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  Fans Cheering Hard in a Losing Cause
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 1998; Page B1


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The hockey game that Washington fans had dreamed of for a quarter-century ended in a nightmare yesterday as the Capitals lost their first home game in their first trip to the Stanley Cup finals.

"I'm extremely disappointed, but you've got to keep hope alive," said Tom Boger, 19, of Columbia, who left MCI Center with his four-foot-tall Godzilla doll, the fans' symbol for goalie Olaf Kolzig. Many fans suspected that the team, which had never come so far in the playoffs, suffered from Stanley Cup jitters.

"I think they were just nervous in front of the home crowd," said Mark Kaldmaa, 31, of Falls Church.

But Kaldmaa's friend Bernita Harris, 34, of Manassas, like many fans, was confident of the outcome of Tuesday night's Game 4 in the best-of-seven series: "They're going to win the next game," she said.

As they left the arena, fans showed that they had not lost faith in their hard-luck team. They cheered and chanted, "Let's go, Caps!" And they were philosophical about the team's poor showing so far in the finals.

"I'm ecstatic that they're just in the Stanley Cup," said Harold Dittinger, 51, of Arlington. "I shed a few tears when they made it. I've been waiting a hell of a long time for this."

During the game, emotions got out of hand only rarely. One woman was arrested after a fight erupted among several Caps and Red Wings fans in the upper deck at the end of the second period. Another woman's arm was broken and two men's faces were bloodied in the scuffle, D.C. police said.

Fans began converging on the neighborhood around MCI Center more than two hours before game time. They piled into sports bars in the area and played slap-shot games set up on F Street in front of the arena. They promenaded up and down the sidewalks in their Caps jerseys, carrying signs and inflatable Godzilla dolls, trading good-natured jeers with bands of Detroit fans wearing Red Wings red. It looked like a street festival.

"It feels like New Year's Eve," said Richard Brown, 45, a lawyer from Potomac. "I've never seen so many Caps fans here so early."

The street theater included paying off outrageous bets.

A sheepish David Strzalkowski, 25, a math teacher from Buffalo, carried a big sign that said: "I'm a Sabres fan who lost a bet. Go Caps!" He was wearing a Caps jersey and planned to carry the sign for the whole game, following the terms of the bet with his friend, Kevin Hanigan, 23, a mortgage banker in Washington.

Hanigan knew he had taken a chance. If the Caps had lost to Buffalo, he would have had to do the same at the first Stanley Cup game there. "Because of our history, I thought I was making a road trip to Buffalo," he said.

Instead, here he was attending an event he hardly dared to hope for.

"It's unreal," Hanigan said. "I didn't imagine it would happen. This is the most unbelievable [hockey] series of my life."

Detroit fans were out in force, outnumbering the Caps fans who journeyed to the Motor City to watch the first two games there. And the Detroit fans seemed determined to live up to their reputation as ambassadors from one of the great hockey towns. A loud scrum of more than a dozen people in Red Wings jerseys, some with faces painted red and white, took up position in front of the main entrance to the arena and chanted "Let's go, Red Wings!" and "Sweep, sweep, sweep!"

At first, Caps fans seemed stunned and curious at the display. Then they seemed to lose their inhibitions,and they responded in kind: "Let's go, Caps!"

Gregg Davis, 25, a firefighter from outside Detroit, flew into Washington yesterday morning with three friends. He had the name of his team painted in red on his shaved head.

"I shaved my head and painted it just for the game because the Red Wings are just too sweet," he said.

Inside the arena, on the main concourse by the concession stands, Dave Belaski, 44, and Brian Jackson, 33, both of Mount Airy, Md., were dismayed that their fellow Caps fans weren't bursting forth with more team spirit as they streamed through the turnstiles for the team's historic first home game in the Stanley Cup finals. They chalked it up to inexperience. This was something new for Washington fans.

"We've been walking around trying to get cheers going," Belaski said. "I don't think the Caps fans know how to react to the Stanley Cup. They're nervous. They're tense. So we're trying to get them charged."

The two friends started chanting "Let's go, Caps," and before long, other fans picked up the cry and the concourse rang with the howls of people getting the hang of living in a hockey town.

Jackson, who started rooting for the Caps in 1974, the first year of the franchise, admitted he still was getting used to having the Caps in the Stanley Cup finals.

"You have to pinch me," he said. "I still can't believe it."

Lisa and Tommy Deyo, of Prince William County, deployed their four-foot inflatable Godzilla in the tunnel to Section 102 for a fierce greeting for fans.

"It's just exciting to see everybody so pumped up," Lisa Deyo said. "This hasn't been a hockey town."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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