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The Caps’ Cup and the D.C. Sports Landscape

D.C. sports have evolved, thanks to the Caps, and now it’s time to act accordingly

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Washington Capitals Watch Party Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

26 years ago, this area wasn’t called the “DMV”. Chinatown was a neighborhood that you didn’t go to, not a setting for tens of thousands of people to celebrate a world championship. The Navy Yard was similarly underdeveloped; more D.C. teams played in Landover than in the city proper. It was still a federal city with a workforce to match; many people worked here but many didn’t live here. They commuted from places like Centreville and Bowie, occasionally to another suburb but often into the city, every morning, and that was it.

They raised their children in those places, in the days when Rypien and Mann and Green ruled the region. From a sports standpoint and even in the local culture at-large, the Redskins ruled the roost, and that was natural.

Although they were the only act in town for just two years before the Caps and Bullets came to town, the Redskins were the only relevant one from, say, the mid-1940s until the mid-70s when the Bullets started winning. Sure, the Senators were here, but it was a damn Cinderella story if they finished fifth in the American League. And if certain sports media personalities who made their names and fortunes here think D.C. is a minor league town now, imagine what they would say if the baseball team skipped town twice in 11 years. The Redskins weren’t that good either, mind you, but at least some people remembered their NFL championships in the 1940s. Muddy Ruel’s sprint home from second was but a faint memory by that point. Then the Redskins started going to Super Bowls, and winning some — three within a decade. D.C. has always been a great basketball town at the high school, college, and professional levels, but the zeitgeist has centered on the Redskins and them alone.

What’s changed since then? Let’s start with our home. It can be said with more certainty now that this isn’t really a town of politicos and bureaucrats. Rather, the DMV should be defined by its teachers and nurses, its working-class and the rest of the populace who hasn’t had to say “I work for the government” when asked what remains the most Washingtonian of questions: “What do you do?”

(For an amazing write-up on that subject, look at Dan Steinberg’s piece from last fall)

The city is immeasurably different. Columbia Heights and Petworth and Shaw are just some of the neighborhoods that have undergone total shift changes, physically and demographically. No, the white-collar aspect hasn’t fully gone away and it never will, but New Washington has been a private sector destination for quite some time, ushering in lax dress codes, happy hour, brunch, and a workforce of 20-somethings instead of 40-somethings.

But this isn’t meant to be a sociological look at how D.C. has changed — all that is just a lens through which we can view what’s happened in D.C. sports over the last two-plus decades. The Capitals and Wizards moved to Chinatown, the Redskins moved from RFK to across the Beltway from the former site of the Capital Centre, and the Montreal Expos first moved to RFK, then to the Navy Yard. The old school of D.C. sports — Redskins dominance with a smattering of Capitals, Wizards, Maryland and Georgetown basketball, plus the Nationals after they arrived — is outdated and has been for some time, even if it took a Stanley Cup to realize it.

The Wizards have been at the bottom of the totem pole for some time, and even though John Wall and Bradley Beal comprise one of the most potent backcourts in the NBA, longtime general manager Ernie Grunfeld has done little to put his team in contention for even an Eastern Conference championship. Of the four other GMs in the league who have been in their respective jobs as long or longer than Grunfeld (since 2003), they share ten NBA championships.

The Redskins’ miscues and misadventures deserve little explanation. After seven playoff appearances and 15 wins from 1982-91, they’ve made the playoffs six times since 1992, winning three times and never reaching the NFC championship game.

The Nationals have been fairly close to a model franchise since Mike Rizzo took over as general manager in 2009 and the area has fallen for them. They’ve made the playoffs four of the last six seasons and are in position to get there again this fall. The only knock on them is their three Game 5 losses at home in the NLDS. They draft well, trade smartly, and make intelligent free agency signings that have made them one of the winningest teams in baseball over the last six years. For now, Nationals Park is more of a corporate and social environment than FedEx Field and The Vault combined. That’s not a bad thing and it’s certainly not the fans’ fault. More than three decades without the game will do that to a market; it will never be Fenway or Busch or Wrigley. The games are still a blast and fans are reasonably engaged. I suspect that the celebration and parade in their honor, if they ever win the World Series, will at least double what’s happened in the last few days and what is to come.

