The players in red Washington Capitals sweaters stared at the ceiling of Capital One Arena, at the empty space that would soon be forever filled. The red banner, reading “Stanley Cup Champions” in bold, white print, started its journey from ice to rafters. Alex Ovechkin glided a few feet forward and waved his teammates to join him. They huddled around the Stanley Cup, which rested on the ice, as the banner behind them hovered, a blissful summer ceding to what comes next.

Wednesday night, Washington and the Capitals celebrated the franchise’s first championship — and the city’s first in a major professional sport since 1992 — one last time. The banner-raising ceremony began with red glowsticks flickering in a dark arena. It included three video tributes, full of highlights of the playoff run and the wild, boozy celebrations that followed across the region. The National Symphony Orchestra’s brass section played “We Are The Champions,” the song players had turned into their echoing anthem. The festivities ended at 7:45 p.m., when Ovechkin kissed the Cup one final time and set it down in a black trunk, bidding it farewell.

“Hopefully, for a little bit,” Ovechkin said. “[Until] summer.”

The Capitals morphed from champions to defending champions Wednesday. A banner rose and a joyous summer reached an end. As the first air of autumn arrived, Washington said goodbye to the Stanley Cup.

Twenty-four seconds into the season-opening game against the Boston Bruins, forward T.J. Oshie reignited a raucous crowd by blasting a slap shot past goalie Tuukka Rask. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored again 83 seconds later. The velocity of the season’s start underscored that it was time to move on. There was no choice.

Over the past four months, the Capitals had taken the Cup on a global joyride. They had brought it to the Canadian prairie and the Bavarian mountains, to the Red Square and the American desert, and to Siberia and Denmark for the first time in the trophy’s history. It came back to Washington, the place it no longer calls home.

“Melancholy and sobering,” Capitals Owner Ted Leonsis said Wednesday morning. “For so many years, you’ve always said, ‘Well, there’s always next year.’ Well, it’s now next year, and it’ll be different for the guys. This doesn’t feel like opening night in past years.”

By Wednesday afternoon, the Cup had already changed from the moment they first lifted the Cup in Las Vegas. After the parade in June, the Cup fell at a party inside Capital One Arena and suffered a dent in the base. When some Capitals staffers saw the Cup on Wednesday, they noticed it had been bent back into shape.

“Right now, it’s in phenomenal condition,” said Mario Della-Savia, one of the men charged with minding the Cup. “The Stanley Cup has been around since 1893. I hope I look that good.”

It also had a more profound aesthetic change. Louise St. Jacques, a Montreal silversmith, struck the names of 52 players, coaches, executives and support staff on a new band.

"It’s a very humbling thing,” Leonsis said. “It really is. You just look at the other names on it. I’ve been a fan of the NHL for 55 years, and I grew up [outside] Boston, in Lowell. My first vivid Stanley Cup memory is Bobby Orr scoring ’The goal.' You read the Boston Globe, you watch the parade on TV, you watch the highlights over the years — the tape plays in your head. This year you start watching it, and the tape starts running, and you go, 'That’s us!’ That’s not somebody else. I was there. It’s unbelievable.”

On its final day in the official possession of the Capitals, the Stanley Cup began with Leonsis visiting children in the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It returned to its Hockey Hall of Fame keepers at a Renaissance Inn in Arlington, where Della-Savia and partner Phil Pritchard loaded the encased Cup into a black Suburban.

The Capitals wanted to surprise residents at various locations, an attempt to both share the Cup once more and generate social-media buzz. They began with Georgetown University. Someone had let the visit slip, because a crowd of 60 greeted the caravan. Pritchard placed the Cup at the feet of the John Carroll statue, in front of Healy Hall. Jack the bulldog squatted next to it, and he may have left a stray stream of slobber on the Cup. Men’s basketball Coach Patrick Ewing, the Hoyas’ greatest player, posed next to Della-Savia holding a No. 33 Capitals jersey.

One kid kissed the Cup and walked away with his mouth stuck in the shape of an O. “Holy crap!” he said.

The tour headed to a meeting of Georgetown’s board. Outside a conference room, Pritchard plopped the Cup on a table in front of Janet Pfister, an executive assistant to President Jack DeGioia.

