Hours before the Washington Capitals took a three-games-to-one lead in the Stanley Cup finals last week, I drove through the neighborhood I grew up in, down the hill my friends and I raced bikes on, around my old back yard — the scene of hundreds of football games — then past my driveway with the basketball hoop.
I nearly ran into my neighbor, Michael, home from grad school and riding his bike. I pulled over. We shook hands and hugged and grinned silly grins, because before I could say, “Congratulations on your master’s degree,” we were talking sports like 8-year-olds. And we knew this would happen. These have been our conversations for 20 years.
Until Thursday, my entire generation — “the Loss Generation,” my editor calls us — had never seen a major D.C. professional sports championship. And here were the Capitals, up two games to one, playing a Vegas team that looked like it’d been run over by a truck. We were giddy, and we talked around what it would feel like if they somehow managed to pull off two more wins.
A couple of days after Washington nabbed one of those wins, I started calling around to my old neighborhood friends and my twin brother. We’re all 23. All born and raised D.C. sports fans. All long-suffering, without knowing any alternate existence.
We weren’t really hockey fans growing up, but we’d find sticks and knock a tennis ball around every now and then.
“Think back to when we were 8, 9, 10 years old,” I said. “What would you tell your younger self about being a Washington fan?”
“Switch teams,” said my brother, ever the pragmatist, over a beer. “This is f—ed.”
Frankly, he wasn’t wrong. Of the 30 seasons combined among Washington’s three biggest professional teams between 1994 and 2004, when I turned 10, only 13 were winning seasons. And after that came a string of Wizards and Capitals heartbreaks, Redskins dysfunction and Nationals futility, followed by their own postseason ineptitude.
“I probably thought every sports team wins a championship every now and then, but that’s clearly not the case in the D.C. area,” my friend Andy said when I asked the same question. “After a while, I gave up.”
In fact, the only one of us who never faltered in his faith was Michael, who used to watch sports standing a foot from the television while jumping up and down with his arms flopping by his sides. The commercial breaks that I used to collect myself and avoid emotional breakdowns he’d use to try to squeeze in a game of H-O-R-S-E, which I’d inevitably lose.
“You figured we’d win one at some point,” he said. “Ovi is so good, you’d think the puck would bounce his way. And then Bryce would hit one and Strasburg could pitch in the playoffs. You just had to keep the faith that one of these years it would happen.”
And then the Capitals beat the Columbus Blue Jackets. And then the Pittsburgh Penguins. And like salmon instinctually swimming upstream, we all tuned in, knowing deep down that it was against our better judgment, but hoping beyond hope this year would be different.
And then it was different. They won the Cup. There was a parade. I was there. Michael was there. I walked inside the fence line on Constitution Avenue from 23rd Street to 7th. I saw people my age hugging each other, drinking well before the lunch hour, skipping work. I saw people my parents’ age opening windows in office buildings and hanging out of balconies.
At some point during the playoffs, likely after beating Pittsburgh, they all started believing again. And they all knew better.
That’s the phenomenon I didn’t understand about me and my friends. We’d seen the Capitals lose to Tampa Bay before. We’d seen every Washington team lose before, for literally our entire lives.
And then, sure enough, the Caps lost three straight games to fall behind 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals. Here we go again. But we all kept watching, as if we had some evidence they could turn the series around, despite four decades of them not turning the series around.
I just didn’t get it. You know the definition of insanity that politicians like to throw around? “You do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.” That’s what Washington fans did for so many years.
But then I drove past my house, and saw Michael, and my old basketball hoop, and we talked like school children, and I called his parents Mr. and Mrs., the first time I’ve used those titles to address other adults in I don’t know how long.
This is my theory: These Caps made us feel like kids again.
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said in the lead-up to the deciding game of the Stanley Cup finals that his team had played for the Cup before hundreds of times, thinking about those make-believe games growing up, and the situations kids dream about.
Well, we were those kids, too. We played for the NFL’s Lombardi Trophy as Patrick Ramsey and Chris Cooley, the NBA’s Larry O’Brien Trophy as Popeye Jones and Brendan Haywood, MLB’s Commissioner’s Trophy as Ryan Zimmerman and Alfonso Soriano.
“Think about the amount of jerseys we’ve gone through,” Michael said.
Now here was a team living out our dream, one reenacted in my driveway and back yard thousands of times.
Me, my brother, Andy, Michael, we all prepared for this moment in our own way, just like John Carlson and Devante Smith-Pelly and Braden Holtby. We’ve taken the last shot, made the winning save. We’ve experienced winning and losing championships.
So it was crazy to think we all wouldn’t watch the playoff run. It was crazy to think, after the Capitals won the Cup, we wouldn’t know how to celebrate, how to throw a parade, how to shake hands and say good game.
Maybe members of the “Loss Generation” haven’t waited idly their entire lives for this moment. Maybe every day at recess or at the park or the rec center has been a dress rehearsal for right now.
Maybe we’ve all been actively preparing for two decades in anticipation of this.
“You have to wait for that one time,” my brother said, now more nostalgic after finishing his beer. “Because that one time will be so awesome. The tidal wave of emotion will be so much bigger.”
Maybe my generation wasn’t lost at all. We were just looking for a team to finally take the hint: We’ve been ready.
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