become the Wizards and then fail to play for a championship. He has watched the Expos become the Nationals and also fail to play for a championship.

When it came to the particular brand of anguish the Washington Capitals had perfected through the decades, Johnson had the best seat in the house to experience the heartbreak: Since 2000, he’s been the team’s PA announcer at home games, the bellowing voice asking fans to “Unleash the fury!” But every Capitals postseason would end with a different kind of fury, the kind that can come only from witnessing the constant heartbreaks in America’s most pitiable major league sports town.

“Being a D.C. sports fan is like constantly trying to catch a bus that’s going 2 or 3 miles per hour faster than you can run. You can see it. It’s right there. It’s tantalizingly close. But you feel like you’re never, ever going to get it. We’ve seen it so many times. And every time, you wonder how it’s going to reach through the numbness of being a D.C. sports fan and still hurt me,” Johnson told ESPN this week.

On Wednesday, in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals finally caught the bus.

The Capitals had already broken a streak of 20 years in which none of the four major franchises in D.C. had advanced to the conference final round. In fact, they were the last to do so in 1998. Since then, D.C. teams had gone 0-13 in games in which a win would have sent them to the conference championship round. That included three Game 7 losses for the Capitals in the Ovechkin era.

None of the D.C. area’s representatives in the four major professional sports leagues have won a championship since the Washington Redskins capped the 1991 season with a Super Bowl title, though the D.C. United won Major League Soccer championships in 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2004.

Each franchise has had its own particular brand of pain in that stretch. Like the botched snap in 2000 that thwarted a go-ahead field goal attempt for the Skins against Tampa Bay. Like the three Game 5 defeats for the Nats in the National League Division Series. Like the Wizards winning an incredible Game 6 thanks to a miraculous John Wall shot last year, only to lose Game 7 in Boston.

But the Capitals were a special kind of pain, because the pain was so systemic and because there were so many unfathomable variations of it. It’s almost become synonymous with the franchise: the psychologically bludgeoning “How is it going to happen this time?” mindset.

Some of the lowlights:

  • Joffrey Lupul in overtime in 2008

  • Ovechkin stopped by Marc-Andre Fleury on a breakaway in Game 7 in 2009

  • A No. 8-seeded Montreal shocking them in 2010

  • A sweep by the Lightning in the second round in 2011

  • Henrik Lundqvist in Game 7 in 2012

  • A 5-0 blowout in Game 7 against the Rangers in 2013

  • Derek Stepan in overtime in Game 7 in 2015

  • The wild “puck over the glass”-assisted rally in Game 6 against Pittsburgh, before Nick Bonino ended it in overtime in 2016

  • A Game 7 against Pittsburgh in 2017 that was over before it began, based on the vibe in the crowd at home

It was everything. And they won nothing.

The toxicity of this sports failure can’t be understated. Washington, D.C., is now a place where sports fans need permission before they can allow themselves to feel optimism. The Capitals are a prime example.

In Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals lost the lead in the second period. But they roared back with four goals in the third period to take a 3-2 series lead.

John Walton, the radio voice of the team, looked down at the Washington fans in the 400 level. They were jubilant, thrilled. But he noticed some of them looking around, with a sense of incredulity that this could actually be happening.

“So I just blurted it out: ‘It’s OK to believe, people!’ And it caught on on Twitter immediately, and I fed into it too, and it took off from there,” Walton said. “I never expected it to become a rallying cry, but it was based on this scene of surrealism. This is Pittsburgh. This is the team that owns us. People were thrilled. But they were also bewildered.”

Therein lies the difference between Washington, D.C., and, say, New York.

In 1973, the latter city adopted the delirious optimism of New York Mets relief pitcher Tug McGraw, who in a moment equal parts mockery and motivation interrupted a speech of ownership chairman M. Donald Grant to bellow “Ya gotta believe!” during their run to the World Series. New Yorkers were four years removed from a “Miracle” for the Mets. They had to believe.

In Washington, there have been so few miracles the city might as well adopt atheism. It’s not the city that “gotta believe” but the city that has to be told that it’s OK if fans wanna believe.

“I think maybe that’s why it grew as much as it did. Like, we’re not allowed to have nice things,” Walton said. “Well … we are. It’s possible.”

With Alex Ovechkin, all things are possible.

Washington, D.C., is a place in a constant state of identity crisis. Demographics shift with every expanding suburb and gentrified block. Each new political administration creates a domino effect for the transient population. The imports are frequently more celebrated than the locals: That goes for politicians, the arts, the restaurants and, yes, the athletes.

Gilbert Arenas started with Golden State. Max Scherzer was a Detroit Tiger. Then there were the celebrity dalliances with Michael Jordan and Jaromir Jagr, who were antithetical to Washington, D.C. Like, you know, bipartisanship.

