When a hockey season is inexplicably left in tatters, underachievement its calling card, again, we who follow it with passion grasp at plausible explanations. A missing roster piece here and there. Leadership deficiency. Inexperience. Key injuries. What about the room — chemistry?
The latter portion of the summer of 2011 has delivered credible and troubling assessments about the Washington Capitals in a macro sense, bringing to surface a facet seldom analyzed in failure’s shadows. Two recently departed Capitals addressed these concerns — ones of organizational culture.
With the passage of Labor Day weekend I was closing in on an authentic missing of hockey, my frozen spirits close to being rejuvenated. This was the toughest summer for me to date in quelling concerns I’d long suspected and developed about the core of this hockey team, and Tuesday morning brought about a renewal of them. I hopped aboard my Metro train this morning with a copy of today’s Washington Examiner. The newspaper informed me of the manner in which no small number of Washington Capitals inaugurated the holiday weekend here:
On one level, it’s patently unfair for me to react to the story as I instantly did (“Great, the barflies are back at it.”). Problem is, there’s a context for consuming this account, and it’s unflattering: these Capitals Young Guns are no strangers to hard partying — it’s been richly illustrated in social media snapshots by hockey fans patronizing the watering holes at the same time as the players. A few bartenders read this blog, too. If Lord Stanley had christened a chalice for the hockey team that annually celebrates the best, these Washington Capitals would be dynastic in winning it.
At issue here isn’t some tee-totaling sensibility relative to millionaire professional athletes. My own opinion is that when it comes to puck sodas and pucks, beers aren’t the exclusive prerogative of beer-leaguers; I’m well versed in the role that spirits have played in locker rooms and player gatherings across generations in our sport. The Boston Bruins went on a big-time bender early this offseason — but after they’d won the Stanley Cup.
Additionally, there seems something manifestly healthy about a hockey team regularly hanging out socially with one another. And heck, given the chance, many of us probably would love to buy our hockey heroes a beer if we saw them out and about in Georgetown or Arlington. (Though for a few of them, Michelob Ultras.) But I probably speak for at least a few fans in suggesting that we’d really like to buy them a round after they actually won something.
With respect to this past Friday night’s party outing as alluded to in the Examiner, I’ll stipulate that everything was carried off in moderation (the roll call of the depleted bar shelf notwithstanding), that no player left the nightclub unsafely impaired. Still, because this is the Washington Capitals, winners of nothing, ever, and because this band of Young Guns really does know how to put playoff disappointments behind them real fast, and get about the business of partying, I have an issue with merely the optics of this moment. Show up for training camp fat, as some millionaires in red did a year ago, and yes, going top shelf to the tune of four figures (or more) is fair game for criticism, at this moment, with this underachieving bunch. Put another way: This is probably not quite the offseason activity proscribed by Gary Roberts. (A champion)
(Why don’t we ever hear of a single Capitals player training with Roberts, as Tampa’s Steven Stamkos does, in the offseason?)
When our Elisabeth Meinecke chatted up Brooks Laich this summer about his offseason training regimen, she didn’t get the sense that he was devoting many evenings to the top, middle and bottom shelves of booze at bars. And it was with that account also in mind that I got ticked off by this morning’s story. I’m tired of reading about the underachieving Washington Capitals in our newspapers’ society pages, building up barfly tabs. Instead, as with Lis’ piece on Brooks, I want to read about barbells being lifted, not shotglasses. A legion of losing — and most especially looking seriously out of shape while being vanquished — will breed such cynicism. Beginning immediately, I want to hear no more discussion from national television announcers about problems with Nick Backstrom’s skating. There’s nothing wrong with his skating — he looked quite mobile while amassing 101 points in 2009-10. But he also looked quite fit then.
To address in greater detail another important context for this story: In addition to more than a few local hockey fans taking to Twitter with photos and accounts of encountering Capitals’ players out partying hard about town at conspicuous times — like the night before a matinee game — this summer we also learned of some insiders’ perspectives about the culture of the Washington Capitals. A couple of the team’s top-line performers last season were, relative to preceding seasons, conspicuously out of shape — claims supported by departed Capitals Matt Bradley and Dave Steckel. (At a media availability today Alexander Ovechkin told reporters that the team had already been instructed not to discuss the Bradley comments.) There was discussion of players missing practices (more than a few) with “dubious” injuries. Talk to any old school reporters who’ve covered this game a while and that’s often code for hung over.
I was one who in the middle of last season identified what I regarded as a troubling culture that had formed around this hockey team: they weren’t shy about being seen out celebrating life lavishly; they talked a good game about winning when it mattered — most particularly with training camp t-shirt slogans; and when more springtime shortcomings followed always there seemed, from management in particular, a fixation on injuries as excuse. I also thought way too much attention was paid to the Alexander Semin component of Bradley’s remarks and way too little to his indictment of team culture. The Capitals may or may not thrive with Semin a member of the club; they most assuredly will not if what Bradley intimated about preferential treatment, Ovi’s conditioning, and dubious practice absences is true and allowed to continue. This team badly needs a change in culture still, I maintain, and that begins with optics.
I think we could all agree: there’s a real difference between blowing off steam with your office mates with a few cold ones after work and ordering not merely top-shelf liquor on an outing on the town but all of the booze on the shelves below as well. No one who has closely followed the Capitals in recent years could profess to be surprised by the Examiner’s account today. That in and of itself is troubling.
If I were the head coach of the Caps, I’d have introduced the team to Blue Moon — warm — on the plane ride back from Tampa this spring. They probably would have hit the wagon the entire offseason.