After I finished walking through the world’s biggest handshake line with 30,000 of my new best friends, after I strolled through six or 10 or 20 blocks just crammed with the happiest people you’ve ever seen in your life, after I came the closest I might ever come to experiencing weightlessness, carried up or down or I’m not sure which way by some pulsating force of positivity, I was left with a thought:
So this is what it feels like.
So this is what it feels like when the last game of the season goes the right way. So this is what it feels like when the zillions of hours you spent somehow feel worth it, when the eight-way parlay comes in, when the Powerball hits, when there isn’t a single what might have been. So this is what it feels like when a city wins a championship.
And eventually, I just sat down on the sidewalk for a bit, a long bit, at which point a woman named Martha Dippell came up to me, leaned down, and said “We won the Cup.” She said it many times. She wasn’t wrong.
Dippell is a Caps season ticket holder, a native Washingtonian, someone who went to Caps games in Landover, someone who attended all four Joe Gibbs Super Bowls. Thursday night, she made her millennial children come downtown after the game, and then she made her way to the top of the Portrait Gallery steps because that’s where she needed to be, and then she stopped to talk to me, because every stranger seemed to be doing that.
“Let me just say, we’ve been so starved,” she said. “So starved, as a community. And it’s so important for our community to come together, for there to be a common bond.”
We don’t have a lot of those bonds; it feels like there are fewer now than before. And so it was around that time, as cars drove past me honking and fans walked past me screaming and Washington enjoyed the least minor-league-sports-town day in the history of days, that I started thinking about the first time Caps fans made me tear up.
That was on New Year’s Day in 2011. The Caps were in Pittsburgh for the Winter Classic, and just about every Capitals fan in the Eastern time zone had decided to join them. Everywhere you looked, there were Caps sweaters. Everywhere you looked, there were hugs. Everyone wanted to say hi, to glom onto that giant mass of red. Everyone knew everyone else, and even if you actually didn’t — I didn’t — you still sort of did.
Seeing that weird, half-tipsy, absurdly happy mass of fans create their own tiny world, their own haven, their own community — “it makes sports fandom seem a little less irrational,” I wrote in the middle of the night. Pretty sure I shed a couple tears as I typed in my hotel room. Maybe I was tired.
It happened again Thursday night. Times 10. Times 100. Times a billion. “D.C. is alive,” a fan named Zack Vinson told me, and it felt that way, like a squishy wriggling organism, six or 10 or 20 blocks just curling up and then unfurling into something I had never seen before. It sizzled through you, opened your eyes wide, made you forget everything else in the world. It was intoxicating, and I wasn’t drinking. People standing on cars. Cabdrivers stopped in the middle of the street, taking photos of the madness. Group singalongs. People chanting and gleefully cursing and asking if what just happened had really just happened. Honking horns, so many honking horns, the happiest honks. Mobs dancing on parts of buildings you didn’t know existed, accompanied by musicians who appeared out of nowhere, smiling and smiling and also smiling. Men ripping off their shirts. Glass crunching underfoot. People of every color you’ve ever seen slapping hands.
That was the best part. The high-fives, I thought as this was all going on, were the part I would never forget: everyone high-fiving everyone, high-fiving police officers, high-fiving people cruising by on bicycles, high-fiving people hanging out of car windows, high-fiving strangers, and even if you were holding a notebook, you were sure gonna accept those high-fives. There were blocks and blocks of this insanity, and it was entrancing.
But it was also exhausting, being with 30,000 or 40,000 friends you had never met, and so finally I sat down on the sidewalk — right outside City Center, at 9th and I — took out my computer, and started calling my actual friends. Because none of this is about Brett Connolly or Lars Eller or even Devante Smith-Pelly, really. It’s about all those people I met in Pittsburgh.
So I called Jim Miller, a guy my age from Prince George’s County, whom I had hung out with that New Year’s Eve.
“I fell down,” he said, when I asked how he reacted to the win. “I fell down and started crying. I couldn’t even stand up. I couldn’t stand up. I have been so emotional this week, I could not even drive. I would have to pull over on the side, just thinking about what could happen.”
I called Sgt. Major Bob McDonald, the absurdly devoted Washington sports fan who’s been singing the anthem at Caps games for a quarter-century. He was in Las Vegas, he told me. He had just hugged Nicklas Backstrom’s dad.
“It’s such a release, Dan,” he said. “It’s going to take so long to really sink in, but it feels amazing. Just a relief. They can never take it away. We won the Cup. I can’t even believe I’m saying it. Trust me, I was not the only Caps fan who was in tears.”
“You need a source for tears? I got a source for tears,” said J.P. Klingenberg, walking by, overhearing my phone conversation. He had watched this game with his dad. They had attended so many crushing, soul-rending losses together. They were together again on this night, and the thing had happened, and so of course they cried.
“I’m the dog that caught my tail,” Klingenberg said. “What do I do now?”
