Downtown Washington turned red Thursday afternoon and evening, as fans turned out in unprecedented numbers to watch Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals.
The area around Capital One Arena was packed for blocks in every direction; fans queued up in massive lines outside bars, restaurants, sandwich shops and liquor stores. They filled the G Street watch party between 7th and 9th Streets hours before the Washington Capitals began their quest to clinch their first Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, thousands poured into a different watch party inside the arena.
Inside the arena, fans roared during every pregame clip of the Capitals, roared during every near miss, roared during the first intermission when Caps broadcasters led a round of “Let’s Go Caps!” chants. When Washington killed a second-period power play, the noise inside the arena was earsplitting. When Jakub Vrana scored on a breakaway moments later, the noise was … what’s louder than ear-splitting?
Outside, the fans weren’t just 20-somethings shotgunning beers. There were senior citizens and adults in work clothes and a whole lot of people wearing red.
As the final horn sounded, giving the Capitals a 4-3 victory over the Golden Knights and their first Stanley Cup championship, fans watching the game inside Capital One Arena stormed the court that hours earlier had hosted a WNBA game between the Washington Mystics and Minnesota Lynx. Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose” blared through the speaker system.
Outside the arena, pandemonium reigned from the moment Lars Eller scored the decisive goal with 7:37 left in the third period.
Fans hugged strangers. Fans high-fived police officers. Cab drivers stopped in the middle of the street to take pictures. Fans stopped in the middle of the street to scream. One fan got his head bandaged by paramedics and then went back into the swarm.
The scene was mayhem, the soundtrack of horns everywhere, honking in rhythm.
Dwain Watts, 34, was at the National Portrait Gallery steps not long after midnight, holding up a copy of The Washington Post’s street edition. He was just a kid the last time the Caps went to the finals, and said this felt like redemption. When asked what he thought this meant for the city, he replied: “Everything.”
“Look at it,” he said. “Look at it!”
His friend, Aaris Johnson, said the win left him in tears. He was already planning a trip to a tattoo shop to commemorate it.
“I’m so happy right now,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
“D.C. is alive,” said Zack Vinson, 29, of Ashburn.
“Unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” said Mark Creamer, 22, of Gaithersburg.
There were other large watch parties elsewhere in the city and in suburban outposts, too. But the epicenter was in Chinatown, where it felt (and smelled) like Mardi Gras during the biggest party of these playoffs. There were long lines to gain entry to every restaurant and bar in the neighborhood, and those who didn’t want to wait for a table lined up at Walgreens and drank openly in the street. Fans stood on trash cans and bus stop benches to get the best possible views of the screens.
Crowds kept streaming into the area long after the game started, and officials closed a portion of Ninth Street that had previously been open to traffic during the second period. The fans standing in that area couldn’t even see the game broadcast; they were packed in behind one of the giant screens.
Calvin Gidney, 13, stood near the front of the crowd, wearing a red shirt and a hockey helmet. He held a sign that read, “One More Win.”
“I don’t know how to describe it,” he said when asked what a Caps win would mean. “Literally, like six months ago, I had a dream about us making the Cup. It’s just been a long time since D.C.’s had a championship.”
That was part of it; none of Washington’s major pro sports teams had won a title since the Redskins’ Super Bowl triumph in 1992. The weather played a part, too; it was mild and beautiful, with temperatures in the low 70s.
And so fans poured into the city: at National Harbor and the Bullpen outside Nationals Park, at the Wharf and the U.S. Navy Memorial, at town centers in Fairfax County and Montgomery County, and inside every bar and restaurant within blocks of the arena. The Avalon Theatre in Northwest, Washington’s oldest operating movie house, canceled a screening of “Book Club” so staffers could watch the game. Friars wore Caps jerseys at the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast. WMATA buses carried the message “GO CAPS!” and schoolteachers wrote about the game on their whiteboards.
It’s not exaggeration to say there had never been a night quite like this in the District. When the Bullets won a championship 40 years ago, the team was based in Maryland. When the Redskins were winning Super Bowls, Chinatown was a far different neighborhood, and the Washington area a far different region.
And so even casual sports fans had to be a part of this. There were those who came in work clothes simply to check out the wild scene, and others who just wanted to see what the hype was about.
Eyerusalem Gebremeskel, 21, was one of those fans not decked out in red.
The Silver Spring native isn’t a big hockey fan, but a group of friends she knew from high school at St. John’s in Northwest wanted to come down and watch, and she didn’t want to miss out.
“Even though I’m not a big sports fan and I don’t know much about hockey, it just felt like if you’re from the D.C. area, this was the thing you couldn’t miss,” she said. “It’s like a party down here. There are so many different groups of people walking around, watching. It’s really powerful to see that sports can do that.”
“It’s beautiful,” said Bobby Parrish of Virginia, an hour from his 30th birthday. “This is incredible. I mean, I’ve grown up being disappointed and yet I still come back. Sometimes I don’t know why. Until it finally happens. It’s why you wasted so many years supporting this team. I mean, it’s so rewarding.”
After the win, Liam Rucker, 22, stood in the crowd not far from the Portrait Gallery steps, and said he was in “disbelief.” This was something he never thought would happen for this team, he said.
“I still don’t,” he said. “I can’t believe this happened.”
“There was that familiar Washington doubt, but not this series,” said Patrick Amerena of Frederick. “We just had a feeling about this time that we’d close it out.”
“The demons are gone.”
Travis Tuthill, a 20-year-old Caps fan from New Jersey, stood outside Capital One Arena at around midnight, holding a sign that said, “Worth the Wait.”
“What happened last year, against the Penguins, I swear, I thought, I genuinely thought, I would never, ever see this happen in my life,” he said.
So was it worth the wait?
“Oh my God,” he said. “Absolutely.”
Wes Johnson: ‘Let’s have a party’
Event staff stood over boxes stacked chest high in the first row of bleachers over the boards in the corner. Inside were hats and T-shirts, the same ones Capitals players wore on the ice at T-Mobile Arena. They were selling fast.
Among the buyers: Wes Johnson, the public address announcer famous for unleashing the fury. As the clock rolled past midnight, there was no fire left in his belly, he said. He was a teddy bear of handshakes and hugs.
“We did it,” co-workers said again and again and again, which kept him on the verge of tears.
“When the fans stormed the court, I said, ‘No, get back.’ But why bother?” he said. “Let’s have a party.”
Johnson took over Capitals public address duties 18 years ago, and each year, the team was felled by some demon that felt familiar: the Penguins, the Rangers, a stupid penalty, a shot off the post, bad puck luck.
“Tonight they weathered the adversity,” he said. “They fought back, and they got a scrappy win.
“I don’t even know how to feel,” he continued. “I laughed, I cried. I mean, everything. To look up there and be able to see Ovechkin lift that trophy, that makes me emotional.”
Don’t go to the airport, fans
From Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority: “The Caps are Stanley Cup Champions! Please do not come to the airport to greet the team. There will not be public events at the airport & fans who arrive will be turned away by police. The @Capitals are working on a victory celebration for everyone. Thank you and GO CAPS!!!”
The streets go quiet
Around 1 o’clock, street sweepers hummed around the corner of the city block police cordoned off for fans. Bars began letting out, and the Metro — with its service hours twice extended — closed for the night. Left was a city strewn with the debris of revelers: newspapers, beer bottles, fast food wrappers and the occasional flip flop. By 1:30, the night of the Capitals’ first championship was complete. All that was missing was the Stanley Cup, and the District was assured it was on the way.
Read more of the Post’s Stanley Cup finals coverage: