Our Caps correspondent, Brad Parker, returns to light your fire for the rest of Caps-Rangers and beyond. You won’t regret reading this one.
You know those stories where our hero has a goal, a dream really, something amazingly unattainable that normal people like you and I would never even consider trying to achieve. They work their whole life with singular focus and eventually, against all odds they get agonizingly close to realizing their dream when for some reason beyond their control it gets ripped away and our hero is left with the knowledge that it was all in vain.
This is not one of those stories. If anything, this is the exact opposite.
The running “joke” outside of our nation’s capital is that there were no hockey fans in D.C. before Ovechkin got drafted. Obviously that’s not true, but it’s not incredibly off-base either.
Maybe it was Peter Puck teaching me the basics when cartoons were the best way to get vital information into my brain.
Maybe it was going to a Capitals practice and having Mike Gartner flip a puck over the boards and into my hand.
Maybe it was going to Peaches Records & Tapes (it was kind of like an iTunes that you could walk into) to get Scott Stevens’ autograph. I remember hanging out after pretending to flip through the LPs, watching his every move. Eventually he called me over by name and asked me if I wanted a pennant. I was in awe.
It was probably all of those things combined with many others. By high school I was hooked. Me and the boys would head to Cap Centre for as many games as we could afford.
I went to college in small-town Colorado and was the only person in town wearing a white replica Caps jersey all day for every playoff game. Superstition is way more important than style. I worked at the campus TV station which meant that I had the keys and access to the satellite. My roommate Scott was the only other guy in Durango that gave a crap about the Caps. On game nights we’d grab a few beers, sneak into the station and fiddle with coordinates until we found a feed of the game.
After school I moved back to Maryland and eventually got a job working at a local news station. Technically I was in news but I spent all of my free time with the guys in sports. That really paid off in the spring of ’98 in the form of a press pass to every game of the playoffs. They didn’t need much help so I’d usually do a little pregame grunt work and then watch from the press box. Sometimes they needed me after, usually they didn’t. Basically, I worked for about 30 minutes and got to see the games for free.
That was the year the Caps made their run to the Stanley Cup finals. The first three games were all decided by one goal, but of course Detroit won them all. On June 16, I headed to MCI Center just hoping that the Caps could stay alive, steal one and make it interesting. There was no larceny in Chinatown that night. The Red Wings dominated from the start and completed the sweep.
The loss meant less coverage and no work for me postgame. I wandered down to ice level with the crew. They waited outside the Caps locker room, but I kept walking.
The next thing I knew I was on the Red Wings bench as they skated with the Cup. I watched as Vladmir Konstantinov, who had been paralyzed in a limo accident days after winning the Cup with the Wings the year before, was wheeled onto the ice to celebrate with his team.
I stood in silence as the team filed off the ice and stormed to their locker room. After a few seconds I walked down to join the crew in the Caps room. I got to the door and there was agonizing silence behind it while the party of a lifetime could be heard down the hall. I paused and made a brilliant decision, I turned left.
The door to the Detroit room opened and I walked right in. No one noticed or cared as I joined the party. Around the room champagne and beer were flowing, the hugs and high fives were non-stop. Then I saw it. The most famous trophy on the planet was in the far corner. Guys were taking pictures with it, Konstantinov had it in his lap while surrounded by Russian teammates. Then players started filling the Stanley Cup with champagne and passing it around to everyone in the room, everyone. I watched, not believing that this was happening. I’d never played a game of hockey in my life yet I was in the room celebrating with the Stanley Cup. Could it possibly get any better than this? Well, yes it could.
Slava Fetisov had the Cup in his hands, champagne spilled over the rim as he turned and handed it to the person next to him … that’s when it happened.
I’m a superstitious guy. Not superstitious enough that it guides my life, but superstitious enough to drive my wife crazy some times. I’ve been known to change shirts, or TVs, when my team’s not playing well. I know I have no control over the outcome, but I do it anyway.
Hockey is a sport filled with superstitions. One of the biggest is that you don’t celebrate with the Conference Championship trophy because it’s not the one you really want. Usually the captain will skate over, take a picture with the trophy and skate away. On June 4, 1998 Dale Hunter taunted the hockey gods. Not only did he pick up the Prince of Wales trophy, he skated with it like it was the Stanley Cup (go to the 3:45 mark to see it happen). Five Caps treated it like Stanley before Brendan Witt took it back to the locker room. Washington didn’t win another game that season which directly led to me watching the Red Wings celebrate on June 16.
All of that was in my head as Fetisov offered me a drink from the Stanley Cup. I also knew that you’re not supposed to touch the Cup until you’ve won it. Fourteen years later I am keenly aware of the fact that I don’t play in the NHL and will never win a championship, but at the time that subtle nuance escaped me. I mean, don’t you say “we” when you talk about your favorite team? So as that once in a lifetime chance presented itself, I shook my head and said, “No thanks.”
I stayed for a few more minutes and then walked out of the MCI Center alone onto the silent city streets. Every season I think this is the year the Caps will finally win it all. And deep down a little part of me believes that when it happens somehow Ted Leonsis will quench my thirst and let me take that belated drink from hockey’s chalice.
Previously by Brad Parker: The First Game 7 In Capitals History