Washington Examiner: Caps’ Party Culture Hasn’t Had Its Last Call

When a hockey season is inexplicably left in tatters, underachievement its calling card, again, we who follow it with passion grasp at plausible explanations. A missing roster piece here and there. Leadership deficiency. Inexperience. Key injuries. What about the room — chemistry?

The latter portion of the summer of 2011 has delivered credible and troubling assessments about the Washington Capitals in a macro sense, bringing to surface a facet seldom analyzed in failure’s shadows. Two recently departed Capitals addressed these concerns — ones of organizational culture.

With the passage of Labor Day weekend I was closing in on an authentic missing of hockey, my frozen spirits close to being rejuvenated. This was the toughest summer for me to date in quelling concerns I’d long suspected and developed about the core of this hockey team, and Tuesday morning brought about a renewal of them. I hopped aboard my Metro train this morning with a copy of today’s Washington Examiner. The newspaper informed me of the manner in which no small number of Washington Capitals inaugurated the holiday weekend here:

On one level, it’s patently unfair for me to react to the story as I instantly did (“Great, the barflies are back at it.”). Problem is, there’s a context for consuming this account, and it’s unflattering: these Capitals Young Guns are no strangers to hard partying — it’s been richly illustrated in social media snapshots by hockey fans patronizing the watering holes at the same time as the players. A few bartenders read this blog, too. If Lord Stanley had christened a chalice for the hockey team that annually celebrates the best, these Washington Capitals would be dynastic in winning it.

At issue here isn’t some tee-totaling sensibility relative to millionaire professional athletes. My own opinion is that when it comes to puck sodas and pucks, beers aren’t the exclusive prerogative of beer-leaguers; I’m well versed in the role that spirits have played in locker rooms and player gatherings across generations in our sport. The Boston Bruins went on a big-time bender early this offseason — but after they’d won the Stanley Cup.

Additionally, there seems something manifestly healthy about a hockey team regularly hanging out socially with one another. And heck, given the chance, many of us probably would love to buy our hockey heroes a beer if we saw them out and about in Georgetown or Arlington. (Though for a few of them, Michelob Ultras.) But I probably speak for at least a few fans in suggesting that we’d really like to buy them a round after they actually won something.

With respect to this past Friday night’s party outing as alluded to in the Examiner, I’ll stipulate that everything was carried off in moderation (the roll call of the depleted bar shelf notwithstanding), that no player left the nightclub unsafely impaired. Still, because this is the Washington Capitals, winners of nothing, ever, and because this band of Young Guns really does know how to put playoff disappointments behind them real fast, and get about the business of partying, I have an issue with merely the optics of this moment. Show up for training camp fat, as some millionaires in red did a year ago, and yes, going top shelf to the tune of four figures (or more) is fair game for criticism, at this moment, with this underachieving bunch. Put another way: This is probably not quite the offseason activity proscribed by Gary Roberts. (A champion)

(Why don’t we ever hear of a single Capitals player training with Roberts, as Tampa’s Steven Stamkos does, in the offseason?)

When our Elisabeth Meinecke chatted up Brooks Laich this summer about his offseason training regimen, she didn’t get the sense that he was devoting many evenings to the top, middle and bottom shelves of booze at bars. And it was with that account also in mind that I got ticked off by this morning’s story. I’m tired of reading about the underachieving Washington Capitals in our newspapers’ society pages, building up barfly tabs. Instead, as with Lis’ piece on Brooks, I want to read about barbells being lifted, not shotglasses. A legion of losing — and most especially looking seriously out of shape while being vanquished — will breed such cynicism. Beginning immediately, I want to hear no more discussion from national television announcers about problems with Nick Backstrom’s skating. There’s nothing wrong with his skating — he looked quite mobile while amassing 101 points in 2009-10. But he also looked quite fit then.

To address in greater detail another important context for this story: In addition to more than a few local hockey fans taking to Twitter with photos and accounts of encountering Capitals’ players out partying hard about town at conspicuous times — like the night before a matinee game — this summer we also learned of some insiders’ perspectives about the culture of the Washington Capitals. A couple of the team’s top-line performers last season were, relative to preceding seasons, conspicuously out of shape — claims supported by departed Capitals Matt Bradley and Dave Steckel. (At a media availability today Alexander Ovechkin told reporters that the team had already been instructed not to discuss the Bradley comments.) There was discussion of players missing practices (more than a few) with “dubious” injuries. Talk to any old school reporters who’ve covered this game a while and that’s often code for hung over.

