The Washington Post’s expansive coverage of the Capitals extended to its editorial page this past Friday, where John Feinstein authored a magnificent assessment of Washington’s metamorphosis into a hockey town. “Every once in a while,” Feinstein wrote, “the scoreboard doesn’t tell the whole story. In the case of the Washington Capitals’ 2008-09 season . . . the journey was more important than the outcome.”
Feinstein’s guiding thesis is that, unlike 1998, when Washingtonians got seriously excited over a Stanley Cup finalist Capitals’ club, the excitement this time is more durable and more notable:
“There is a difference between being a hockey town and being a town with a winning hockey team . . . Verizon Center was sold out during [the 1998] playoffs, because the team was winning and people in Washington — as in all cities — like jumping on winning bandwagons.
When the Caps failed to make the playoffs in three of the next four seasons, Verizon Center looked like a ghost town most nights. Often there were as many fans pulling for the visitors as for the home team.”
Feinstein next lays out a thesis for the feverish adoration this Capitals’ club has enjoyed in its city, one that I believe is conspicuously unacknowledged across the mainstream sports landscape: the caliber of human being which comprises our sport. The Capitals are extremely likable, and a microcosm of their sport.
“Hockey players are the most likable professional athletes on the planet,” Feinstein exclaims. Wow. We’ve believed that since we started following hockey, but to see that appear on the op-ed page of the Post makes for quite a moment.
Its a likability that fosters a profound connection between team and fan. Feinstein found that most abundantly on display at the painful end of last Wednesday night:
“After the traditional handshakes on Wednesday, the entire team remained on the ice while the Penguins exited. Then, led by Ovechkin, they stood in a circle and raised their sticks in salute to their fans. It was the kind of moment rarely seen in sports and almost always reserved for victory celebrations.
“Yet it was not only appropriate, it was perfect. The caps’ season ended in defeat, but their performance — on and off the ice — earned them the cheers they heard as the final seconds ticked down. The way the players recognized those cheering them is proof that those cheers were well deserved.”