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What the Stanley Cup means: A fan's perspective

What the Stanley Cup means: A fan's perspective

It’s been 26 years since Washington last celebrated a championship.

Twenty-six long years.

Washington has four major sports teams yet none has won a championship since January 26, 1992 when the Redskins won Super Bowl XXVI. That’s an entire generation of fans that have never known a championship, that have never gotten to experience what we got to experience on Thursday.

I’m in that generation.

I fell in love with sports when I was three years old. My parents took me to a Capitals-Winnipeg Jets (the old Jets) game at the Capital Centre in Landover. I remember the chill in the air, the crack of the puck on the sticks and, most of all, the celebration whenever the Caps would score. It was incredible. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Back then, I didn’t know about playoffs and championships. The Caps played a game, they won or lost, you were happy or sad, and you moved on. When the Redskins won the Super Bowl, I knew there was a game being played, but I didn’t know what it meant. I spent most of the game playing with other kids while our parents watched. I didn’t know that was the football team I would grow up cheering for and I certainly didn’t know that would be the only experience I would have with a championship team.

Until now, that is.

Since that last Super Bowl, Washington fans have had to endure bad seasons, coaching changes, management changes, and heartbreak with the Caps, Redskins, Nationals and Wizards.

Through it all, you always heard the phrase “Same old Caps,” but it didn’t feel that way to me. Each year was different. Each year carried a new team with new hopes and potential. When each season seemed to end prematurely, it wasn’t just the same old Caps, it was a new heartbreak each and every time.

Have you ever tried to explain your fandom and emotions to someone who doesn’t like sports? It has to be one of the most infuriating feelings in the world.

“Why are you so upset? It’s just a game.”

“It doesn’t really matter.”

“There’s always next year.”

No, stop. You don’t get it.

It’s more than just a game. That’s why we see pictures of troops overseas with gear of their favorite sports team and watching games together. That’s why we see incredible stories of people like Amanda Wilson who continues to cheer on the Caps while getting treated for cancer.

For me, when I got married in 2013 and my wife wanted a June wedding, I made sure it was in the last weekend of June just in case the Caps made it to the Final. When my wife and I found out we were having a baby, she told me by laying out a Caps onesie for me to find. I made sure he had a jersey when he was born. I have a picture of him draped in it sitting on my desk at work.

It's more than just a game. And yes, sports can cause lots of heartache, but we accept those bad times because we knew that at some point, it would all be worth it.

On Thursday, it all became worth it.

All the years of heartbreak, forgotten. The struggles against the Pittsburgh Penguins? Forgotten. Jaroslav Halak? Forgotten.

None of that matters now because finally, finally the Capitals have brought a championship back to Washington.

This is a championship for all of Washington, but it is particularly special for Capitals fans. The Caps had to earn their place in Washington where the Redskins and Wizards are institutions. There were a lot of lean years for the Caps, years that made you wonder if this day would ever come.

But with Alex Ovechkin came interest, acceptance, validation and now a championship.

As someone who has been a diehard sports fan for all my life, to hear that this is not a real sports city, a "minor league" sports town as some have referred to it, I bristle.

You know what's not minor league? The devastation we all felt through the years after all the postseason heartbreak. You know what's not minor league? The absolute joy we all felt when Ovechkin finally hoisted the Cup.

You can't look at the streets of the city of Washington, filled with red, and say this is not a sports town. You can't look at Capital One Arena packed to the gills even when the Caps were on the road and say this is not a sports town.

My son has never known a Capitals team that has lost to the Penguins. He has never known a Stanley Cup champion other than the Caps. And that makes me smile. There's nothing minor league about that.

No, I personally didn't win anything. I wasn't on the ice, I didn't play.

But you know what? That jersey the Caps were wearing? It says "Washington" on it. This win was for all of us.

Washington is a city of champions once again. Enjoy it fans because you never know how long it will take to bring another championship home.

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

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USA Today Sports

The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

Tuesday’s practice was a lot like every other for the Caps until the end. After working on the power play, the team gathered at one end of the ice and began working on faceoffs. It was not just the centers, but wingers and defensemen alike got into the action with every win celebrated by loud cheers from teammates.

It should could as no surprise to see faceoffs as a point of emphasis for Washington considering just how much the team has struggled with them in the early season. The Caps rank 30th in the league in faceoff win percentage at only 43.8-percent.

“Yeah, there's little details that can help our game,” Lars Eller told reporters after practice. “The more you have the puck, easier the game is gonna be for you. We have a little more time in between games than usual during the season here, so we have the time to work on something like that, which can be little things that makes the difference.”

The team as a whole watched video on faceoffs prior to practice and then worked as a five-man unit during the drill. The main point of emphasis head coach Todd Reirden wanted to drill into his players was that faceoffs are not simply the responsibility of the centers alone.