I was one who in the middle of last season identified what I regarded as a troubling culture that had formed around this hockey team: they weren’t shy about being seen out celebrating life lavishly; they talked a good game about winning when it mattered — most particularly with training camp t-shirt slogans; and when more springtime shortcomings followed always there seemed, from management in particular, a fixation on injuries as excuse. I also thought way too much attention was paid to the Alexander Semin component of Bradley’s remarks and way too little to his indictment of team culture. The Capitals may or may not thrive with Semin a member of the club; they most assuredly will not if what Bradley intimated about preferential treatment, Ovi’s conditioning, and dubious practice absences is true and allowed to continue. This team badly needs a change in culture still, I maintain, and that begins with optics.

I think we could all agree: there’s a real difference between blowing off steam with your office mates with a few cold ones after work and ordering not merely top-shelf liquor on an outing on the town but all of the booze on the shelves below as well. No one who has closely followed the Capitals in recent years could profess to be surprised by the Examiner’s account today. That in and of itself is troubling.

If I were the head coach of the Caps, I’d have introduced the team to Blue Moon — warm — on the plane ride back from Tampa this spring. They probably would have hit the wagon the entire offseason.

This entry was posted in Alexander Ovechkin, Capitals' party culture, Media, Nicklas Backstrom, Print, Washington Capitals, Washington Examiner. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Washington Examiner: Caps’ Party Culture Hasn’t Had Its Last Call

  1. Phil S says:

    Could not agree more. Especially the comments re Roberts training. Is it any wonder how well Stamkos has blossomed the last two years. He probably has 6% body fat. Ovi is probably up around 15% to 20%. Nick too. I love what I hear from Vokun regarding how much he wants to win the Cup and how he thinks this is the team to do it. But I hate the party atmosphere around the Caps. They need to be focused on wins, not wine. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but one gets the distinct impression that even if they do win A cup, there will still be a “what might have been” element to it. As in, if they were completely focused, how many Cups might we have already won.

  2. Mike says:

    I don’t think this is a big deal, it’s not like it’s a Caps phenomena, it happens pretty much league wide. Players in their 20’s are going to do this, some more than others. The year the Hawks won the Cup, they were well known for “going out” and their pics littered the internet. If anything, it’s up to the coach, captain or veterans to help reign the boys in when appropriate. I think that’s where the Caps’ problems reside. Hopefully, the latest additions can help cure that. I mean, if I was in my 20’s and could pull smokes like in the Green pic, I’d go out a lot too!

  3. Barbara says:

    I’m with Mike. You’re reading too much into one get together of 20 year olds who are about to embark on their toughest and most important year of their lives. Chill!

  4. Aaron says:

    What a non-story. The Caps finished top of the Eastern Conference last season. Did they get bounced in the playoffs because they were partying before games? I’ve never seen anyone suggest that.

    Put it this way – you have a high-pressure, high-stress job, then try going years without having a couple of wild moments, see how your psyche is doing then! I don’t begrudge these guys the occasional wild one, as long as it doesn’t impact on their ability to play, surely it can only help them to relieve a bit of the stress that must built up.

    They’re young, un-married guys. If their occasional partying isn’t harming their play then why should we care?

  5. Ben says:

    i couldn’t DISAGREE more with you. this is an absolutely garbage take on what is going on. they weren’t out getting sloshed, they went out and had a couple drinks, which i GUARANTEE you EVERY team in the NHL does. these guys haven’t all been together in a few months, so why not go out and catch up? if they are out getting hammered before games, then i’d have an issue. this is a well known caps blog, i expect better coming from this site.

  6. Ben says:

    oh, and Phil S – do you really think a world class athlete like Alex Ovechkin is at 15-20% body fat??? after hearing about how he was out of shape last year, and being told to come to camp in great shape, you REALLY think he has 15-20% body fat? give me a freakin break.

  7. I’m still trying to get my head around the notion that the captain showed up for fall camp out of shape. The owner’s acknowledged it. At this point in his career, and wearing the ‘C,’ he has to be told by management to report in shape? Really? How does something like that happen?

  8. Dave B says:

    The only problem I have with this is this team is a bunch of fancy boys. Can’t they just go to a regular bar? Are they really having a good time getting bottle service at Opera Lounge?

    Call come chicks, buy some beer and steak, maybe get a funnel, and cookout at Ovi’s house

  9. Dirt says:

    Every once in a while I come back to reading this stupid blog. Time will pass and I’ll go, oh, why did I stop reading this? Then I come across an entry like this. It’s early september, a month from the start of the season. These guys have all been working their ass off all off season, and you want to bitch that a bunch of guys 25 and under want to go out and have a few drinks in their off season? Not to mention, all of those guys are in DC training, when they are under no obligation to do so. They are here of their own free will trying to make the team better, but oh, they went out and spent a lot on drinks and enjoyed the company of some fine women? What the F is wrong with you?

