In the end, the fans threw their seat cushions — because of course they did.
Was it a conscious homage to the Redskins’ playoff win over the Falcons in 1992 — a game that featured a celebratory hailstorm of seat warmers at RFK Stadium? Maybe that doesn’t matter. Because D.C. sports fans were euphoric over a nationally relevant D.C. sporting event at a D.C. stadium. This isn’t the sort of thing that happens every day.
So after the Washington Capitals won the Winter Classic with that Troy Brouwer goal with 12.9 seconds left, fans flung their seat cushions into the air and did all the other things you do when you’re celebrating a regular season win that feels much grander than that. They hugged each other, with limbs swinging wildly — a special occasion kind of hug.
“It feels like we won the Super Bowl of hockey right now,” Richie Strick, 34, said moments after finishing up one of those hugs with his girlfriend. “I don’t even know what to say. This is the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long, long time.”
They talked about their city and how much they love it.
“Look man, I’m born and raised in D.C.,” said Chris Jones, 23. “There’s nothing like this, a sporting event like this. There’s nothing like seeing the hometown crowd in Washington, D.C. It’s electric.”
And then they wandered toward the exits at Nationals Park, shouting, “That was so awesome!” to nobody in particular.
“It feels like the closest D.C. sports can get to a postseason win,” said A.J. Janas, 31, the shouter in question. “It’s that big.”
You might think the fans were blowing this out of proportion, these two points gained in January, a hundred days from the postseason. You might say equating a regular season win with playoff success is the stuff of sad-sack loserdom. But listen to what the players themselves were saying after the win — which included one burst of euphoria when Brouwer scored and another moments later when the 3-2 score went final.
“It’s a big relief,” Jay Beagle said. “When a game gets hyped up this much, both teams want to win so bad. There’s so much media attention. . . . To get that goal with 12 seconds left, the bench erupted. It was awesome.”
“When that final horn sounded, I think we might have taken even too long celebrating,” Eric Fehr said. “We probably should have got in there and shook hands a little bit earlier. But this game was very emotional.”
“I’ve probably said it four times now: We were screaming so hard in the huddle I almost passed out,” Mike Green recalled. “I could only imagine what the fans were doing.”
What they were doing was letting off steam from one local disappointment after another. Think about the biggest sporting events this city has hosted in recent years. The Nationals have gone 1-4 at home in the playoffs, with two of those games — Game 5 in 2012 and Game 2 in 2014 — unforgettably painful. The Wizards were a revelation last spring, but they went 1-4 in their home playoff games. The Redskins’ last home playoff game began the franchise’s latest death spiral, with Robert Griffin III blowing out his knee as the Seahawks won in a rout. The ACC men’s tournament came to town in 2005, but Maryland lost its first game and failed to make the quarterfinals
And the Caps’ record in their biggest home games goes without saying; the most recent was the 5-0 Game 7 disaster against the Rangers in 2013. There weren’t a lot of hugs in the stands after that one. And if anyone was throwing promotional items, you probably wanted to duck.
Which is why even before Brouwer’s heroics, there was so much hope in Nationals Park on Thursday, such longing for something special.
“Is this not the biggest event in D.C. for the last 10 years?” William Roberts of Centreville asked. “It’s incomparable to anything we’ve had.”
“I’ve done some really cool stuff, but this certainly is at the top,” said Bob McDonald, the Caps’ longtime national anthem singer, who sang Thursday’s anthem with the U.S. Army Chorus. “It just checks off a box for anyone who loves hockey. And for a Nats fan, to be in this park just feels so right.”
“It’s once in a lifetime,” said Kasey Alexis, 29. “To be able to be here and watch our team in our city. . . . You want to win, but at the end of the day, being here is what matters.”
That was harder to say the longer the game remained tied. The crowd — at least where I was standing — got quieter as the game went on. The Unleash the Fury montage, which played with about nine minutes left, prompted just a mild roar. The “Let’s Go Caps” chants floated off into the chill; maybe $16 spiked hot chocolate doesn’t rile up the vocal chords in quite the same way as arena beer.
Then came Brouwer and the celebration, as crazily exuberant on the ice as it was in the stands.
“It was kind of like an old Capitals celebration,” Nicklas Backstrom said with a grin. “I mean, when we were a little younger, we used to jump around.”
“Hard on the old heart when you do that as you get older,” Green cracked when told of Backstrom’s remark.
Indeed, a 3-2, last-second win primes the blood pressure a bit more than a 5-0 blowout loss. That’s a trade-off Washington sports fans likely would accept.