In a Sports Illustrated column listing holiday gifts he’d give to each NHL club, what Darren Eliot offered the Capitals yesterday caught my attention: “A remote control to fast-forward the regular season because anything they do now is inconsequential. They will be judged solely by their playoff performance.” In sentiment it is identical to the view I offered in my season preview of the team back in October.
Games like Monday’s against Toronto lend credence to the view that the Capitals to some degree are struggling this regular season with finding an urgency of the moment. And the NHL regular season is set up to do just that. The moreso in the Southeast. I’ve pondered the possibility of this December 23, the Capitals’ opening salvo versus the Pens — a matchup that could pit nos. 1 versus 2 in the entire league — bringing a bit of renewed focus to our team. In essence, it could serve as a de facto Opening Night in a quest for meaningful hockey. HBO cameras are newly positioned to add significance to the Capitals’ pre-2011 labor.
Part of the problem is that there is no conceivable scenario by which the Caps fail to qualify for the postseason. Two teams from the Southeast look like likely postseason participants; the Caps of course will be one of them. There is the possibility, too, that the Tampa Bay Lightning could give the Caps a bit of a push for a Southeast title banner, but those have accumulated with regularity of late; like the President’s Trophy, I’m not sure what driving value another regular season feat has for this club.
So perhaps we look to the arrival of the Pens on the calendar as a launching pad for motivated hockey.
But there might be another cause for the Caps to get up a bit for the regular season grind: their standing in the local sports scene. To put it bluntly: they’re the only watchable pro game in town. Again. Every autumn in Daniel Snyder’s Reign of Terror there is a meltdown moment, when even the most loyal of the faithful recoil in anguish and disgust, and last Sunday in the Meadowlands produced that. L’Affair Haynesworth this week served up stale fruitcake as additional holiday offering for locals by the club. The Wizards we’ll take more seriously when they’re renamed and rebuilt. The Nats need their ace out of a sling, and Bryce Harper a regular in the lineup. It short, it isn’t pretty anywhere else you look.
The upset carried off by Montreal last spring did more, I think, than train-wreck a best-ever regular season for the icers — it halted a novel ascendancy for hockey here. Our city was so poised to fall so madly in love with a championship contender. The Caps deep in 2010, it seems to me, are being afforded a bit of a recount for Homecoming King.
The infrastructure for a special love affair is in place — you see it on every home game night, as mass transit reddens, Chinatown eateries become clogged with puck disciples, the sidewalks become overtaken with the Red Army. There was something intangible as a cultural moment about this past Sunday’s skate in the park by Capitals’ players and hundreds of fans that seemed to illustrate powerfully the team’s ascendancy here. It isn’t quite that other pro athletes here must hide in public from D.C. sports fans; it’s just that we don’t quite smile at their appearances the way we do for our Young Guns. It has been a startling sports culture transformation. Capitals players and management deserve an awful lot of credit for this achievement.
But it’s not enough.
Capitals’ players, by virtue of their youth and an interconnectedness with other athletes here, are like many of us fans of the Skins and Wiz and Nats. And they know the score(s). On some subconscious level at least they must also know the novel niche they presently fill. There’s so much more to be done with that.
Because they win and do so in highly entertaining fashion the Capitals have sold out their rink and occasioned a cultural transformation in the District. Hockey’s hip here. That’s swell; unfathomable 10 years ago, but irrefutable today. But there can be so much more. An inspired Capitals’ club could leave a seriously heavy footprint on Washington’s winter sports culture. Beginning immediately the Capitals ought to make it their mission to skate every game with both swagger and killer instinct. They cannot win every game, of course, but they do control their own destiny as it relates to passion and effort and drive. There should not be another single blown third period lead to an inferior club. Not one.
Don’t just win a lot — win with a character that bespeaks springtime success. This will convert even more masses.
Little Matty Perreault is a public relations godsend. He needs to live up to his end of the bargain, but if he does, lavish his game of playmaking wizardry and girl-swooning good looks on the local masses. He especially is a compelling photo-op at local elementary schools, perhaps leading floor hockey stick-handling clinics among schoolchildren not much smaller than he. Send him to the schools on off days with D.J. King or Jason Chimera, and allow the curious and uninitiated to see hockey’s marvelous diversity of physique.
This HBO involvement is serious business, too. It is highly likely that the 2011 Winter Classic, now just three weeks away, will emerge as the most hyped and talked about regular season hockey game in the history of professional hockey in North America. Maybe the most talked about and covered hockey game ever. HBO’s involvement in this story will do more for broadening hockey’s appeal — here and nationally — than anything NBC can fathom, for the imprimatur HBO sports documentaries offer contemporary sports is iconic. The Capitals can, beginning immediately, rise to this special moment and make sure that what the documentary cameras capture is special.
If they do so, Washington sports fans will remember, and respond.