For Mike Gartner’s night of honor the Verizon Center filled early and filled conspicuously red. The Hall of Famer who wore no. 11 for 10 seasons here stood at center ice near 7:00 last night and informed the hometown fans that the team competing before them today was as strong as any Caps’ team “in decades.” Mike Gartner, he who skated during the ‘Save the Caps’ campaign of dark yesteryear, came back home to Washington last night and delivered a very important message: this was a very different organization from the one he grew up in.
“I really became a hockey player here,” he said in his ceremonial remarks. But in his 10 seasons with the Caps Gartner never got to see hockey take hold in Washington as it has now.
Gartner’s state of the Caps’ union message was one echoed by the visiting television broadcast outlet, LeafsTV. Toronto of course is an organization that cannot tear down and rebuild as the Caps have the past five years, as badly as they need to, but the thoughtful among their media can appreciate what’s been achieved here. During the first period of the Caps’ 4-1 victory over Toronto, the team’s third straight win and their eighth triumph in their last nine games, the visiting TV channel ran a graphic outlining General Manager George McPhee’s talent haulings in the NHL Entry Draft since 2002. The graphic was titled “Patience and Brilliant Drafting.” I couldn’t listen in on the audio portion of the telecast from the Verizon Center press box, but the graphic seemed to linger on screen a while, as if for emphasis.
Until there is a Cup raised here HockeyWashington cannot earn any certificate of greatness, but the Caps indeed are building what from every vantage appears a lasting legacy of elite competitiveness. With their victory last night the Caps moved to 12 games above .500. The last time they were there was with last season’s Southeast-clinching triumph over Florida in the final game of the regular season. Remember when some in hockey this past summer wondered what the Caps would look like with Bruce Boudreau behind the bench for a full season? All of hockey is finding out. And from Nicklas Backstrom to Simeon Varlamov to Oskar Osala to John Carlson there’s every reason to believe it’s going to get better.
Part of erecting a first-class hockey organization is creating a formidable and respect-generating atmosphere at home. Visitors to Verizon Center, in addition to encountering now nightly filled stands, are finding out that the Caps are simply great at home today: now 15-1-1 in the Phone Booth on the season. First-class organizations well defend their homes. The Caps are doing that and a whole lot more.
In these present very good times it seemed to me last night important still to hear positive testimony about the legacy of HockeyWashington’s past. Among many memorable and endearing video comments offered by Gartner’s teammates of 20-plus years ago last night, Ryan Walter had a warm holiday time of year message for Caps’ fans: “You hold a special memory in the Walter family. I loved my time in Washington, and I love coming back.” It seemed to me an important reflection to be heard by the mostly very young Capitals’ skaters of today, of whom so much is expected in what remains of this decade.
With Sunday night’s addition to the rafters the hockey banners in Verizon Center are now beginning to acquire a breadth of regal quality. Visiting players will look up and see not just the numbers but the images of Langway, Hunter, and Gartner, Hall of Famers largely, rather than rafter filler (Dale belongs there too, and not because of his stats.). For too long there’s been a space-filling quality to too many of the banners hanging up there. Sunday night was about changing that a bit, too.
From the looks of things these days, more are on the way.