“The days of it just being center vs. center and a clean draw being won back are a rarity now so it's important to have all five guys helping, something we watched video on earlier today,” Reirden said.

“You ask any centerman if they have a good group of wingers that can help them out on draws, that makes a huge difference,” Nic Dowd said. “I've been lucky, I have [Devante Smith-Pelly] on my right and I'm a righty so I win all my draws my backhand side so a lot of pucks go his way and he wins a lot of draws for me. That's huge. You have a guy that's sitting over there that's sleeping, you could go easily from five wins to five losses and then that's your night. It makes a big difference.”

Faceoffs were always going to be more of a struggle for the Caps this season with the departure of Jay Beagle who was, by far, the team’s best faceoff man for several years. Whenever the team needed a big draw, Beagle was the player relied upon to win it. With him gone, it is no surprise to see the team struggle.

But the Caps don’t like the idea of keeping possession off a draw just 43.8-percent of the time.

“It's essentially like the ref is creating a 50-50 puck and you snap it back, you get possession, now you're forechecking and it makes a huge difference,” Dowd said. “You play against those top lines, they want to be in the O-zone. Well, if you lose the draw, now you're playing D-zone, you win the draw now you're playing O-zone. So effectively, you've shut down their shift.”

There is a school of thought suggesting that perhaps the importance of winning faceoffs is overrated and a team’s faceoff win percentage is not overly important. Eller himself admitted as much to reporters.

What no one can argue, however, is that while some faceoffs may not matter all that much, there are some that are hugely important in a game. The Caps recognize that. For them, being a strong faceoff team is not necessarily about improving the team’s win percentage, but more about being able to win those critical draws.

“It's something that for the most part the players understand and a neutral zone faceoff with 14 minutes to go in the first period is not nearly as important as one that's 5-on-6 at the end of the game,” Reirden said. “We all know that. It's important to put the right people on those situations and give them the best chance to have success.”

“A center ice draw, I could see where guys could make the argument, well you lose it you still will play hockey and stuff could still happen,” Dowd said. “But I think the game is such a possession game now that any opportunity you can win a 50-50 puck whether that's a faceoff or a board battle, it makes a huge difference.”

 

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

Like it or not, the NHL is becoming younger, louder, and more personable. And as its young stars begin to gain leadership positions, the demand from a younger subset of fans grows larger: Make hockey fun again. Let players have personality on the ice and off, be it through social media engagement, game-day fashion, or creative goal celebrations.

Some say that hockey was always fun. True, to an extent. 

Minute per game minute, you arguably can’t find a faster, more action-packed major sport. But among the North American leagues, and internationally, the NBA still dominates on Twitter activity and in its social media. 

One of the biggest factors that helped basketball succeed in the social age wasn’t the NHL’s commonly preached conformity.

The NBA found huge success in marketing its star players as larger-than-life, letting them have public personas that tied into larger, richer narratives spanning careers, teams, and decades.

Superstar Auston Matthews, the up-and-coming 21-year-old face of American hockey, has taken note, citing NBA star Russell Westbrook’s individuality as a source of inspiration in a recent GQ feature

He’s well met by former USA National Team Development Program teammates Jack Eichel, who was recently named captain of the Buffalo Sabres; Dylan Larkin, Detroit’s hometown darling who’s stepping up as an assistant captain for the Red Wings; and Matthew Tkachuk, who’s also wearing an A in Calgary.

It’s not only the born and bred American youngsters who are ready to stand out. The team responsible for the resurgence of the debate about how much fun is too much is none other than the Washington Capitals, whose summer celebrations led to the ban of the legendary Cup Stand.

Though the publicity of their championship celebrations was revolutionary, the Capitals hold more promise in amount of fun per sixty. After a title win, their petty grudges are only transforming into a bold sense of self-confidence.

Alex Ovechkin is already a superstar on a mission to grab the attention of all the boys and girls and babes in the hockey world. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s interviews and celebrations reveal a player growing into the spotlight, ready to embrace a downright devious kind of skill against his opponents. Braden Holtby is already a league-recognized style icon whose meticulously chosen plaid suits and well-groomed beard have woven into the hype of game-day coverage. And Nicklas Backstrom is finally smiling on-camera.

(This isn’t even mentioning highly polarizing figure Tom Wilson, whose aggressive approach on the ice has earned him the marking of a player everyone hates unless he’s on their team.)

If the NHL wants to appeal to new viewers, it can gain ground by marketing its stars outside of a bland, monotone mold for success. 

With high-scoring, chaotically delightful games that happen almost every night all across the continent, an audience needs something to anchor them.

Individuality isn’t a bad place to start.

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