I called John Auville, one of the Sports Junkies, who’s loved the Caps so much for so long that it almost makes you hurt to hear him talk about it. He had just returned home after a trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods in the middle of the night, where he spent $400 on Caps championship gear. His late father, he told me, had turned him into a Caps fan. Then he did the same with his kids. They cried, too.
“Just an outpouring of emotion,” he said. “My daughter was crying, I was crying; we were hugging. It was just elation, is the best word I can think of.”
Why, is the question. Why did they all feel like that? Why were all these people using the same words: relief, release? Why the tears? Why that irrational gurgle of joy that made so many people hug whomever was there for the hugging?
“You know what, being able to quantify why anything that happens in sports has that effect on you is almost impossible,” said William “Goat” Stilwell, perhaps the best-known Caps fan, when I got him to break off from a party that was still going strong at 2 a.m. “For me now, after all these years, it’s a communal thing. There are so many fans I have gotten to be friends with over the years, so many people I’ve seen at the absolute depths of their despair. And to be able to see everyone smiling after the final game of the season, it’s hard not to get swept up in that kind of emotion.”
Look, that win mattered for a million different reasons, to a million different people. There are the 20-something D.C. sports fans who’ve never seen a title, never experienced a night anything like this one. There are their parents, who do remember the Super Bowl titles but wanted to share a parade with their kids. There are the admitted bandwagoners, who just wanted to go crazy in the middle of a paralyzed, exultant city. There are the people who remembered the Bullets title, 40 years ago to the day, who had been waiting for the Capitals to hang the best kind of banner.
But the people I was thinking most about were the Caps fans who had been through so many of these nights together, the people I had seen or talked to after the Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh, or the Game 7 loss to Montreal, or the other Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh, the people who remembered all the blown series leads, all the blank stares, all the emptiness. Put aside some of the other D.C. sports wounds; the Capitals torture was easily in a class of its own. It’s the dullest cliché of the week, but it really is true: All that waiting made Thursday night more glorious. That’s not to say the losses were good. But the exhale sure was.
And at the same time, through decades of agony, of near-misses and unimaginable disappointments, the die-hards were drawn together. Many of these lunatics actually do know one another. They’ve gone through the heartbreak together. They created a community whose primary bonding agents were red sweaters and pain. A Stanley Cup eventually started feeling like a mirage, something that would never happen. I can’t tell you how many people I heard Thursday night say they still couldn’t believe it, that they wanted to see the Cup in person, who spoke of this all with confused wonder.
“Some of us are saying maybe it was CGI, maybe it was special effects,” Stilwell said, and maybe he was joking, but I don’t think so.
So this thing they had spent years, decades dreaming about? It actually happened. That deep breath they had wanted to expel for as long as they could remember finally whooshed into the streets. All the jokes are over. All the taunts don’t work. All the worrying is gone. But not just for them: for their dads or their daughters, their grandmothers or their brothers, for the people they sit next to in the arena, the people they meet at the Penn Quarter Sports Tavern, the people they spent that night with in Pittsburgh. The people I spent that night with in Pittsburgh. It was a shared release Thursday night, no matter when you became part of the community.
“I love you so much,” Stilwell’s mother said to him as we chatted. “I’m so happy for you.”
“Oh, it’s delightful,” he replied, and here we were, two guys in their 40s, just talking about the various delightful things that made our city suddenly belch up a rollicking party in the middle of its downtown. All the people texting me, all the people sending me messages — “greatest moment of my life,” one read, or maybe 10 — all the people wanting to high-five my hand, all the people coming up to me sitting on the sidewalk, just wanting to talk about the Capitals: They were sharing something. That’s what made it so fun.
“Where else in society do you see people high-fiving random people in the streets?” asked 30-year-old Jeremy Gurvitch, who stopped to talk to me, because every stranger did. “To see everyone coming together, everyone loving and celebrating together, it was amazing.”
“I got to watch with my family, including my dad, and that was the most special part,” wrote Becca Henschel, whose father, George, was an original Caps season ticket holder. “It’s an incredible feeling. Like a ton of weight being lifted. It’s hard to describe.”
I met a group of 30-something friends from Falls Church who had gone to watch Alex Ovechkin’s first training camp together, and now they were here together for this, and they hugged and hugged and hugged, and some of them had cried, too.
The whole thing was hard to describe, just as Pittsburgh was, but they were two nights of my life I won’t ever forget. Everyone on those streets was on your team, was your neighbor, because everyone had just gone through the same thing together — 10 or 20 or 30 years of a thing — and now they were left with an emotion. That’s what this whole enterprise is about: that emotion pouring through those six or 10 or 20 square blocks Thursday night.
“Even though this really doesn’t have an impact on real life, even though it doesn’t have an effect on our everyday lives, it’s beautiful,” Stilwell said. “Sports in general are a silly business, to get wrapped up in the achievement of things other people do. You kind of question it once in a while. But when it brings you this kind of joy, you tend not to scratch under the surface too much. You just ride the wave.”
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