“There was John Riggins. He might have been the closest thing. But he was never ours from the beginning,” Johnson said. “Maybe [Bullets Hall of Famer] Wes Unseld is the closest you can get to somebody who was ours from the beginning. And he finally ended up getting us to the promised land.”

This is why Ovechkin meant so much when he landed in D.C., like a comet hitting the Earth, in 2005, nearly 25 years after Unseld hung up his shorts. He was a Capital on draft day, a Capital when he collected the Calder Trophy and a Capital when he nearly skated with the Prince of Wales Trophy after beating the Lightning. (His teammate Brooks Orpik politely told him to place the trophy back on the pedestal.) His electrifying play was the spark that lit the flame that burned red, as the Capitals’ bandwagon grew exponentially thanks to an undeniably festive vibe in the arena, a nightlife boom around it and Ovechkin as the party host.

More than that, he defied the transient vibe of the city and put roots down for 13 years in 2008, for $124 million. “If you’re going to make a long-term investment, who else would you do it with?” asked Ted Leonsis, who owns the Caps and the Wizards.

You do it with the D.C. star. The constant. The franchise.

Ovechkin has been a solid playoff performer in the past. But this playoff run from the Capitals has seen him not just put up numbers but put them up in absolutely critical moments. He had a hand in three game-winning goals in the semifinals against the Penguins. He scored game-shifting goals in Games 1 and 2 at the Lightning, and then another one minute and two seconds into Game 7, with 75 percent of teams that score first in Game 7 going on to win, as the Capitals did.

“We’re going to the Stanley Cup Final. I think everybody is happy, but we still have unfinished … you know what I mean,” Ovechkin said after Game 7. “I don’t know, I’m emotional right now. I think we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. We understand what it has to take to be in the Final. You can see this game was unbelievable.”

The game was unbelievable. But it’s OK to believe in the Capitals, people.

After all, they beat the Penguins.

There are bullies in sports. Certain teams that own their opponents. The Penguins had beaten the Capitals in nine of their 10 playoff meetings heading into the 2018 conference semifinals.

And then the Capitals won in six.

“You have to understand: It wasn’t just getting a monkey off our backs. It was King Kong. People around the country were critical of the fans celebrating. Well, hell right, you’re celebrating. You got King Kong off your back,” Johnson said. “Then the Capitals play the Lightning, and it’s just hockey. It’s fun. The Band-Aid has been ripped off. You could see it on the face of Alex Ovechkin when [Evgeny] Kuznetsov scored in overtime against the Penguins. Did he pump his fist? Did he yell ‘yeah’? No. Alex Ovechkin exhaled. And everybody felt that. But look at him now. He’s confident and playing for the love of the game, as opposed to playing with a giant King Kong on his back.”

For Capitals fans, King Kong ain’t got nuthin’ on the demons that haunt all Washington, D.C., teams. The ones that have caused this championship drought. The architects of their heartbreak.

“What have the Capitals been doing this postseason? Slaying their demons. You’re facing every demon that you’ve ever had,” Johnson said.

The first round was a chance to slay Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella, whose New York Rangers teams eliminated two supremely talented Capitals teams in seven-game series from 2012 to ’13. The second round was to finally — finally — slay the Pittsburgh Penguins, for the first time in the Ovechkin era and the second time in franchise history. The third round against the Lightning slayed two demons: the lesser-known evil of 2003, when the Capitals won the first two games in Tampa but then lost in six, and the greater evil of five ex-Rangers skating for Tampa Bay — and the Caps eliminating ex-Penguin Chris Kunitz.

Now, on to the final round. The Big Bads. Former general manager George McPhee, attempting to win the Cup he couldn’t win in Washington over the course of 20 years with a team he created out of nothing, and his Darth Maul, ex-Penguins goalie and Capitals tormentor Marc-Andre Fleury, who contributed to two of those previous three Pittsburgh series victories, including a 29-save shutout in Game 7 last year.

“Life will continue giving you the exact same puzzle until you solve it. That’s what karma is. And this entire postseason is a karmic wheel,” Johnson said.

Karma hasn’t smiled upon the District’s sports teams. But the Hockey Gods have jurisdiction over the Capitals. And their coach, Barry Trotz, believes they’re smiling upon his team.

“I thought for a good portion of this series, the Hockey Gods left us a bit,” Trotz said after Game 7. “But I always talk about this all the time: The Hockey Gods will reward you if you stay with it. If you’ve earned it.”

The Capitals have earned a chance to play for the first championship in the big four sports for the District since 1991. The chance to soothe decades of postseason pain. The chance to win the Stanley Cup.

It’s all four wins away for the Washington Capitals. And they know D.C. will be watching.

“A lot of people say it’s just a political city. But it’s a great sports city,” center Jay Beagle said.