But take a step back to realize what the Capitals have accomplished. They’ve won at least one playoff series in each of the last four years, the longest active streak in the NHL. Their four playoff berths in a row are tied for fourth in the league currently. Since 2008, they’ve been in the playoffs ten times and advanced out of the first round on all but two of those occasions. Since 1983, they’ve made 28 playoff appearances (or, 80 percent of the time) and won one or more series half that time. Did I mention the three Presidents’ Trophies? Yes, they earned their now-erased legacy as playoff chokers. But now this group and this franchise has a new legacy that will forever be theirs.

Whether you were at a bar like I was in suburban Virginia, in the pandemonium of downtown D.C., in a basement with family and friends, or even in Las Vegas the other night, you witnessed something that, in my view, transcended hockey. This wasn’t just about the 43rd season of Capitals hockey finally ending in that unbridled euphoria. It was about the 90 consecutive times a major pro sports team in D.C. had seen its season end with varying degrees of sadness or horror or even relief. The team that Post columnist Tom Boswell referred to as “the incorrigible child of American pro sports” last May did something on Thursday for a city that has long starved for two things: unity and a world championship.

Local fans have long been castigated for leaving games early and being so uptight during close playoff games that they could almost look for a fork and knife to use for a Snickers bar. Somehow, a mass transit system that fails to live up to the “mass” or “transit” part and a bunch of teams whose greatest shared quality was being (mostly) gallant in defeat was their fault. But every year, they still came out to the park or the rink or the hardwood to see if this was the year where the team would do the thing. As the best those groups could seemingly do was get close to getting close to winning it all, I honestly wondered why in the hell we kept the faith. This wasn’t the Cleveland of old or Buffalo in the 90s, where at least there were some long playoff runs to permit belief within a fanbase, even if devastation was still the end result. A conference championship round was the promised land. Something that Bostonians and Pittsburghers take for granted was either one hour or 27 outs away 13 times between 2000 and 2018, and all 13 times they just didn’t pull it off.

The hundreds of thousands of people everywhere between Catonsville and Culpeper that celebrated on Thursday night celebrated for hundreds of thousands of reasons. Some because they were just glad to be a part of something like that — and if that makes them want to take in a game in person for the first time next October, that’s a good thing. Others because they watched Yvon Labre and Greg Joly skate their way to eight bleeping wins in 1974-75 and thought they would themselves be buried before the Capitals buried the last of their demons. Whatever the reason, it was a good one.

What’s stood out to me the most in the dozens of times I’ve watched the last six-tenths-of-a-second of the D.C. sports drought was the celebration of defenseman Matt Niskanen, jumping up and down like a child as gloves and sticks start to fly around him. I’ve been at the last two breakdown days and seen his emotions grab hold of his voice and tear ducts as he struggled to explain away what transpired. We aren’t supposed to root in this business, and even though my four years of hockey writing have been for fan blogs, objectivity has been my top priority. But I also don’t think it’s appropriate to abandon one’s basic humanity in writing about this stuff — it’s just sports, after all. So in that vein, yeah, it’s great to watch someone’s anguish turn into exultation like that.

There was a little bit of Niskanen in all of us last Thursday, I think. No, we don’t endure the trials and tribulations of the players, but we feel a lot of that stuff inside, too. Whether you’ve watched this group since 1978 or 2008, you’ve seen what the players and coaches and front office have gone through, not to mention the fanbase. The playoff setbacks cost coaches and executives their jobs. Even if the Nationals and the rest of the city’s major teams caused their share of heartbreak, none of them authored as much agony and sorrow as the men wearing red or teal or black who once seemed damned for a destiny of despair.

Kids in D.C. may start going to rinks now and take up the game themselves because they want to be like Alex Ovechkin or Braden Holtby or Devante Smith-Pelly. Or they may not, because hockey is bloody expensive, and Washington will never be on the level of Boston or Detroit when it comes to hockey anyway. Regardless, I believe that the Redskins have forfeited their position on top of the heap in this town, and that they’ve ceded it to the Capitals. Whatever that means — more people asking for more Caps talk on sports radio, changing the channel when the hosts spend 20 minutes talking about who should be the second-string fullback, reading more about the team online, buying a sticker for their car, making a family trip once a month to Kettler for practice — it doesn’t really matter. Where there’s been strife about RG3 vs. Cousins and the Strasburg shutdown, Washington’s boys of winter ushered in a new debate last Thursday night: champagne or shots?