The Capitals-Penguins game today brings with it a twist on the question of who or what really feeds longtime rivalries in sports.
Yes, history plays a part. But in the annals of the Caps-Pens rivalry, there is the classic before Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin distinction. For many, knowledge of the rivalry is limited to the era of these two superstars. What preceded is far from mainstream knowledge in current NHL culture.
Newly acquired Capitals forward Joey Crabb, for example, was very up to date on the current rivalry, was aware of the Winter Classic matchup between the two, and has watched several games. But he had no idea, when growing up, of a Caps-Pens blood feud.
“That was a rivalry, eh?” he said. “I guess I’m not as big of a hockey fan as I thought.”
Ironically, a piece of that rivalry history is now standing behind the Capitals’ bench coaching Crabb and his teammates.
“I was part of it when I was here,” head coach Adam Oates reminded reporters after practice Saturday when fielding a Caps-Pens question.
It’s a feud Crosby himself talked about stretching back before his professional career in a 2007 conversation with OFB.
But rivalries can’t just exist because of history and players, either. Even the seemingly immortal Teemu Selanne won’t play forever. Athletes and coaches have been known to play or direct games in the colors of one fierce rival, only to find themselves later on coaching or playing on the opposite bench. It’s not betrayal. It’s the business. And in an odd, awkward Romeo and Juliet way, your biggest hockey foe could in essence become your hockey family.
It’s how a guy like Eric Fehr, who played in the memorable Caps-Pens Winter Classic not long ago and who said Saturday that the Capitals “definitely dislike” the Penguins, can also say this:
“I played with [now Pittsburgh forward] Tanner Glass last year, and I’m a good friend of his, so at the same time I’m gonna be hitting him on the ice, and obviously wanting to win, but he is a good friend of mine, so I’ll talk to him after.”
For Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, rivalries are born of the most exciting time in hockey—the postseason. And, though an owner can build a front office and roster, he suggests people can’t manufacture a rivalry.
“Rivalries must be authentic,” he told OFB. “[T]hey can’t be created or coaxed, and they are always created in heat of playoff battle.”
But Fehr seems to have the most likely answer for what bridges the gap of rosters and trades (and even the decades of history, though we didn’t discuss that specifically) to keep rivalries alive and thriving: the fans.
“I think the big thing with the rivalries—we feed off the fans. If the fans really dislike the other team, if they’re into the game early, they’re chanting, they’re screaming, it gets us into the game, and I think it makes for [a] more intense game. So I think the fans initiate a lot of the rivalries, and we kind of go with it,” he said.
It will likely be the fans that will help carry this Caps-Pens rivalry on, long after Ovechkin and Crosby and their teammates stop playing.