Matt Bradley signed with the Washington Capitals in mid-August of 2005, news that was buried in a Washington Post story about Dainius Zubrus. The Lithuanian had signed a two-year contract that made him the team’s highest-paid forward and “a cornerstone in the team’s rebuilding process,” according to the Post.
Bradley, meantime, was relegated to sharing a sentence in the fifth paragraph with fellow free agent Jean-Francois Fortin.
Well, Zubrus is long gone. Fortin is long forgotten. And neither man’s departure was greeted with quite the nostalgia caused when Bradley signed with the Florida Panthers last week. Before his departure, Bradley and Alex Ovechkin were the only Caps who started the 2005-06 season in D.C. and never left. Now, there’s just one holdover from that very different time.
“Let’s just say it wasn’t hard to get a ticket at Verizon Center,” Bradley joked this week, when I got him on the phone for a few minutes. “We weren’t very good, and we didn’t win many games. We didn’t get a ton of fans to the games. It’s hard to remember back then; now all I can remember is what it’s like now, how loud our fans are, the sea of red and all that stuff. My buddies used to joke, they’d come to games and they’d be the only guys in the section, them and Ovi’s brother. I don’t think that happens anymore.”
Yeah, probably not. And while it’s easy to love Ovechkin — his highlight-reel goals and his national endorsement deals and his SportsCenter fame — appreciating Bradley was sort of the indie rock element of Caps fandom, an inside secret shared by true believers. The Bradley fans loved both his two-goal game facing elimination in the 2009 playoff series with the Rangers, and his penchant for slamming his face into the fists of larger men while standing up for teammates. They loved his straight-faced cracks to the media, and his Professor Bradley science-of-hockey bits for the team’s TV show, and his dressing-room recycling program, and his willingness to pick up the metaphorical trash on a team that sometimes had too many consumers and not enough garbage men.
This all created the NeedsMoreBradley Internet meme, and the cult following, and the hollow regret when Bradley departed with virtually no fanfare amid last week’s bounty of new additions.
“Maybe they liked to watch me bleed, I don’t know,” the winger joked, when I asked about such fan support. “I tried to always give my all, tried to play physical and stand up for my teammates when that was needed. If that’s what the fans enjoyed, then that’s great. I loved playing for the Caps, and if they enjoyed watching me play, that makes it extra special for me.”
Which is not to say that Bradley was broken-up back home in the Ottawa suburbs, crying into his sofa cushions over his departure from D.C. On the contrary, he already spoke of the Panthers in the first-person, saying his career might have “run its course” in Washington, that the Panthers were “changing the atmosphere” in their organization and that he was looking forward to more ice time and a greater role in Miami.
“I think I’ll have a better opportunity in Florida to play more and contribute more, and that’s all you can ask for,” he told me. “Sometimes if you’re with a team a long time, you kind of get stuck in a little bit of a rut. To go somewhere else with new opportunities is very exciting. And there’s worse places to live in the winter than Florida, you know.”
That’s all true enough. And I understand, too, the need for the Caps to keep things fresh, to shake things up, to upgrade their talent the best way they see fit. There just aren’t too many D.C. athletes that had Bradley’s combination of longevity, honesty, wit and humility. Chris Cooley and Mike Sellers, maybe. Clyde Simms perhaps. Brooks Laich. That’s about it.
And it’ll be awfully weird to see Bradley skating around Verizon Center next fall, bleeding on the wrong colored sweater.
“I’m a Florida Panther now,” Bradley said, when I mentioned how strange that reunion would be. “I’ll play every team the same. It’ll be a great challenge for us coming into the Verizon Center, because the Caps are the team to beat in the Southeast. They’re a good measuring stick for us.”
For us. Sigh. And so instead of sticking up for that one holdover from the fall of 2005, will Bradley now be hunting for Alex Ovechkin on the ice?
“I won’t run into Ovi,” the professor told me. “He’d hurt me, I think.”
(Also, with Bradley gone, my “Bloggy” nickname may be permanently retired from the Caps dressing room. I did ask him what the blogging scene was like in South Florida.
“Hopefully if we can win some games and create some more interest, it’ll pick up,” he said. “Then maybe they’ll move the number one Bloggy in the USA to Florida.”
Hey, I hear the winters are nice there.)
(Images by Post photogs Toni L. Sandys, John McDonnell and Rich Lipski.)