Business on Ice, Monkey Business Off It
By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 1998; Page B1
You see only small bursts of emotion on the ice the hugs after a goal, a fist pumping in the air, shouts of encouragement from the bench. Mostly, the Washington Capitals are businesslike during games, 20 men skating around under plastic helmets that shield them from both injury and the outside world.
That is how it is on the ice. That is not how it is behind the doors of the Capitals' dressing room. On the ice, players duck if they see a puck screaming toward their faces. In the dressing room, they are lucky if they make it to their locker stall without being hit on the head with a flying bagel.
"Walking into our room is like walking into a fraternity house," right wing Brian Bellows said. "It's one of the few jobs you can have where they pay you like men and you play like kids. What other job can you have for 16 or 18 years where everything is open and you don't have to hide anything? The emotions are all out there with us."
When Washington faces the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, it will be the first time the Capitals have played for a championship in their 24-year history. The Eastern Conference finals was the farthest they had been in eight years, and longtime observers of the team say it is no coincidence that this is the first season since then that players have seemed so close to each other.
They are like any clan, each member with his own personality and role in the group dynamic, but the support they've developed for each other off the ice is part of the reason they have been playing so well when the helmets go on and it's time to be serious.
"This team is very unselfish, and that happens on teams when players start to believe in themselves and have success," Coach Ron Wilson said. "Maybe it's rare, but the guys are close enough that no one cares that one guy scored the game-winner and another didn't or that he's playing more minutes than he is. Everyone just wants to win, and they're having a really good time."
On paper, they don't appear to have too much in common, a diverse group of veterans and youngsters; Americans, Canadians and Eastern Europeans; practical jokers and astute businessmen; men who own Harley-Davidsons and men who own car seats. But the combinations work, fueled by veterans such as Bellows, Esa Tikkanen and Joe Reekie, who have the ability to ease tension with a few key words. While Bellows often provides wry commentary, players agree Reekie is the team's funniest stand-up comic. His stage is often the team bus, where he provides running commentary on the people he sees on the street or, in one case, imitations of teammates' parents. Tikkanen is more likely to deliver sharp sarcasm, and no one including Wilson is safe. Sometimes his targets strike back, as was the case when players took Tikkanen's dress shirt and tie out of his stall a few weeks ago and dropped them in the therapeutic whirlpool in the training room. Tikkanen ended up leaving MCI Center in just a T-shirt that night, and his shirt and tie, stiff after air-drying, now hang like pieces of cardboard in the locker room; he is too stubborn to take them home.
"We had a quiet team most of the year, and that's why we brought in guys like Tik and Bellows, because they have a lot of self-confidence," assistant coach Tim Hunter said. "They helped break a barrier, sort of. It freed up a lot of the other guys to let themselves go.
"Tik is obviously a character, but then you have guys like Dale Hunter, who looks like he's quiet, but he's just as much. On the ice, he's in your face and he's a growly old guy who wants to win, but then again he's as big a kid as anyone on the team. Craig Berube is the same way. These guys are your pluggers, they don't play as many minutes anymore, but they work every shift out there. Back in the room, they have the respect of all the guys."
Right wing Peter Bondra, always a scoring force, has become more of a leader in the dressing room this season, joining center Michal Pivonka in providing guidance to Yogi Svejkovsky, Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik, younger players from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Their animated discussions often dominate bus rides, even though most of their teammates can't understand what they are saying.
"On the bus rides, they sit right behind the coaches," Tim Hunter said. "It sounds like you have five guys trying to drown blub-blub-blub but they are almost always laughing. These guys are living clean, but they're enjoying their youth, too. Look at Yogi off the ice, he has a Corvette convertible, Buli has a custom-made Harley and Zed just bought a new BMW. The older guys all have trucks."
Dale Hunter's truck, in fact, can be found in the parking lot of the practice facility, up on blocks as the result of another practical joke. When players aren't stealing each other's hubcaps, however, they are often tinkering with Harley-Davidson motorcycles. A group can usually be found at a local bike shop after practices, and although leather jackets are the official uniform, a few players have gotten more creative.
"Joe [Juneau] and I decided to ride to practice one day, so I went to pick him up, and he is wearing this Caps T-shirt with the sleeves cut off so he sort of had those wing-things," left wing Chris Simon said recently. "Then he had a pair of lime green shorts, all rolled up, and I'm howling. I said, 'Joe, if we're going to hang out and be buddies, we have to work on your Harley look.'‚"
A few of the other players are more fashion conscious, including center Adam Oates, who has started a second career as a clothier. Considered the team's consummate businessman, Oates owns a fine clothing store in New York and has started Old Time Hockey, an apparel line that benefits the NHL's emergency fund. Oates's Old Time Hockey baseball caps have practically become required wearing for players when they do television interviews, but Oates does more than just clothe the rest of the team.
In a more quiet way than some of the other veterans, he is often found dispensing wisdom to his younger counterparts, especially defenseman Sergei Gonchar, whose locker stall is nearby. Gonchar also seeks counsel from center Andrei Nikolishin, who he has known since the pair played hockey together in Russia. They are just a year apart in age, but Nikolishin, a father of two at 25 years old, is one of the team's more mature players.
Other relatively young players such as Ken Klee and Steve Konowalchuk have sought advice from each other, as each has become a first-time father in the last six months. Buddies Brendan Witt and Jeff Toms stick more to pop culture, with Witt as the resident music critic and Toms as king of the movie reviews.
With a decent sprinkling of young players on the team, veterans such as Todd Krygier, Kelly Miller, Mike Eagles, Jeff Brown and Pivonka have seen some of their playing time reduced because of injuries or age, and often, players with diminished roles can sour the entire team experience. But on this team, coaches say those players have helped team unity with their hard work and positive attitudes. In contrast, defensemen Calle Johansson and Mark Tinordi have logged lots of ice time, and Phil Housley has been the key point man on the power play. They have remained steady throughout all the work, "like Norm Peterson guys at the end of the bar," as Bellows describes them.
Such a mix of voices and styles is not so unusual in today's NHL, but the Capitals say they are combining those elements into one big group, not several smaller ones as they have in years past. Even the goaltenders, who separate themselves on some teams, seem fully integrated in Washington.
"Some guys are lippy, happy-go-lucky, always chirping and talking it up, other guys are quiet, but really when you get them going, they're the same way," injured winger Pat Peake said during a recent road trip. "We're not a moody team at all. You'd think you'd have guys come in [angry] on some days because you see all these guys 191 days in a row, but it's just not like that.
"There aren't really cliques anymore, either. Everybody would feel comfortable going to a movie with every guy, and it wasn't always like that."
"We do a lot more together now," Witt said. "I mean, on any team you're with each other most of the year, and it becomes your family, but here it's even more than that. We're really backing each other up, and that brings you some success out on the ice. Everyone has a different role here. We have guys who are grinders, guys who are hitters, guys who are speed guys, and we have that off the ice, too. It all just works."
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