There’s a large segment of the DMV sports population that I would consider bigger Washington Capitals fans than myself, and a large percentage of that group is white people. So I know several people see me pull for the only hockey team I’ve ever been able to name more than five players from, and think I’m a bandwagon fan riding this recent success to the joy of a championship season. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
I’m a first generation Capitals fan. Like many African-Americans, I didn’t grow up in a household that cared for hockey. As anyone with vision can see, people who look like me aren’t well-represented in the sport. And unlike basketball, which started white before diversifying – therefore attracting viewers of all backgrounds – hockey has always been white. So drawing black fans can prove to be somewhat of a challenge. But I chose from a young age to root for all D.C.-area teams (aside from the pro football team), so over the years I’ve watched plenty of Capitals hockey games, playoffs or not.
That being said, hockey is my fourth favorite sport, and I’m more a Capitals fan than a hockey fan. So in the pecking order of my sports interests, hockey always came after the Wizards, Nationals, New York Giants, and the NBA and NFL in general. So no, I don’t remember the Caps’ 1997-98 playoff run and eventual sweep in the Stanley Cup Final the way I do the Bulls’ win over the Jazz that same year, when I was going on 11 years old. And although I do remember Peter Bondra and Olaf Kolzig being my favorite players at that time, my knowledge of what held those teams back isn’t up to snuff. But I do remember the recent Presidents’ Trophy-winning teams, and this year’s squad gave me a feeling they didn’t, a feeling best described through the city the Capitals play for.
Before this year, the Capitals reminded me of the white collar professionals and politicians of Washington, D.C. Somehow they eleveated to the status of something akin to blue blood without ever actually earning it through postseason success. They were often the favorites entering each season, and their style of play matched; it was rich, finesse, preventative, soft. This year’s team more resembled the working class folks of chocolate city however, the generational families of D.C. fighting tooth and nail to make a living and remain in the city. These Caps scrapped to keep pucks inside the blue line. They put shots on goal from anywhere on the ice and out-skated, if not out-willed, their opponents to rebounds. They seemed to hit more often and with more aggression than teams’ past, and they put their bodies on the line – like Devante Smith-Pelly in Game 7 of the Conference Finals – the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good of the team. And this was all done in a more disciplined manner, taking minimal penalties and capitalizing on power plays.
This Capitals’ championship means the world to the thousands of Capitals fans around the world who have been waiting for this moment since 1974. It also means a lot to the thousands more D.C. sports fans that have been waiting for a championship since the Redskins brought one home in 1991. But the meaning of this championship goes even deeper because this team wasn’t as favored to be here this year. And against another team that exceeded expectations but quickly ascended to become the Golden Knights child of the NHL world, the Caps played the role of underdog and kept winning. And in doing so, they represented a class of the city that can relate to and appreciate the story line of struggle more than the one any previous team could’ve provided.