A Well-Built Band of Brothers

Cup'pa JoeWhat most caught my attention during last night’s 2-1 exhibition loss to the Flyers while listening to the ‘Net call of Kolbe and Vogel was word that despite an off-day the following day, superstar forwards Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin hopped in a car earlier in the day and journeyed up to Philly to watch their camp-mates compete in the evening. There are precious few off days during camp, and more than enough rink time for these two in the seven-plus months ahead. Vogel was impressed by the act. So was I.
This display of conspicuous camaraderie occurs within a larger context worth reviewing. Back in mid-summer, as management moved and shook the roster up for the better, we first learned of guys being eager to get back in their gear and out on the ice together at Kettler Capitals. And it actually happened, in impressive numbers, weeks ahead of the official start of training camp. Guys wanted to skate here, together.
At camp’s kickoff, on Media Day, captain Chris Clark shared a bit of his outreach efforts to his teammates spanned across the globe. He wanted them back in town early, to put the distractions of moving and settling behind them so that their collective focus could be on the important new season immediately in front of them. It was, it appears, an easy sell.
Now captains of course lead by example, and with regard to Clark, his leadership this summer extended beyond the norm. He re-signed with the Caps, at compensation and contract length irrefutably more modest than what he’d have fetched on the open market next summer. In a conference call to discuss the deal, he referenced his wanting to be a part of what the Caps were building. “I wanted to be a part of it, [of] where we’re headed,” he said. There is no guarantee of on-ice success in this season or of those ahead, of course, and yet Clark, his body memorably battered within the rebuild, wanted to lead the effort.
“We’ve got a great room” is truly a common refrain in this sport and especially this league, but there has been something distinctive about the Caps’ claim of one. Going back fully three seasons, back all the way to the early hours of the dispiriting selloff and roster overhaul, we first heard claims from some of the building blocks and even some of the roster placeholders about the caliber of the Caps’ room. That quality was certainly forged to no small degree by Olie Kolzig. But it also has to have been enhanced by a handful of recent draft classes, many of the members of which acclimated themselves to the world of pro hockey together, in recent years, in Portland, Maine, and Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Even more remarkably, the chemistry has been enhanced by free agent acquisitions conspicuous for their team-first ethos: Matt Bradley, Ben Clymer, Brian Pothier, and now, it appears, the entirety of the 2007 free agent class. Free agents in the modern era of pro sports typically arrive carrying high price tags and big egos and rarely meld seamlessly into their new environs. We aren’t hearing any of that in D.C. these days. In fact, as the Caps mature from basement dweller to contender, the growth carries some personnel anguish: some of the glue of the past couple of seasons will be cast aside, to make room for greater talents. This training camp, we are learning too how this reality is affecting the affected.
The†chemist is named George McPhee. Ultimately the verdict on his tenture in town will be rendered on wins†versus losses, sooner rather than later. But as GM he’s succeeded on a vitally important if under-reported upon front: assembling smiling faces and committed collectivism in shared car rides and summer shinny.
There’s an irony to the chemistry found in NHL locker rooms: no other U.S. sport knows the global diversity of the NHL’s athletes gathered on a single team, and yet no other sport knows its I’ve-got-your-back-at-all-times ethos, first through fourth lines, from Flin Flon-ner to Finn. It’s a criterion never acknowledged in fantasy leagues (reminding us of their superficiality), and yet nothing is more important to a team.

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4 Responses to A Well-Built Band of Brothers

  1. Mark Tucker says:

    Nice. Gotta love it.
    Can’t wait to see it equal overtime, and come from behind, and scrap-it-out wins!

  2. pepper says:

    I’d argue that MLB is pretty “globally diverse” as well – Dominicans, Puerto-Ricans, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Japanese, Koreans, multiple “-Americans,” even Canadians, eh? But you’re right about the ethos of hockey as being unique, and of course the sport is so much more physically demanding and requires a constant cooperative effort (rather than generally only the half of the game when ball players are in the field).
    Clark definitely gets a lot of credit for rallying the guys early, but Ovechkin is a huge part of the atmosphere as well on his own. You have to think that Ovie convinced Semin to go with him to watch (at least I did). I would have enjoyed being a Russian-speaking fly buzzing around on that short road trip.

  3. pepper, baseball is a remarkably individualized team sport. It’s also, obviously, knee-deep in performance-enhancing controversy. And while it’s greatly broadened its demographic participation, at the professional level, unlike hockey, it has done so at great cost: the evisceration of participation by American blacks, the trend of which has been the subject of some superb recent print journalism, including our own WashTimes. So color me unimpressed with the national pastime on any number of levels.

  4. Rage says:

    The NBA is undoubtedly more globally diverse than the NHL. Every continent (besides Antarctica) is covered by the NBA. How many South Americans, Australians, and Asians are there in the NHL? Less than 10, I’d guess. The Spurs have nearly that many by themselves (and with smaller roster sizes too)!

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