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Capitals Fans Revel in Team’s Return to Kettler

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Thousands of people turned out to see the team off to Nevada.

A small portion of the crowd that wished the team well as they head to the desert.
Eric Hobeck for Japers’ Rink

They came wearing jerseys and shirts that had names like “Langway” and “May” and “Hendricks” and “Kolzig” on the back. They were young children sitting on a parent’s shoulders and red-clad octogenarians being pushed in wheelchairs. They chanted things like “Barry! Barry!” for Barry Trotz, the Washington Capitals’ once-embattled head coach and “MVP! MVP!” to seemingly endorse Alex Ovechkin for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Ovations normally reserved for overtime goals were granted for every single player and coach exiting one-by-one out of the locker room. Even team owner Ted Leonsis, glowing with only the kind of pride that a run to a championship round can bring, tossed t-shirts and hats into a crowd that, according to the team, was 6,000-strong.

The Capitals were back at Kettler Iceplex in Arlington on Saturday for their first practice since winning the Eastern Conference title earlier this week. By 10 a.m., half an hour before practice began, the crowd was already four and five-deep at ice level ringing around both the Arlington and Capitals Rinks. The situation on the balconies above each rink was no different, with fans clamoring for any look possible at the first major local team to get to this stage of a postseason since 1998.

The practice itself was as ordinary as one can get for late May. Brooks Orpik and Devante Smith-Pelly returned to their usual roles on the third pairing and fourth line, respectively, after injuries in Washington’s 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 on Wednesday.

But to be frank, Saturday wasn’t so much about the Caps gearing up on the ice for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights (Monday, 8 p.m.). It was about a fanbase completely taking over a place they call their own during a magical playoff run — something that they haven’t had the opportunity to do in a generation. 23-year-old Christian Fowler, from Hagerstown, was routinely the loudest of the fans gathered at the gate that separates the public from the media interview station. “With the way the playoffs have gone the last couple of years, I could’ve never imagined this,” he said.

“This” was a scene that Capital One Arena public address announcer Wes Johnson simply described as “crazy,” with a standing-room-only crowd of 1,200 packing the bleachers and far more than that scattered throughout the entirety of the complex. To wit, a red (with a healthy sampling of white and black and navy blue) mass of humanity fit itself into every available space to shout and applaud its praise for a group that ended 20 years of Washingtonian athletic angst.

Fowler said that his reaction to Wednesday’s win was 15 minutes of speechlessness sitting in his chair, with a few tears of joy. If that way of registering likely the biggest win in franchise history to date wasn’t unique to him — and it doubtless wasn’t — then his fellow supporters were similarly boisterous on Saturday.

“The town is all-in. The town is excited, the people be involved and it’s been 20 years since the last time the Caps was in the Final,” Ovechkin said.

“If you walk on the street, everybody was like ‘ok, you got this’ and you just feel like everybody all-in and everybody on the same page ... everybody come to me and say like ‘good job, we very proud, we very happy, and thank you very much.’ But it’s not done yet. It’s not over yet.” Ovechkin added that he brought the Prince of Wales Trophy to team headquarters after it spent the night at his house.

Toronto native Tom Wilson said that D.C. is his second home now and that “it’s fun to see everyone so excited about it and to see the welcome out there at practice. The fans here are awesome, they’re very respectful but very passionate, which is a great medium to have.

“You play for the guys in the room, you play for the organization, but you play for your city as well and it’s amazing to share it with the fans and all the people that support you night in and night out.”

The scene shifted outside and into the rapidly-increasing humidity as players and coaches, escorted by security and the Capitals’ PR team, left the facility through the parking deck on top of the building. William Stilwell, who is popularly known as “Goat” and can start a Vault-wide “Let’s go Caps!” chant with his voice and his alone, was one of thousands of fans who lined a pathway for the team. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “When I got here, I saw people lined up on these railings outside at ten after 10, and when I went inside, both of the rinks were filled to capacity. It’s such a difference from 20 years ago.”

Goat was there at Piney Orchard in 1998 after the Washington beat the Buffalo Sabres to win their first conference championship. Faith Hill was atop the country charts, Surge ads were on the end boards at MCI Center, and Dominik Hasek threw his blocker at Peter Bondra just days earlier. “[The late Channel 4 sportscaster] George Michael announced that they were getting back to Piney Orchard sometime around 11:45, midnight, something along those lines. I got in my car immediately and hustled out from Northeast D.C. to Odenton.

“When I got there, there were probably about 300, 400 people already in the parking lot just celebrating. They had their sendoff a few days later to go out to Detroit, and the stark contrast to me is there were maybe 50-100 people waiting between the exit to Piney Orchard to the parking lot. So we got to shake hands and there was enough time to almost get an individual meet-and-greet with each player,” he said laughing. “So this is an exponential factor of that to say the least,” he said right as a “We want the Cup!” chant broke out behind him.

“We’ve seen pretty much every high and low water mark as far as attendance and regional fervor over this team as we can imagine,” said Stilwell, who’s had season tickets since 2001. “This is definitely the highest it’s ever been as far as I can tell.”

Did he think he would ever bear witness to a scene like that, after the likes of Derek Stepan and Nick Bonino wreaked havoc on a national capital’s psyche?

“I always maintained ... if they could finally break that barrier, if they could finally get over the hump of the Pittsburgh Penguins, I felt like the sky was the limit. And I think over the last three [or] four years, you’ve seen people go, ‘wake me up when they reach the second round. And so I think a lot of those people who were quote-unquote ‘hibernating’ have come out of their slumber in a big way.”

Dick Skelton and his son, Richard, were also in attendance. They became Caps fans after moving to the area from Hampton Roads in 1984. “People have been out here sweating their tails off for a couple of hours for a glimpse of individual players,” said Dick, who was at Kettler for the first time ever. “Some of them, the older ones with gray hair like me, [have been] 20-plus years for another return. We got it. And we’re looking for the good result. In fact, we anticipate and know we’re gonna get a good result.

“This team is very much in tune with their fanbase, I think. Fans can identify with these guys. They’re hard-working, it’s like a blue-collar team. Even the captain doesn’t take anything for granted. He gets out there and he plays his tail off because he wants to be a champion. And that’s what everybody wants for him and the team, and the city of course.”

“Back in ‘98, there was almost nothing,” Richard said. “Even when we owned the Presidents’ Trophies those couple years, the arena was always packed, the arena was always loud. [But] to see this is pretty rare.”

The Capitals are headed west now, to entertain the hockey world in the entertainment capital of the world. “Any distraction you can imagine probably would be amplified in Vegas,” Wilson said. “It’s a crazy town, but when the puck drops, it’s the same game, it’s the same sport, it’s gonna be loud, it’s gonna be crazy.”

But the last word on the glitzy side of Sin City is best left to Ovechkin, whose plethora of individual hardware has made him one of its most regular visitors in the NHL over the last decade.

“We going there to play hockey, not to pool party and play casino.”

The Capitals’ lines and pairings on Saturday