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The Plight of the Post-Lockout Caps Fan August 4, 2009

Posted by CapitalSpirit in Uncategorized.
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I’ve been noticing, in some quarters of the online Caps community, some notes of dismissal regarding fans who don’t go back past the lockout. The perception by some of the long-time fans comes across, at least to this particular Johnny-come-lately, as “Oh, you’re recent, so you don’t count.”

With regard to my own individual situation, I only moved to the Washington area during the lockout year. I also discovered that I missed hockey–even though I hadn’t really followed the sport that much prior to my arrival in the District. I was a basketball and baseball fan, and conversant in football. Hockey was barely on my radar, and you can blame my environment for that. Baltimore was not really a hockey town.

So my birthday present to myself after the lockout was my first Caps game–October 16, 2005, against Tampa Bay. The announced attendance for that game was 10,001, and the number of fannies in the seats was much less. Still, by the end of that night, I knew I’d just found a team to be a fan of. I had a full plan by the end of that year–no sales pitch required. I just went to one of the sales tables and said, “Sign me up.” I just knew, at a soul level–this was my team, win or lose. And there was a lot of losing in the ’05 and ’06 seasons. I was there for most of the home slate in ’05, and all of it in ’06–win, lose, overtime, or shootout. This was my place–I’d found something bigger than myself to be a part of.

Speaking only for myself, I have to dispute the perception in some quarters that post-lockout fans are somehow less than genuine. Now, I will concede that fans like winning teams, and the Caps are the only team in town right now with any realistic chance at a championship. The conventional wisdom cynicism is that if the Caps start losing again, we’ll be back to a half-empty Verizon Center. Maybe I’m just a natural optimist, but I think it will be a very long time before we ever have a chance to test that proposition. This Caps team is very likely going to be very good for a very long time.

What, then, to say of recent converts to the sport and the Caps? In my case, I was not a Caps fan until recently for mostly geographic reasons. And I don’t think I’m the only fan that applies to. Washington isn’t exactly a shrinking market last I heard. Some new residents of the DC metroplex may also be new to the sport, and looking for a team to root for. Yes, some may be coming aboard because the team is winning–I won’t argue that. But I think that some of the new fans aren’t necessarily as fair-weather as some of the long-timers would believe.

The Caps may never be more popular than the Redskins: Washington is, and always will be, a Redskins town…right? We’ll see how that holds up in a few years. A couple of Stanley Cups at the Phone Booth while the burgundy and gold continue to struggle–if that happens–may give that canard a run for its money. Still, the ‘Skins have a waiting list that’s a million miles long, and they haven’t even played in an NFC title game since they won the Super Bowl in 1992. Heck, they’ve only made the playoffs three times since 1992. Credit where it’s due: it does speak very highly of Redskins fans when the team has box office success that almost seems inversely proportional to its on-field success. That’s dedication.

Can the Caps do that? We won’t be able to answer that question definitively for a few years, but I think the ingredients may be there. Consider: the Caps have never had a waiting list for season tickets before, ever. And if I could travel back in time to 2006 and tell Caps Nation, “Hey! Better get your Caps season tickets now, before you have to get on a waiting list!”, I don’t know what would have gotten more laughs–the message, or the outfit.

Admittedly, I haven’t been a Caps fan since Day One. But that’s a good thing–I don’t remember that historically awful inaugural season.

No, I wasn’t there for Craig Laughlin’s three game-winning goals in the ’84 playoffs. But I also wasn’t there to see the Caps lose four straight to the Islanders.

No, I wasn’t there in ’86 when we finally kicked the Islanders to the curb in three straight. But I also wasn’t there to see us lose four games to the Rangers by an aggregate five goals–two of those games in overtime. I don’t remember the heartbreak.

No, I wasn’t there in ’87 to see our season end in the 4th overtime of Game 7. Just as well, I say–seeing a season end like that would make me a bitter fan, too.

And no, I wasn’t there in ’92 when Jagr put the dagger in our season in another Game 7. To the good, I say–last year’s playoffs thereby don’t seem like deja vu all over again.

No, I wasn’t a Caps fan when the Rangers rolled past us in ’94–and I was actually happy for the Rangers when they won it all. Nor have I allowed that goodwill to be erased by my new allegiance: I was an outsider, the Rangers’ Cup was special, and I will always see it that way.

No, I wasn’t there in ’98 when we got to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time. (Note well that I say “first time,” not “only time in our history.”) And while I admittedly don’t have any personal connection to that first conference championship, I also am removed from the agony of seeing us get swept out of the Stanley Cup Finals.

No, I wasn’t there for a lot of special moments in Capitals history. But I also wasn’t there for some of the many, many painful moments this team has suffered through the years. So I don’t know the Capitals to be a losing team.

What I know of the Caps is Alex Ovechkin, winner so far of the Calder, Hart (twice), Pearson (twice), Richard (twice), and Ross trophies. I believe, check that, I know, that he will one day add a Smythe to that trophy case of his.

What I know of the Caps is a team that has slowly built itself the right way. With mistakes, true, but always with an eye on long-term victory over instant gratification.

What I know of the Caps is a never-say-die hockey club that, with new blood behind the bench, went from an afterthought to a division championship, all in one season.

What I know of the Caps is a team that made “Don’t Stop Believin'” cool again.

What I know of the Caps is a team of promise, not despair; a team with aspirations of victory, not regrets of defeat; a team of the future, not the past.

I don’t look back and curse the heartbreak of seasons past. I look forward to a future that I know will see the Stanley Cup coming to Washington, more than once.

Kool-Aid? Rose-colored glasses? Alternate-colored sky? Foolish optimism? Say what you want, but I know our best days lie ahead of us. Because they certainly can’t be behind us.

And I think there are a lot of new fans who are in the same boat–new to the team, or perhaps the game, and thrilled to see a team on the rise. Perhaps, once the Capitals win the Cup, it will not be the end of the story for us post-lockout greenhorns. We will know a team that was built the right way, and reaped the ultimate reward for it.

That is the sort of thing that may well turn today’s newbies into tomorrow’s lifelong Caps fans. No, the Caps may never have Redskin-esque waiting lists. But I believe we will one day have a fan base that is just as dedicated, just as passionate, and just as committed to this team–win or lose.

No, we rookies weren’t around to see the heartbreak. What I have to wonder going forward is this: will the veterans who were, be around to see the triumph?

CAPITAL SPIRIT
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S MUSING

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