This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
Who are the Washington Capitals? The question isn't new, but it's relevant, maybe more now than ever considering the team's dominance over the first half of the season and its position as divisional co-favourites with the playoffs underway. The Caps are the last major team to know who they are or how to define their legacy.
Try quizzing yourself. To some, they're Rod Langway; to others, they're Peter Bondra; and to Gary Green, who coached the team in 1980 as a 26-year-old, they're Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band, whom Bruce Springsteen dressed in goaltender equipment while the Boss was passing through the old Capital Centre arena. Green remembered that a lot of celebrities would drop by, Sinatra and Springsteen among them. "When Bruce showed up, I let him and Clarence into the dressing room. I went to my office for a while, and when I came back Bruce had dressed Clemens up in Mike Palmateer's mask, pads and goalie gear," Green recalled.
Not counting their predictable, and impressively awful, expansion years, the Capitals have flirted with success while running into commitment issues. This was true then and it's true now, whether it's first overall draft choice, and prospective franchise saviour, Pat Peake shattering his heel (and his career) along the boards of the team's former suburban rink, or first overall draft choice, and prospective franchise saviour, Alexander Ovechkin, whose clubs have perennially pointed toward the Cup Final, yet been left on the road like a deposed drummer in the middle of a tour. The Caps don't hold the trademark on promise and hope, but they don't not hold it, either. I spent last week in DC, and the vertebrae of disappointment were bones in the season's soup. You had to eat around them to find any kind of sustenance.
After watching the team succumb 4-3 in overtime to the New York Islanders from the press box at the Verizon Center, I wandered the bowels of the rink with the team's head of alumni, Matt Flynn, and found him with Peake and his family, whom Flynn had invited to the game. The gesture may or may not have been born from karma, but Flynn told me, "I watched Pat shatter his heel in the corner of the rink. I felt the disappointment of it, the tragedy of it. It meant something to me and it means something to all of the fans. If you're going to have an active alumni, you have to honour all of the alumni. And that's what we're starting to do."
If Peake had become bitter about the game and the team, it wasn't showing. He cracked jokes with longstanding security staff, and his adolescent kids laughed with Flynn when he told the story of how his pre-teen started swearing after seeing Bruce Boudreau on HBO's 24/7. Flynn's wife later upbraided the former Caps coach about his blue language, and he told her, "Why the fuck was your kid watching HBO in the first place?"
There are a lot of good stories surrounding the Caps, and one of them—the tale of the young Russian star Evgeny Kuznetsov—is what brought me to Washington.
I first met Evgeny—"Genia" to his Russian friends; "Kuzy" to everyone else—in Omsk, Siberia, in 2005, when he was a 13-year-old hockey prodigy playing for one of the Siberian city's Avangard feeder teams. I went with a film crew to spend a week with him, his mom and dad, following his games in Omsk as well as his home in Chelyabinsk, from which he'd been cherry-picked and given financial support (his dad worked for the team and the family lived in an apartment close to the rink). The Kuznetsov family's working-class lives had suffered through the death of Genia's brother, who was murdered during May Day celebrations in Chelyabinsk (the crime remains unsolved). To suggest that their fortunes rested on Genia's ability to earn a living from the game he loved would not stretch the truth, but whatever their circumstances, he was a nice kid and his family let us hang around them probably more than was comfortable. The boy was gifted, but he was only 13. When we left Siberia, I wasn't sure I'd ever see him again.
Years later, I was watching a broadcast of a world junior hockey championship game between Russia and Finland, and heard announcer Gord Miller call one of the players by Genia's last name. I looked closely at the set expecting it to be a different Kuznetsov, but it wasn't. There was Genia's long wingspan, his powerful stride, and the cool sweep of his stick as he wove the puck between other players' feet. Out of that tournament, he was drafted 30th overall by the Capitals, and, after staying in Russia to play in the KHL—and getting married as a 19-year-old to a woman with whom he just had a daughter—he came to the NHL with little fanfare; an adjunct Russian to Ovi; a compliment, perhaps, to his genius. This year, however, Kuznetsov exploded offensively. The 23-year-old led the Caps in points and finished ninth in league scoring, handing out more helpers than all but three players (Erik Karlsson, Joe Thornton and Patrick Kane). He played on the powerplay and on the second line, and pinch-hit on the top line after a recent injury to Nicklas Backstrom. When we reconnected at the Caps' practice rink in Arlington, I told him that I was proud of him. He said to me: "You got old. But same hat."
I met Ovechkin in 2005, too. I remember going to the Dynamo basa (rink, barracks and team apartments) in a torrential summer downpour and being told that he was outside running in the rain. We went near the doors and stood under the awning of the rink, and, after a moment, he appeared, drenched in a black onesie with a gold cross bouncing on his chest, the water pinwheeling off the back of his heels. Later, through a translator, we asked Ovi if he was excited to play for Glen Hanlon, the Capitals' coach.
"Who is Glen Hanlon?" he asked.
I spent half an hour on skates on the Dynamo practice rink with the player. I fed him passes from the corner and he fired one-timers from the blue line off posts and crossbars. You could feel the surging weight and strength of his physique as he stormed about the rink, and the sound of his stick being drawn back—swoosh—eclipsed the sound of it hitting the puck, which was as silent as a furtive kiss. The posts belled and pucks flew around the rink. People said he'd be good—they would later say the same thing about Genia, too—and they were right. And in 2016, both players were positioned to write their team's story.
There was a careful, maybe even fragile, confidence about the Capitals, partly because they were used to the weight of expectation, and partly because their record in the season's second half had been less impressive than the first. Further to that, goaltender Bradon Holtby—tall, flame-bearded, reserved and looking like he could come from nowhere else than Lloydminster, Alberta—stood one win shy of tying Martin Brodeur for the most NHL wins in history (49), but had struggled to equal the mark. There was talk around the rink about whether he would tie the record that night. Sometimes, the sentence ended with an exclamation mark; other times, it ended with an interrogative. The team and the fans—as well as the coach, Manitoban Barry Trotz—were dealing with the problem of having clinched a playoff spot weeks before anyone else in the largely unmighty Eastern Conference. Still, there was a thought that the record would portend greater things, and it's what fans hung on to as they filled the Verizon at gametime, hundreds of them lining the glass watching the team's pregame warm up.
I stood watching next to Doug Johnson and Craig Brownstein, guardians of the LGBT blog PuckBuddys. If gay culture had had a hard time finding a presence in other hockey markets, it hadn't been a problem in DC, where both men had spent time working from press row. Caps owner Ted Leonsis was an advocate, and TV colour commenter Craig Laughlin had thanked them for their work (Brownstein wore a Laughlin sweater to the games). Even better, Craig told me a friend had seen one of the more popular Caps players—whose wife is a vocal supporter of the LGBT community—at a local Starbucks and noticed a rainbow sticker on his Jeep's bumper. "Hockey is a game of misfits," said Doug, "so maybe that explains why we've found a place here. Whatever the reason, though, it's great. All of the people here tonight," he said, his hand sweeping across the view, "feel pretty attached to this team right now."
Before asking myself how long it had been since, as a Leafs fan, I'd felt the joy of being together the way these Caps fans were (answer: I couldn't remember), I watched Genia and Ovechkin cruise around the ice, both of them practically bouncing on their skates. If the team was feeling the pressure of the playoffs, and the pressure of getting Holtby his important win, it wasn't obvious.
"One thing that's the same now as when you visited me in Russia," Genia said later in the dressing room, "is that I still love to play. How can you not?" It was a theme you don't hear often in sports: love. And even though they would lose to the Islanders-- although Holtby would tie the record a few games later—there was Pat Peake, hanging out. There was Genia, laughing at our jokes. And there were all of those teeming fans spilling out on Cypress Street, filled with hope and promise. Sometimes it's all you've got.