Even as they celebrated winning the Stanley Cup exactly one year ago last June 7, all smiles and hugs and jubilation on the ice at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the Capitals knew the moment was fleeting and precious.
It took 44 years for the organization to finally win the Cup. For Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, it was earned after a decade of playoff heartbreak. For Barry Trotz it came only after 20 years as an NHL head coach.
But even as the celebration raged, with thousands of Capitals fans in the building moving down to the lower-level seats to cheer as the players skated the Cup around the ice, all involved knew to hold on tight. The sights and sounds would soon enough be relegated to memory, stories told to those who were not there - or re-told over and over to those that were. Trotz said he already can’t wait for the reunions.
T.J. Oshie began crying before he even left the bench as the final buzzer sounded. In the crowd, his father, Tim, his lifelong coach, hollered for his son. Early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease was ravaging his mind and stealing these moments from him. Not today, though. Oshie fought back tears during a few media interviews on the ice before eventually finding Tim and embracing him.
“What a great human being, what a great man, what a great father,” Oshie said. “Some things slip his memory these days, but this one is going to be seared in there. I don’t think any disease is going to take this one away from him.”
Wander the ice and you saw dozens of unique stories playing out in the aftermath of the championship win amongst players and coaches, executives and staff. Over the summer most of them would get a day of their own with the Cup. Their kids would eat ice cream out of it, long-time friends would sing songs around it, towns big and small from British Columbia to Siberia would host it.
But that night in Vegas was pure chaos. Thirty minutes after the game ended, reporters were allowed onto an ice sheet soon crowded with family and friends.
Lars Eller’s father, Olaf, a hockey coach back home in Denmark, grabbed his son, who patiently listened for the millionth time as his dad told him how proud he was. Lars Eller was the first Danish player to win the Stanley Cup, which would eventually make its way to his hometown of Rodovre.
Evgeny Kuznetsov found his dad, also named Evgeny, in the madness and promptly slapped the snazzy gray-and-white Stanley Cup championship hat on his head. It was a long way from Chelyabinsk, Russia, the industrial town where Kuznetsov grew up and where his older brother, Alexander, died in 2003 during a May Day holiday celebration that turned violent. Every one of them had a back story that made the moment special.
Real life still intruded over and over again. Jay Beagle’s toddler son crashed to the ice and had a meltdown. He cut short an interview to soothe him. John Carlson’s kids, Rudy and Lucca, were better behaved as they took a big Carlson family photo with the Cup, multiple generations experiencing a lifelong dream.
Tom Wilson teased teammate Braden Holtby’s son, Benjamin, and the six-year-old took the barbs in stride. He seemed to expect it. Holtby then laughed as he saw his mom, Tammi, overcome with emotion and told her to take a breath.
The moments spun like a kaleidoscope. Ovechkin saw his old teammate, Olie Kolzig, the man who kept him in line as a young player during his first three years in the NHL, the last goalie to take Washington to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998. Ovechkin yelled to get Kolzig’s attention: “Olaf! Olaf!” Then the two men smiled and did a simultaneous fist pump. The ice was filled with such interactions.
Kolzig grabbed Holtby and fellow goalies Philipp Grubauer and Pheonix Copley and goaltender coach Mitch Korn for a group picture. Carlson and Beagle, teammates for nine years, found the Cup again and held it up together for a picture. The trophy moved around a lot over the 75 minutes from when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman handed it to Ovechkin until he finally kissed the Cup one last time on the bench, thanked the city of Las Vegas, and took it back to the locker room and his waiting teammates.
After the raucous locker room celebration, where beer was drunk and sprayed in equal measures, the team bus was off to dinner back at the hotel and then, as early risers back in Washington were just waking up, the Cup made its way through the MGM Grand Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. Ovechkin walked it past Caps fans and late-night gamblers and right into a hotel nightclub.
It all flashed by so quickly as life’s best moments do. Before they knew it, the Capitals were back in Washington for a wild weekend celebration that ranged from Arlington bars to Nationals Park to the Georgetown waterfront to Adams Morgan to DuPont Circle clubs.
By Monday, Holtby and Ovechkin were in New York for an appearance on The Tonight Show. Tuesday was the long-awaited championship parade up Constitution Avenue, one of the great parties in D.C. history.
Yet within a week, Trotz had resigned and taken a new job with the New York Islanders and Lambert and Korn went with him. Within two weeks Brooks Orpik and Grubauer had been traded to Colorado at the NHL Draft and within three Beagle had signed as a free agent with Vancouver. Orpik would soon return, but the group was already breaking up.
Throughout July and August, the Cup made its way from Washington to Moscow and everywhere in between. But soon the short summer was over and a new season - one that would not end with a title - had begun.
Within days the Stanley Cup will belong to someone else. The Capitals’ year with it is almost over. The party has moved on. What’s left are the memories and the stories of a magical playoff run that ended exactly a year ago in Vegas and that so many never thought they’d see.
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