The Stanley Cup arrived on the Capitals’ home turf Friday an hour and 11 minutes late. It was none the worse for wear after a night of partying in Las Vegas. It still shined in the afternoon haze on the tarmac at Washington Dulles International Airport. And it still belongs to Washington.
Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom carried it off a Delta charter flight at 5:11 p.m. Ovechkin held it over his head with both hands, Backstrom with his right. They juggled it briefly on the way down the steps from the plane, then gathered it and hoisted it on to a waiting bus. The Capitals’ party still wasn’t over.
After Washington’s first professional sports championship in 26 years — and the Capitals’ first championship in franchise history — was secured Thursday night, the Stanley Cup spent a night on the Vegas Strip.
Friday, it came home, where it was greeted with fanfare and a media circus, a potential indication of what’s to come as the city readies for Tuesday’s parade down Constitution Avenue.
Three local television channels carried the charter flight’s landing live. Two news helicopters flew overhead.
Upon landing, the plane taxied through a traditional water cannon salute from a pair of airport firetrucks. Two more trucks were parked on standby, as well as two ambulances and a police escort for the waiting buses.
Air traffic control workers stood in a grassy median between runways and clapped. News anchors cheered. Firefighters and airport police shook hands.
The event was closed to fans, to the disappointment of dozens that arrived to welcome home the team. Still, several walked feverishly between baggage claim carousels hoping to find incoming flights from Las Vegas.
Claire Altman, 20, of Sterling, sat with her family in the cellphone parking lot eyeing players’ cars parked on the other side of a chain-link fence. The family greeted players upon their returns from Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay and was hoping to congratulate the team in person on the Stanley Cup champions’ return from Las Vegas, where they beat the Golden Knights in five games, wrapping up the series Thursday night with a 4-3 win.
“We joked about wanting to do it last year and we never got a chance to,” said Michelle Altman, Claire’s mother. “But this year, they won and we don’t like Pittsburgh, so we really wanted to go. We hopped in the car and said, ‘We’ll see what happens,’ and it worked out.”
Tom Wilson and Braden Holtby came over both times to say hello. After the flight back from Tampa following the Capitals’ Eastern Conference finals win over the Lightning, Ovechkin brought over the Prince of Wales Trophy for the family to touch.
But the Capitals opted for a private arrival with media access at a distance. Players and coaches did not take questions and the team’s flight schedule was not made public. But the team flew the same aircraft as in past series. The Altman family remembered the tail number, part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s registry of planes and helicopters, and tracked the flight’s progress.
As players got into their cars and drove away, they honked their horns at the waving family and waved flags out the window. Ovechkin, seated in the back of an SUV, waved and pumped the Cup up and down.
A few hours later, the celebration moved to Don Tito, a restaurant in Arlington. Around 7:30 p.m., a black Chrysler Pacifica pulled up, carrying the Cup in the back. By that point, only three Capitals had made their way inside for a private party on the roof. That included T.J. Oshie and Matt Niskanen, who had endeared themselves to the fan base after riding the Metro together to Games 3 and 4. This time they took an Uber. Wilson followed a few minutes later. He re-emerged from the restaurant and walked out to the Pacifica, which was surrounded by swarms of fans. He lifted the Cup out of the case and carried it into the restaurant to a thunderous applause.
Players arrived on their own accord. Rookie Nathan Walker, who became the first Australian player to appear in the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring, initially was turned back by bouncers because they didn’t recognize him as a Capitals player. About a half-hour later, Evgeny Kuznetsov pulled his black Mercedes up to the side door of the building and carefully positioned his car at the curb as fans cheered on his parallel parking skills.
The crowd only grew as the sun went down. Red-clad fans brought their children and dogs to stake out the arrivals. Coach Barry Trotz arrived in a polo shirt and shorts just before 9:30.
As the players mingled on the roof, they were cheered by hundreds on the street below. Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly sprayed the crowd with champagne. “We want the Cup! We want the Cup!” chanted the crowd, before Oshie came to the ledge of the roof to hoist the trophy over his head.
It was finally home.
More from the Stanley Cup finals: