Big news — the Red Wings are out of the playoffs, prematurely. Prematurely for them of course is anything short of securing the Cup. The seasons change, some faces change, the objective though for the Wings ever remains the same.
I was struck at the ferocity and domination with which Detroit skated in periods two and three last night in San Jose. Especially in the third, Detroit simply imposed its will against a terrific Sharks club, and did everything but tie up the game. San Jose triumphed principally because Joe Thornton, heretofore a postseason no-show in big games, skated the game of his life when his team needed it most.
Like every club in the NHL’s postseason, the Wings are battered brutally, and last night they lost Todd Bertuzzi and Dan Cleary to the medical ward as well. But it just didn’t seem to matter. To the Wings, injuries are an obstacle but never an excuse.
Detroit is an “old” hockey team, too, but did you see how energized and fleet of foot they looked when their season was on the line last night? And when you compare that with how our Capitals looked in every third period of the second round, what conclusion do you draw?
This week the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg reminded us that the offseasons of sports are what we in sporting Washington do best. And so the headline-grabbing news relates to hockey coaches and GMs staying put, and the hoops team getting a nifty new look but not a badly needed name change. Again: it’s middle spring, and nothing of consequence is transpiring for D.C. sports. We are a horrible, horrible sports town, still, not because our residents lack passion or commitment as with those in great sports towns, but because of the rank incompetencies of the men who are the stewards of our teams.
The early hours of every hockey offseason in Washington are grotesque because they are always arrived at prematurely. But I am finding this offseason uniquely vexing, for it is forcing upon me a confrontation with a new and unpleasant consideration of our owner and his management team. Our owner, the executives surrounding him, his coach, they are all fine men, and quite competent at their jobs. They are better than average, I think. And because they are merely better than average they loom as exemplars among their local peers. But what concerns me this spring is that we’ve no evidence that Capitals management possesses what might be termed a Special Forces mindset for securing a coveted target.
And in the world we live in, I think, truly coveted targets require Special Ops.
The Detroit Red Wings strike me as a Special Forces operation within our sport. Notable obstacles are ever placed in their way — amid all the heightened talk of franchise relocation this season, we’re reminded that the Wings would very much like to move to the Eastern conference, to address their longstanding travel ardor. They are, annually, a road weary hockey club. It just never seems to matter. And given their now decades-long reign of success, they ever draft late in each round of each entry draft, after all the bluechip talent seemingly has been selected. It just never seems to matter. They lose a Scotty Bowman and replace him, after a brief dalliance with Dave Lewis, with a Mike Babcock. They just go Special Ops on the opposition as the occasion mandates. The San Jose Sharks defeated a special adversary last night.
What about our Washington Capitals would you identify as Special Ops rival to the Wings? Its Marketing? Its web ops? Anything?
A few years back, there was frenzy over allegations that the New England Patriots, another outfit deadly serious about winning, was engaging in illicit, outside-the-sanctioned mode of football operations: that they were cheating. I haven’t much interest in the NFL, but for some reason this week I thought back to that moment and that team. I don’t know that much came about those allegations against the Patriots, but today I find it interesting that it was the Patriots — and not say the Redskins — who were forced to defend themselves against such attack. I guess today still a lot of football fans outside of New England believe that something sinister and covert was executed by Bill Belichick.
The warfare-sports mix of metaphor needs to be executed, if at all, with limit and care. But this spring in Washington, with the stunning news of the remarkable mission of SEAL Team Six, I can’t help but wrestle a bit with the notion that when it comes to hockey in my hometown, we are badly in need of the equivalent of a SEAL Team Six running things, when at present, relative to a club like the Wings, we have McHale’s Navy.
I’m hardly alone in such thinking. Again I reference the recent post mortem of the Post’s Tom Boswell:
“[George] McPhee respects his players’ pain. His face darkens as he describes Mike Knuble playing with a shattered thumb that required four pins and pain-killing shots just so he could take the ice. He knows which man can’t open his own car door after a game, which may never play again and which could hardly get off the ice unaided after one game.
“Attuned to such sacrifice and 100-hour coaching weeks, McPhee transmits that appreciation to Leonsis, a man defined by loyalties. If you bleed for them, they find it mighty hard to slit your throat [emphasis OFB's]. And that’s wrong?
“In a sense, the Caps are trapped by their own culture of decency, self-regard and optimism. They want to give everybody a second, and sometimes a fourth chance, even the coach. They don’t want to act in haste and repent at leisure, even if it means soft players aren’t traded and get to repeat their spring failures. They don’t want to blow up what they’ve built because they believe in sound foundations. But the Caps also flatter themselves that what they have created is a notch better than it actually is.”
As it relates to the real serious news of this spring, of covert warfare and military unilateralism, I am intrigued by what’s followed the initial awe and celebration of our nation’s feat over its greatest foe. Just in the past few days, a segment of our culture, clearly flanked left on the political spectrum, is articulating something akin to buyer’s remorse: Did we really have to go hitman? For these thinkers, there seems something elementally and intrinsically indecent about such a world.
And they’re right. And it’s this harrowing indecency which requires Special Ops.
On a far less important scale triumph in pursuit of sports’ greatest prize — securing the coveted target — surely requires something akin to a Special Ops mindset. Tampa Bay under the guidance of Steve Yzerman, a good many in hockey today believe, is closer to executing that mindset than we in Washington with our team. Yzerman of course was bred in Detroit.