Signing autographs is a regular part of being an NHL player. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

After a January practice, with most of his teammates already gone for the day, rookie defenseman Madison Bowey walked out of the locker room and stared down five wooden tables covered in red Washington Capitals sweatshirts.

“All of them?” the 22-year-old Bowey asked while smiling.

“Yep,” answered a Capitals staffer. “Every single one.”

Off Bowey went, black Sharpie in hand, tagging each sweatshirt with his signature: a wavy “M” to start, a few straight lines down the middle to give the autograph some weight, a smaller, squiggly “B” next to the “M,” and then his number, 22, to finish it off. He repeated it dozens of times, no one autograph exactly the same, but no one autograph noticeably different, either.

Autographs are a fixture of the sports world. There is always some crowd — sometimes a few people, sometimes a whole lot more — hanging in the Capitals practice facility, all holding jerseys or hats or posters, waiting for the players to come off the ice. The fans usually migrate to the parking lot by the players’ exit if their memorabilia isn’t autographed inside the rink. The players, along with stopping for these crowds when they have the time, consistently sign gear for charities and promotions and, occasionally, each other.

For veterans, it is a normal part of the professional hockey routine. For rookies and other young players, developing signatures can be a comical source of stress as they learn all the aspects of being in the NHL.

“I have the worst signature,” Capitals rookie defenseman Christian Djoos said while blushing and scratching his head. “It’s so, so bad. Sometimes I feel bad that it is going to hang on someone’s wall or something. I need to improve it.”

How?

“Practice,” he deadpanned. “More work in the summer, I guess.”

Djoos is right. His signature isn’t good, and there is really no method to it. He starts with a big “C,” then wiggles his pen to make a few waves that look like a heart monitor readout, then ends it with something that looks like an “S” but could be any letter. He also adds his number, 29, but it could really be anything depending on how you tilt your head.

“What is that?” Bowey yelled across the Capitals’ dressing room when shown Djoos’s signature.

“Honestly,” Djoos said through heavy laughter. “I have no clue.”

For three days in late January, Tampa became the NHL autograph capital of the world. That is where the league held its annual all-star weekend, and players did a lot more autograph-signing than they did skating or scoring goals. There were scheduled signings, jerseys to autograph at the end of each event, exchanges between players and then more signing after that. 

Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski, named an all-star in his second season, left Tampa with autographs from Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin, Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, and New York Islanders center John Tavares. Third-year Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Noah Hanifin estimated that he signed a few hundred autographs across the weekend — at least. This all led second-year Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brayden Point, one of his team’s four all-stars, to a realization.

“I have a pretty bad signature,” Point said. “Here’s the thing you need to balance: You need to have something fast so you can get to a lot of people, but it also has to be good because that is a keepsake for people. That can be really hard. I look at the veterans with all these swoops and loops. I want that, but I’m not there yet.”

The need to sign a lot of autographs in a short period of time is maybe why Djoos’s signature is reduced to a clump of illegible waves. Or why Capitals forward Jakub Vrana renders his last name with a big “V” and then a loop that does not resemble any of the letters that make up the rest of it. The 21-year-old from the Czech Republic, like many NHL players, signed his first autograph when he was a teenager playing in juniors. His signature has since evolved, dropping any hints of “Jakub” and adding his number, 13.

But Vrana is quick to point out that he doesn’t always use his number.

“I mean, come on, man,” he said, smirking. “I’m not going to write ‘13’ on there if it’s a form or contract or something. Only autographs.”

When discussing the finer points of his signature, like the fancy “M” or the hard-drawn lines in the middle, Bowey drops his voice a bit. He has a confession to make. He has been practicing his autograph since he was 12 years old, when he was a budding hockey and baseball player in Winnipeg with big dreams and a lot of time to kill.

He signed his first autograph when he was 15 years old, and it was just his name fully spelled out in cursive, like some kind of elementary-school handwriting exercise. It didn’t look right. It didn’t look cool. So Bowey continued to refine it, then refined it some more, and ended up with a signature he can repeat over and over without any stress.

“Maybe I thought there would come a day when people would want my autograph,” Bowey said. “But I don’t know if 12-year-old me could have possibly seen that far ahead.”

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