    Oh my goodness! They spent four figures on alcohol!!! They make millions of dollars a year, their bar tab should be higher than mine.

    What would you have them do? Grab a six pack of bottled water and stare at the stanley cup in silence? Just because you’re old and boring, and couldn’t sniff either of those girls panties, doesn’t mean you should be pissy that Mike Green can.

    I know what you’re thinking, if you don’t like my stupid blog, don’t read it. I don’t and I won’t. You suck.

  10. Rusty Shackelford says:

    Hopefully these guys finally turn the page and understand that they have a responsibility first and foremost to the Caps organization and their fans. If nothing else, somebody should remind them that developing good conditioning habits during your 20’s will most likely extend your career by a few years, freak injury notwithistanding.

    I look at this as a potential win win scenario, at least for me – they get into shape, take this hockey thing seriously, and finally win a Stanley Cup. If not, well, at least the bandwagoners will go away and I can enjoy the shorter beer and bathroom lines that were the norm at the Verizon Center before the spring of 2008. And my season ticket price would probably drop, too.

  11. Rusty, Roberts played til he was what, 42? And I’m pretty sure he credits his training approach with playing a large role in that longevity. Obviously, there’s no one single right way to train for pro athletes, but I’m very impressed that Stamkos has latched on to Roberts’ rigorous and remarkably disciplined approach at the very dawn of his career.

  12. Tina says:

    I’ve never posted here before – but I’ve been reading this blog for a long time – It can be noted that this weekend was Opera’s grand opening weekend and sometimes local celebrities/athletes are invited to events and clubs to generate press and buzz for the venue, which it certainly did. Opera is run/owned by some of the same people as Josephine’s, which the Capitals frequented many nights in the past, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility this was an invite. what 20-something wouldn’t pass up an invite to hit up a club, get table service, etc? Going out, especially during the season to a night club, is not a new or recent occurance for the team – I know this for a fact, as I’ve seen players out back in 2006 & before. HOWEVER, because of social media, word travels fast. The Capitals are ‘local celebrities’ now and papers report on their whereabouts… It wasn’t always like that.

  13. B8ovin says:

    I’m not sure what to take away from this. Is it your contention that no Capital player should go to a bar until they’ve won a Stanley Cup? Are you suggesting that it is impossible to pursue a social life and win hockey games? As a father of four who hasn’t touched alcohol since my early 20’s I’ll tell you this, at that young age it was easier to recover from a hangover than being up all night with a crying child. So maybe you’d like to scold those players who have babies during the season. I suggest that the Caps’ last two regular seasons dispute your concern, while pointing to a deficiency to mentally prepare for the playoffs coupled with Boudreu’s inability to adjust on the fly (at least against Tampa) to explain their early exit from the playoffs.

  14. Ryan says:

    RE: DIRT
    I might call this entry heavy handed or judiciously pessimistic. One points out that it does a brilliant job of inciting in you the same passion and frustration that drove the penning of the piece itself. Think about it: you were driven to tell someone they suck while throwing a literary hissy fit over something as innocuous as a sports fan blog posting. Might the author then be capable of evoking elated joy and sense of accord?
    Long standing Caps fans that I’m sure many of us here are, we’ve all lashed out in frustration at the team we love in some shape or form, at one or more points in time. Can we disagree with the object or tone of the peice above? You bet. And I do. But I also understand this is one of the [well-worn] hats many Caps fans are wont to wear.
    Seasons almost here folks. Stay happy and I’ll see you all at the phone booth.

  15. Tre Kronor says:

    I don’t think Dirt or anyone else should be so quick to assume that all teams condone partying to excess like it certainly appears the Caps do. Give the copious amounts of alcohol they ordered (if true), it is clear these guys were drinking to wild excess – shitfaced no doubt. And it’s clearly a habit. This is one of the reasons why the Flyers jettisoned Carter and Richards this offseason and Peter Laviolette has encouraged more than a healthy dose of sobriety among his players – that is widely reported. I suspect other teams’ managers and captains encourage the same (you think Cup winner Sidney Crosby is out and about drinking it up with his mates – living in the same house as Mario – no way). I think the fundamental question you have to ask is what does it say about the Caps’ culture when the Captain of the Team is hosting every party?

