Can a Caps fan be frustrated by repeated postseason failures without giving up his fandom? Can an intelligent, rational, critically minded fan live and die – and, let’s be honest, mostly die — with every spring playoff series, and then come back for more the next fall without being a rube?
Tony Kornheiser evidently does not believe so; earlier this week the ESPN 980 host ridiculed Caps fans for being impervious to playoff failure. So I asked one fan about such an accusation.
“I would never think about giving up my tickets,” that fan told me. “It’s such a huge part of my life. Imagine having a kid that disappoints you; you’d never give up your kid. It’s kind of unconditional love.”
The reason I asked this particular fan why he keeps coming back, year after year, is because he happens to live in Kuwait City. Which is not a typical place for a Capitals season-ticket holder to live.
“It’s a major part of my life,” Sabah Al-Sabah told me this week. “Ask anyone who knows me, ask them for a word association. If you say ‘Sabah,’ they’re gonna say ‘hockey,’ they’re gonna say ‘Caps.’ “
Sabah, a 30-year old business owner, was raised in the D.C. area, where he attended high school and college and later got his MBA. He went to his first Caps game with his father in 1991, and that was good morning, good afternoon and good night. By 1992, they had a pair of season tickets. They moved with the Caps to Verizon Center. Eventually they got two seats in section 101 row L, behind the visitors’ bench.
Sabah began playing street hockey, and then ice hockey. He helped coach his prep team after he graduated high school. He amassed a massive collection of Caps promotional and giveaway items. He traveled for important playoff road games, like both Stanley Cup Finals games in Detroit in 1998. And he went to every single regular-season and playoff home game from 1992 to 2010.
But Sabah was in the country on student or work visas, and his Kuwaiti wife was ready to move home and start a family, so they decided the 2010 playoffs would be their last as D.C. residents.
Sabah had hoped that a deep run that season would give him “a sense of accomplishment,” maybe make him “not be so obsessed” with the Caps when he moved across the world. That, obviously, did not happen.
And so he still watches every Caps game, waking up at 2 in the morning for our 7 p.m. starts and then taking a brief nap before starting his day. (“When they win I’m ecstatic; when they lose, it’s silence and depression,” he said.) His office has a corner devoted to Caps memorabilia. He plays with a club ice hockey team – the Kuwait Mooseheads – and holds a party for the Caps’ opening day. And he buys an open-ended airplane ticket back to D.C. each spring so he can stay in town as long as the Caps are alive.
His wife and young daughter came with him in 2011 and 2012; this season, he came alone.
“She’s not very happy about being apart for so long,” Sabah admitted. “She was almost rooting for the Rangers, just to get it over with it. But she understands, not that hockey comes first, but that it’s very, very important to me.”
Had the Caps made it to the Eastern Conference finals, his wife and daughter would have flown over, “basically for emotional support,” he joked. Instead, he will fly back to Kuwait City alone next week, another failed playoff appearance in the books.
And sure, Sabah has theories on what he’d do to change the roster. Sure, the losses sting, which is why he hasn’t done much of anything this week. (“My friends understand; they just don’t talk to me for a couple days,” he explained.)
He’s not impervious, in other words. But he still can’t quit this team.
“You get upset, you get mad,” he explained. “And then you get over it and look toward next season.”
(Full disclosure: Sabah and I have mutual friends, though we’ve never actually met.)