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Dave Nichols: After 44 years, finally a champion

UPDATED: Sat., June 9, 2018, 10:20 p.m.

The first rule of sportswriting: No cheering in the press box.

It’s a good thing I wasn’t in the press box.

It takes a while for most expansion franchises to become competitive. It takes even longer for one to challenge for a title, let alone win one.

For fans of hockey in the nation’s capital, it only took 44 years.

On Thursday night, the Washington Capitals beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-3 in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Center in Las Vegas to achieve hockey history and hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup in glorious victory.

And I was there. As I have been from the beginning.

Game 5. A chance to clinch the Cup. We called in some favors. Cashed in our miles. Spent too much money. 20 hours in Vegas to witness history. Surreal.

We were in the upper deck for Game 5, and as the seconds ticked off the clock the last two minutes, I have to admit my body literally trembled. After the final faceoff with 0.6 seconds left went safely aside, I sobbed. Like a baby.

I hugged my wife. I hugged friends. I hugged strangers.

The Capitals – at long last – erased their name from the list of NHL franchises waiting to go from inception to ascension, and in the process engraved their names alongside the other hockey immortals who appear on the coolest trophy in sports.

It was a particularly unfunny joke that the Caps would have to go through an expansion team in the final.

It is an even further cruel twist of fate that the general manager of the Golden Knights, George McPhee, was the primary architect of not only the Knights but of those very same Capitals, as McPhee was responsible for acquiring two-thirds of the Caps’ active roster as the GM in Washington for 17 seasons.

And you can bet that if Seattle is officially awarded an NHL expansion franchise in the near future, the rules for player acquisition will be nowhere near as favorable as McPhee had it for the Knights.

If you’re still reading, you may be wondering why the high school and minor league baseball writer for a newspaper in Spokane is writing about the hockey team in the “other” Washington.

Well, if it wasn’t for the Washington Capitals I wouldn’t be writing in this space at all.

I grew up in the D.C. area. As a 7-year-old in 1974, I accompanied my pop to the second home game in Capitals history at the old Capital Centre outside of town. At that time, the Cap Centre looked like something from out of this world. It was shaped like a horse saddle and had a ring of lights under the lip of the roof that made the thing look like a weirdly shaped spaceship at night.

Inside, the upper deck was dark and very steep, and the ice glowed like it was radioactive. I’d never seen anything like it before in my short life. I’d never even seen a hockey game on television, not that the experience would have even been remotely comparable.

I was hooked on the sport – and the Caps – from that day on, and I’ve been there for all of it since.

The expansion Caps were historically bad, owning marks for futility still on the books. After a few seasons of horrible teams and low attendance we very nearly lost the team, but a group of civic-minded folks and the local sports anchors helped lead a drive to “Save the Caps,” as it was called.

All those bad teams led to high draft picks and the Caps eventually got decent. But then there was the four-overtime playoff loss against the New York Islanders in 1987 known as the “Easter Epic” that started the Caps to be called choking dogs by the local paper’s columnist.

Later, there was an embarrassing scandal and the club sold off most of its stars and tore down the roster. After finally becoming relevant again, the team moved into a new downtown arena (built by longtime owner and construction magnate Abe Pollin, mostly with his own money) and started to experience success – including a four-game sweep in their first and only previous Stanley Cup Final appearance.

The Caps were soon thereafter sold to Ted Leonsis, who made his money in AOL, to usher in the “Rock the Red” era, which has largely been defined by regular season excellence and spectacular flameouts in the playoffs.

Five blown 3-1 series leads, more than any other franchise. Five Game 7 losses at home. Jaroslav Halak. The 1-9 record against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs.

This only begins to scratch the surface of disappointments that Caps teams, organization and fans have had to endure. Lots of folks think their city is the most tortured fan base in sports. None of the D.C. teams had advanced to a conference title game or series in 20 years until the Caps made the jump this season. Not a league title, mind you. A conference title.

