I was halfway through Mike Wise’s Tuesday column in the Post and ready to cross-check him in the throat with my prose, I was that disgusted with his allegations against no small number of Caps’ fans. His charge was fantastic in its conception: that some manner of hostile division, a discernible segregation, had settled in among the fanbase, with an old guard of the ancient and angst-riddled past pitted against newcomer lovers of the winning hockey team. Embittered know-it-alls versus jocular Johnny-come-latelys. To read Wise’s fantasy realm was to believe that we actually had segregated Metro cars on game nights, with Dale Hunter-sweatered supporters in certain cars and the Gang Green-clad in others. It struck me as farcical on its face, but apparently Wise really believes this.
He described an intolerant sect of “highbrow” old-timers, possessing a “tortured bond with other ‘true’ Caps fans” and representing a “happily miserable minority in Puckville.”
Really now, who in the Red Army is unhappy these days, let alone miserable?
I would have canceled my Post subscription if I’d had one.
As allegations go, this was pretty serious stuff. An alternative generalization about the contemporary fanbase, also known as the truth, is that they’re a red-fancying genial sort, inordinately passionate and devoted, and the lone community of sports fans in town roaming about with perpetual smiles on their faces. And not really drawing daggers on one another.
Then it dawned on me: Wise almost certainly was consigning rather voluminous criticism of some of his recent interpretative shortcomings with hockey to an imagined breach within the region’s larger hockey community. It was a coping mechanism.
The newest of new media delivers a real-time accountability the likes of which the fourth estate has never known. While I personally took umbrage with some aspects of Wise’s work in Verizon Center on some hockey nights, I also sympathized with the screaming stream immediately launched his way in tough-worded tweets.
“It’s [just] hockey,” he infamously articulated on his radio program a couple of months back. He’s also said, “My job isn’t to build up the Capitals’ fanbase.”
He didn’t mean to malign our game in such instances, I don’t believe, but such posturings did display a certain tone-deafness for this region’s puckheads and their longstanding disdain for the apartheid they’ve endured from 15th St. and big media generally, dating back decades.
If I could have had merely a 5-minute telephone chat with Mike on Monday I believe I could have persuaded him to jettison the tortured and fabricated us vs. them premise that launched his Tuesday column. Because halfway through it he arrives at a startling and important confession, and one that merited the full attention of the entire piece: Mike Wise doesn’t know hockey as well as he would like to; he recognizes that there are spirited puckheads poised to take him to task with each and every hockey file or radio segment he crafts; and most especially he wants a truce in the divide precisely because he recognizes the Capitals’ ascendancy locally and the need for his old media brethren to get with the puck program.
Would that I could have had this Mike Wise chat with George Michael some 20 years ago.
Quite simply, and most courageously, and with sudden and commendable humility, Mike Wise articulated a plea: whatever our differences in the past, let’s band together in the present, and part of that banding together requires patience with the uninitiated but every bit as excited new followers of our great team and its great game.
And without question he was including himself in the community of newcomer/uninitiated.
It was so startling an admission-plea that instantly I found myself forgiving Mike for the egregious start to his piece and sympathizing greatly with his present discomfort. More importantly, I want to be enlisted in this great cause.
For more than three years OFB has chronicled — and celebrated — the arrival of newcomers to Kettler and Verizon Center. We’ve profiled transplants from Sunbelt states who’ve purchased Capitals’ ticket plans. If only we had a nickel for every instance we’ve written the words ‘Red Army,’ and always our use of it was in its fullest collective sense. And we are hardly alone among new media in our affinity for our newest friends. We are drawn to the story of new converts because their stories harken us back to our own individual love-at-first-sight beginnings. And Washington can’t fully become a hockey town without these newbies, converts who’ll mentor new arrivals who follow them. Every serious hockey fan believes this. And this is why Mike Wise’s premise on Tuesday was so wildly inaccurate.
There is no divide, no well-defined classes or castes or tiers of Caps’ fans. There are new and more veteran followers, and today they wear one uniform, and they hug and high-five the strangers next to them during Chinatown goal sirens without regard for the puck pedigree of the celebrating. They clog District bars and buy one another beers while in uniform, and they form a teeming sea of reddened humanity beside one another on Metro platforms, spontaneously bursting into raucous chants of ‘Let’s go Caps!” even after rare losses.
Some in media remain slow to the celebration, it’s true. But Mike Wise apparently no longer numbers among them. There are likely to be great stories to be told this postseason, and we ought to welcome Wise’s writing and discussing them. Converts often carry forward the greatest conviction.