Dave Widner was at an Elton John concert at Capital One Arena last month when his eyes wandered to the rafters and his mind flashed forward to a night he wasn’t sure he’d ever get to experience.
“I thought, ‘That’s where they’ll probably put the banner,’ ” Widner, an original Washington Capitals season ticket holder since 1974, said of the ceremony to honor the first-time Stanley Cup champions he will attend Wednesday with 18,000 of his red-rocking friends. “I just had to pinch myself. We really did it.”
After a summer of revelry, the Capitals officially turned their attention to the 2018-19 season when training camp opened last month. By most accounts, players were less tense than in previous years, the weight of past playoff disappointments washed away by the franchise’s first title. Captain Alex Ovechkin shared his tongue-in-cheek goal for the coming campaign, a riff on what he told reporters at the start of last season, when expectations for the Capitals were as low as they had been in years: “Not suck back-to-back.” Fans like Widner are more relaxed, too, and as Washington prepares to begin its title defense, the still giddy fan base’s mantra might as well be, “It’s all gravy, baby.”
“In previous summers, I’d say I needed a break from hockey, but this year it was all different,” said Widner, who gleefully followed the Capitals' travels with the Stanley Cup. “I’ve basically been thinking about hockey all summer, and I think I’m going to be even more excited this year. I’m not expecting them to do it again, but I also don’t think they’ll sit back on their laurels."
“This summer has been extraordinary,” said Daniel Mintz, a season ticket holder since 1976. “For me, it was like an itch that was scratched. If they win some more, that’s great, but this satisfied a great need.”
Mintz said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Capitals struggle to find their legs early in the season. After all, they played 24 additional games during the playoffs and only recently stopped partying. In previous Septembers, the Capitals’ sluggish and uninspiring preseason might have prompted consternation among the team’s loyal supporters. This year, it’s mostly produced shrugs and provided another reason — as if fans needed one — to re-watch Lars Eller’s game-winning goal from Game 5 of the finals. “The Washington Capitals are Still Stanley Cup Champions,” reads the breaking news module atop the Capitals' SB Nation fan site, Japers' Rink.
“I’ve already seen a lot of tweets where people are like, ‘Hey, we won the championship, who cares?’ ” said Ian Oland, founder of the Capitals fan site Russian Machine Never Breaks. “And I’m with them, to be honest. I’ve been watching the team since 1994 and last year was literally a dream come true as a fan. I’m never going to get to the same level of angst that I was last year. I don’t think I can ever reach that level ever again in my lifetime.”
That’s probably a good thing, even if angst and disappointment were quintessential parts of the experience of being a Capitals fan for so many years.
“The thing that was so amazing about rooting for the Washington Capitals is not that they didn’t win the Stanley Cup, it’s that they kept getting into the playoffs and losing in awful fashion,” Mintz said. “It was worse, it was tougher.”
Grace Cohen, another original season ticket holder, sat through most of the Capitals' season-ending losses over the last five decades. In June, two months after celebrating her 90th birthday, Cohen rode in a bus as part of the Capitals’ championship parade down Constitution Avenue. “I can now die happy,” she told a television reporter afterward.
“Really, after 44 years and going on 91, I didn’t know if I could last another year,” Cohen, who will attend Washington’s home opener with her son, said last week. “I think they’re going to win again, and if they don’t, how could it be bad? They won, and nobody can ever say again they never did."
The Super Bowl champion Eagles were booed off the field at halftime of their home opener in Philadelphia last month. The boos for the home team at Capital One Arena figure to be few and far between this season, but how long the honeymoon extends remains an open question.
“I think everyone’s just kind of waiting for banner night,” Oland said. “We’ve never had that condensed summer before, where it really feels like they were just playing hockey a month ago and we’re back again. I think a lot of Capitals fans are just kind of fatigued, in general, after the championship run. . . . I also think the Capitals’ fan base is made up of a lot of people who have been with this team for a really long time, and I think there’s going to be a lot more patience [from fans] this year. I really do, and I hope I’m right.”
“As I tell people, no matter what happens this year, I’m going to get to root for the Stanley Cup champions, at least until May or June,” Mintz said. “Beyond that, you never know.”
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