  16. Mike Rucki says:

    @ TINA, we welcome your very first comment here, and thank you for reading. While I agree that this incident on its own is not a big deal, there’s certainly been a Caps’ partying pattern over the past few seasons — one that seems to stand out as compared to most other teams in the league. The line between Cup Champs and also-rans is razor-thin; even young bodies might feel a slight impact from too much “team-building”. Clearly the team has the stamina to get through 82 games… but they have yet to get through the following 20+ games it takes to win it all.

  17. Cathy W says:

    My comment is that I do not think that photo really illustrates your point. I recall seeing that photo on another blog and it was taken this off-season when Green was in Vegas before he went home to Calgary. I remember some of the comments being did he even those two girls as clubs in Vegas will supply the eye candy for the photo op. As long as the players actually prepare for the upcoming season as subsequent articles and video has shown that Green has done, I am not concerned about a few off-season photos like this (I admit the endless photos of Ovechkin at Moscow nightclubs and that GQ article last summer raised concerns.) It is the coming into training camp out of shape and partying during the season and playoffs that is a concern. For far too long, winning in the regular season was supposed to make everything else acceptable. Hope this season is different. They get paid a heck of a lot of money so it is past time for some of them to grow up.

  18. Eddie says:

    This post hits hard because it’s true. A lot of the Caps are party boyz who think they can get away with playing hard and partying harder. This is true if they don’t care about the Stanley Cup. All they need to do is run into athletes who are in better shape and more focused on what’s important. The level of competition is too high in the NHL and the Caps wilt when they face teams in the playoffs with real gym rats like Stamkos. Management and the coach have to realize the culture of winning in this day and era is as much about their time away from the ice as is on the ice and they need find a way to make this team harder and more focused. Living la vida loca or hanging out in margaritaville is merely making them softer.

  19. kelly chuba says:

    Most of these guys tore up Hershey and we helped….I think Hershey demanded professionalism on the ice. Why can’t the CAPS?

  20. Sasha says:

    Aaron, actually it has been suggested that partying is what killed them in the playoffs. There were rumors of them partying in Montreal after Game 5. Now, I personally don’t have a problem with 20 somethings being 20 somethings as long as they show up in shape, keep it under control, and have a good work ethic. When the partiers can’t be bothered to show up for optional practices or take a “maintenance day” it bothers me. Win something other than best regular season before you become party boys.

  21. sean says:

    I’m not going to begrudge one night out during the off-season. The issue IS optics, when the first post-season pic is Mike Green getting hammered and the first pre-season pic is Mike Green getting hammered you have a problem. When we get past the second round ONCE maybe we as fans won’t be so critical.

  22. EnzoBigBlue says:

    Not sure this is a story at all. Given the time of year, effort these guys put in during the off-season, early arrival, age and status, and the the fact that the bill and bottles were few/small given 10 200+ lb 20 year olds. Hell the magnum probably cost $500 alone. To keep this in perspective, I was angry about last year since I heard first hand reports from close friends about the young guns partying and in particular Backstrom. It was not a shock to see his performance fall off dramatically. That being said I think the team is ready to move on and I agree the bigger story with this team is the coaching preferential treatment and conditioning. Didn’t NJ’s coach note how out of shape Steckel was? Didn’t everyone scratch our head over the ice time totals for Ovi and the young guns last year. That is a bigger story and unless the coach and management lay the ground rules than 20 year old millionaires who are not married with kids will do what comes natural.

  23. Mike says:

    From this week’s articles in the Post, including one from the same day, it sounds like the team is back and working harder this year than before:

    “Ahead of the announcement, Ovechkin was once again among a growing group of players participating in informal workouts at KCI with 10 days to go before Capitals training camp begins.

    In total, 13 skaters and two goaltenders all took part in a lively workout that included timed skating drills led by strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish. It’s a larger group, including more prominent faces, than were usually back in Washington at this time during previous summers.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capitals-insider/post/number-of-capitals-working-out-at-kci-continues-to-grow/2011/09/01/gIQAExzr6J_blog.html?wprss=capitals-insider)

    Looks like you read the article on the same day the Caps started hitting the ice in bigger and bigger numbers, even ahead of the training camp. That’s what encourages me – they’re back, they’re working hard and they’re focused. One night at a grand opening of a night club (four days before the articles appeared in the paper/on websites) suggests to me that perhaps they were having a good night out before they hit the ice in preparation for the season. Nothing more. Shame you didn’t catch the larger numbers turning up at the practice facility with the same eagerness as a blurb from last week in the Examiner.

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