The Caps winning that Stanley cup has set off a wave of emotion through its fan base. We all know grown men and women that were reduced to puddles at approximately 11:08 pm on June 7, with a subset of that group engaging in a cathartic, non-stop crying cycle for the past 3+ days.
This phenomenon isn’t unusual for sports teams that win symbolic championships. Tears have been shed for franchises ending extensive championship droughts, like the 2004 Boston Red Sox, 2010 Chicago Blackhawks, and the 2018 Philadelphia Eagles. We’ve also seen the overwhelming emotion poured out from cities that watched their team win championships after enduring civic disasters, like the 2010 New Orleans Saints, the 2013 Boston Red Sox and the 2017 Houston Astros. And who can forget the tear-jerking Cleveland Cavaliers, who dramatically won the NBA championship in 2016 and ended a grueling 56-year city-wide championship famine?
A similar outpouring of emotion for the Washington Capitals Stanley Cup victory has surprised a lot of national pundits and casual fans around the country, many of whom had viewed the Capitals as no more than the third or fourth most important team in the District’s sports pecking order. Those outsiders can’t quite wrap their arms around why this win has sparked so many emotions for DC sports fans.
Let me explain why we cry.
There are three tear-jerking phenomena happening simultaneously. The first is the triumph of Washington DC as a sports town. DC is a proud city that has seen its own gruesome championship drought cover 26 years, or 91 combined NFL/MLB/NHL/NBA seasons, since Joe Gibbs led the Redskins to one of the most dominating seasons in NFL history in 1992. It’s a city that has fielded excellent and entertaining sports teams in that span and, yet, couldn’t even get to the semifinals of their respective sport, let alone win a championship. We witnessed our teams repeatedly come up short when it mattered most (Nationals, Wizards) or implode due to self-inflicted wounds (Redskins). Even DC United went from model franchise to bottom-feeder. And as our collective frustration mounted, we witnessed rival cities walk or skate away with championships, oftentimes beating us along the way. That stung.
The second phenomenon is the triumph of a hard-luck franchise, the Washington Capitals. No team in North American professional sports has been through what this franchise has endured in the past 35 years. They were the red-headed stepchild of DC in the ‘70s and ‘80s, tolerated but no more than an afterthought to the Redskins, Bullets and Hoyas. Yet they’ve been excellent since David Poile traded for Rod Langway and saved this franchise in 1982. They made the playoffs 26 out of 35 times. Nine times they finished in the top 5 of the NHL regular season standings, what many would consider enough to be a Stanley Cup caliber roster. Unfortunately, not one of those teams got past the second round.
Not only did the Caps have the ignominy of constantly losing two-game series leads and being labeled as “chokers” by members of the city media, it was also about “how” they lost, as they invented ghastly ways to lose in the playoffs. Fluky shots going in, goals getting called back, freak injuries, hot goalies, deflections on shots that were nowhere near the net, the knob of an opposing goaltender’s stick saving a sure goal. You couldn’t have scripted a more hard-luck franchise. It cemented a permanent cynicism among the fan base that couldn’t help feel that they were always going to be Charlie Brown, and that Lucy would never let him kick the football. There was 35 years of painful evidence proving it.
The third phenomenon is for the triumph an iconic player who not only failed to receive his proper due, but was tormented over his team’s inability to win. Alex Ovechkin is inarguably one of the top 10 NHL players of all time and arguably in the top seven; yet, the narrative emanating from points north were that he was selfish, immature and disrespectful to the game. That his individual dominance meant nothing because he never lifted the Cup. (Never mind that 26 teams haven’t lifted the Cup in the past ten years!).
Ovechkin became the butt of jokes, the focal point of xenophobic rants, and the face of choking. But here in DC we knew better. We knew what Ovechkin was: a dominant, entertaining, free-spirited hockey force who brought it for the playoffs as much as he did in the regular season. And while Ovi accepted the blame gracefully and diplomatically as the NHL media beat him down, Caps fans seethed at the injustice and hypocrisy, unable to explain to an ignorant world that they had it all wrong.
Until 11:08 pm on June 7.
A city that couldn’t win despite fielding excellent teams, a franchise predestined to lose, and the beloved icon who couldn’t get any respect all of a sudden went on a magical two-month run, galvanized a city, exorcised all of the franchise’s demons along the way, and culminated with the hero lifting the Cup in pure, unbridled joy. A karmic justice was served and Charlie Brown finally kicked the football, a moment we never thought would happen.
All sports titles count equally in the record books. But they don’t count equally our hearts. Stories are universally better when the protagonist’s patience and resilience finally conquers a 44-year struggle laced with adversity and bad luck.
And that’s why I cry.
Enjoy the parade Tuesday! But bring your tissues just in case.