The last time one of Washington’s four biggest professional sports teams (sorry, D.C. United) actually won a league championship was 1992, when D.C.’s NFL team won the Super Bowl.

Since Leonsis has owned the team, the Caps have won 10 division titles, three Presidents’ Trophies for most points in a season, and Alex Ovechkin has collected more individual trophies and scored more goals than any other player in the league during his career. By far.

But for all that success, no Cup. Until now.

I mentioned how Leonsis got rich specifically, because that’s where the story comes back to me.

Leonsis invested heavily in technology and new media. He was one of the first owners in sports to allow new media, “bloggers” if you will, into the press box.

I didn’t come to sportswriting the usual way. I was a litigation manger at a couple of large D.C. law firms for 23 years until I got burned out.

I started a blog about sports. It wasn’t very good. But I had a buddy who was writing for one of the credentialed blogs covering the Caps, and he got me in the door there.

I was only covering one game a month, but I was in the press box and learning the ropes, albeit at a much more advanced age than most of my fellow bloggers.

But I wanted more. I started my own blog and the Caps were gracious enough to credential me. I covered every home game and most practices in person. I then started a Washington Nationals blog and was eventually credentialed there too. I quit my job. My wife quit her law firm job too, became a pro photographer and took the pictures.

After a couple of years of operating those blogs I combined the two, picked up the other sports in town and started District Sports Page, credentialed by every pro team in town – except the NFL franchise – and most colleges, and did that until we moved out here a couple of years ago.

All of that eventually led me to my gig here.

With the infiltration of bloggers and independent media – not to mention team-owned broadcasters – the line between fan and media is more blurred than ever. When the home play-by-play guys refer to the team as “we” and “us,” it’s hard to tell where the line is.

But we all grew up as sports fans, and allegiances die hard. I’ve been waiting for the Caps to win the Cup for essentially my entire consciousness.

Now that it’s happened, I have conflicted feelings.

Obviously, I’m elated. I’m also relieved. And exhausted.

I thought I was done being a fan. Writing about sports for a living can take some of that out of a person.

I have to admit, I didn’t watch much of the regular season at all. I checked box scores and the standings, but we didn’t even buy the NHL package this season. The thought of getting wrapped up in the daily grind seemed the definition of insanity.

It’s hard to follow a hockey team on the East Coast when I’m in Pacific time, covering high school basketball and wrestling all winter – and loving every minute of it.

But then the playoffs started. In the first round, the Caps came back from an 0-2 start to get past Columbus, a six-game series with four overtime games. I watched, but didn’t go overboard. That brought on the Penguins, the authors of so many premature exits for the Capitals.

But this time, it was different. The Caps vanquished the hated flightless birds in six games, ending the city’s conference championship drought.

Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.

As obnoxious as this might sound, the seven-game Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay almost seemed anticlimactic – but awesome nonetheless.

Then the Stanley Cup Final started. Nerves. Emotions. Liquid courage. Everything.

Sure, the way Vegas buzzed in Game 1, it looked like the “Golden Misfits” would effort their way to a championship and leave the D.C. faithful in disarray once again.

But the Caps responded. They won a tense Game 2. Then the series went back to D.C., where the Caps dominated Games 3 and 4 in front of 18,000 screaming fans in the arena and 50,000 more in the streets and bars around the area.

I watched it all on TV from here.

Another 3-1 series lead. But this time, no dread. No existential crisis. It felt…different. It required a futile and stupid gesture on someone’s part.

So we went to Vegas.

Since then, every video and Facebook post or Tweet about the Caps makes me well up again.

As the Caps’ radio voice said a couple of weeks ago, “It’s OK to believe.” I wasn’t sure I had that in me again, but on Thursday night all of the emotion of investing in a team that represented disappointment and frustration for the better part of 44 years came spilling out of me.

I couldn’t control it if I had wanted to. I believed again.


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