Remembering ’98 and How We Can Improve on It

I remember vividly the Capitals’ stirring run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998 — 10 years ago this spring. There were helpful upsets that guided the fortunes of the 4th-seeded Caps that postseason — all of the East’s top three seeds lost in round one — but for the battered psyche of this hockey community, that didn’t matter. Taken in total, the run was totally unchartered territory in these parts, an almost out-of-body experience for a postseason-beleaguered fanbase.
I remember most particularly the manner in which this region and its media rallied around that team. By mid-May that spring I would see on my commutes to and from work, in both directions along I-270, tech businesses showcasing “Let’s Go Caps!” banners on the facades of their buildings. Buildings downtown, including the Washington Post’s, did the same. Sportstalk radio was talking hockey — Caps’ hockey — at length. It was hip to be here and in love with hockey that spring.
It’s wildly premature to speculate as to whether or not the 2008 edition of the Caps possesses the chemical/karmic makeup to replicate ’98, but it’s not ill-timed to wonder if what turned out to be a fleeting flirtation with the team and its sport by this region 10 years ago can this spring be forged into something more durable. In the spring of 1998 the Capitals and hockey here enjoyed merely a one-night stand in the hearts of sportsWashington and its media. However this spring, there’s reason to believe that a swelling Army of Red and layers of media covering this special club are poised to foster a co-habitation with hockey — perhaps for much as the next 13 years.
Before you parry and thrust with “D.C.’s a Skins’ town and it always will be,” understand that I’m not clamoring for a sports community cabal. The Redskins need not be dislodged as king in order for hockey to be accorded a healthy respect by sports-loving Washington. And on this front I would cite the experience of the Dallas Stars as instructive.
What kind of pro hockey team would move from the State of Hockey, take up residence in a football-mad sunbelt state, and prosper, playing to sellout crowds night after night, season after season? Quite simply, one that was constructed for winning for the long haul. I’m not sure that all these years in Dallas the Stars have played an entertaining brand of hockey, but they sure have won. And the support has followed.
But here’s where the calculus gets fun in these parts. The Stars did so with a traditional superstar (Mike Modano) and a heck of a lot of uninspiring role players but nothing approaching the greatest-of-all-time candidate in the Gr8.
Nobody in Texas suggests that the Stars have sullied the luster of the Cowboys. The hockey team just quietly goes about its business of profitting and winning year in, year out, before a loyal and fervid fanbase.
Why can’t that be replicated here?
It was a veteran Caps’ club that nearly ran the tables in 1998, and young GM George McPhee was loyal to them, largely keeping intact that club for 1998-99. Physically brutalized — the team lost an unfathomable 511 man-games to injuries, and 41 players dressed for the Caps that following season — the team finished 31-45-6, good for just 68 points. The morning after sunlight shone on hockey and the Caps, and city didn’t like what it saw.
Early playoff failure again settled in the following couple of seasons, Jaromir Jagr was acquired, and the rest is more unpleasant history until April 2004.
But it’s all different this spring. It’s a young as opposed to a veteran Caps’ club that has captured the attention of Washington — and the hockey world — now. Its most important part is locked up until this century’s third decade. He’s surrounded, already, by a core of world-class young skill. And more well-decorated reinforcements are skating on nearby horizons.
Perhaps just as importantly, the media covering hockey has been revolutionized in the 10 years since 1998. Washington’s remarkable hockey story went dark and silent that summer after its miraculous run at glory. Today, traditional media plays an important but merely partial role in narrating the tale of the Cardiac Caps. Bloggers blog 12 months a year, and old media has somewhat facelifted itself in synch with the contemporary communications revolution. Cumulatively, quality information puck is generated and consumed in rapid fashion. And if the product being reported on with inventiveness and flair is quality, you can red-out a rink with a day’s notice and four-figure ticket prices on Craigslist aided merely by the ‘Net’s viral momentum.
Hockey perhaps moreso than the other pro sports is the beneficiary of the media revolution, and the synergy between new and old media has led, in Washington, to a Chinatown atmosphere few would have deemed possible just six months ago. Capitals’ marketing executives told me long before the 11-1 concluding run toward a Southeast crown of their recognition to brand this team in its community even in the dog days of July and August.
Call it a lesson learned, a hockey hungry community finally fed, and an immensely appealing team at last built with a design on staying power.

This entry was posted in Comcast SportsNet, Media, Morning cup-a-joe, Print, TV, Washington Capitals, Washington Post. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Remembering ’98 and How We Can Improve on It

  1. hotdog88gt says:

    I swear I’m not lying when I say I can still see Esa Tikkanen missing the open net. It’s burned into my memory.

  2. Matt says:

    Heads up from Columbus. The were on the cover (w/ a big picture) of the Sports section in the Columbus Dispatch! It wasn’t an AP story either, it was from their hockey guy.

  3. TG says:

    And too bad it’s 10 years later, but I prefer having Fedorov on THIS side than on THAT side.

  4. StarsFaninDC says:

    Hockey is actually waning in popularity in Dallas. The Stars fialures in the post season have led to decreased tv viewing in Dallas and fewer ticket sales. The only think that will create and sustain a fan base is continued success. Even Chicago can’t sustain a fan base without a winning team.

  5. @ Matt
    Thanks for the heads up! For those curious, here’s a link to the article (by Aaron Portzline):

  6. The Mermaid says:

    Hats off to the Frozen (and their fellow) bloggers in keeping hockey on the radar screen 24/7 — articulate and welcome voices in the wilderness.
    I cannot forget Esa T. and the open net either but think more fondly of him as one of the veteran acquisitions and an agitator par excelence who helped take the team on the magical ride. But yes, its a relief to have Federov in Caps red and not Red Wing red this time around.

  7. crazy 8 is 16 says:

    detroit v. washington was men against boys. let’s not get to ahead of ourselves. the caps may not make it to the conference finals, too many variables. let them win the first series.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s