“This isn’t the real thing, is it?” Pfister asked.

Pritchard assured her it was.

“May I touch it?” she asked. “This is the real thing!”

Pritchard insisted she should. A Georgetown official told Pfister she needed to stop, because they had to keep to DeGioia’s schedule.

“Janet,” Pritchard told her, “they can wait.”

Pfister touched the Cup. She beamed.

“This is so exciting,” Pfister said a minute later. “I used to be the biggest Peter Bondra fan in the world.”

The Cup rode through campus on the back of a golf cart. Stunned students snapped photos, their mouths agape.

“Can we touch it?”

“Oh my God!”

“It’s the Cup!”

From Georgetown, it headed to the Lincoln Memorial. A jogger stopped to touch the Cup and yelled, “Brand new Caps fan!” As Pritchard and Della-Savia carried the Cup toward the steps, Chayla Summers-Daniels stopped with her stroller, which carried her 19-month-old son, Christian.

“That just shows me I’m on the right path,” Summers-Daniels said. “I’m a military spouse. It gets hard out here. We don’t get any trophies. So it’s nice to it come to this area. And I just happened to be here. To walk into that with my baby, that’s rewarding.”

“That color — that platinum, that silver — it pings off the sky, off the sun,” she added. “Honestly speaking, it’s a cup. You think of people always looking at life either half-empty or half-full. If you can be that person that can be about greatness, you can have that full cup. I think that’s what that represents.”

Tourists and Caps fans scurried around the Cup, cellphones held aloft. A third-grade class from Wheatley Education Center gathered for a photo around Slapshot, the Capitals’ eagle mascot. One man pulled out of a phone and blurted, “I’m 10 feet away from the Cup!” Despite growing traffic around the trophy and a time crunch, people remained patient, everyone grinning.

“There’s never a frown,” Della-Savia said. “Everybody’s happy, and it doesn’t matter if they know what it is or not.”

“It’s the aura of a three-foot high silver object that is inanimate, but has a life of its own,” Pritchard said.

“If you have a room of 10 people that are smiling, all of a sudden, you are smiling,” Della-Savia said. “They’re looking at this object and it’s like, ‘Wow: This must mean something.’ "

The caravan drove to Shaw and parked outside Ben’s Chili Bowl. As people ate chili burgers and half-smokes, the Stanley Cup sat on to the counter.

“I’m so uplifted just having it here,” owner Virginia Ali said. “We’re so proud of our Capitals. They’re excited and happy and grateful to see it and touch it, to share in the happiness of a winning team.”

“I don’t think they’re going to put chili in that beautiful cup,” Ali said.

LaTonya Ramsey, a 48-year-old lifelong D.C. resident who works the grill at Ben’s, saw the Cup come through the door and felt validation. She had followed D.C. sports — “sorry for so long,” she said — for decades, and she felt the title shift the city’s entire view of itself.

“It felt good to touch that cup,” Ramsey said. “I wish I could drink some beer out of it!”

Dwayne and Marti Mills moved to Florida from Tysons in the mid-80s, but they traveled to Washington for the Capitals’ home opener and happened to choose Ben’s as their lunch spot. Ali noticed them wearing Capitals sweaters and wondered if they knew they Cup was coming. When she realized they didn’t, she told them, “You’re wearing the right outfit. Make sure you don’t leave.” After polishing off half-smokes, they sat tight until the Cup arrived.

“It brings tears to my eyes,” Dwayne said. “I’m going to bawl tonight.”

Next came the Washington Monument. Artur Galota, a Polish tourist, asked to stop and take a picture. Even though the NHL is not popular in Poland, something drew him to the trophy. “I didn’t know that was the real one,” Galota said. “I thought it was fake.”

As the carts wheeled away from the Monument, a Circulator driver hopped out of his bus and a snapped a photo. Another pair of onlookers rushed toward the cart and asked if they could touch it. “Yup,” Della-Savia said. “If you don’t get run over.”

Kyle Matous, a 33-year-old Texan who moved to D.C. a decade ago, skipped out of work downtown, rented a scooter and followed the Cup around the Mall. He got a photo of himself standing next to the Cup with the Capitol dome in the distance.

“It’s the best trophy in all of sports,” Matous said. “Now, I associate it as the trophy that’s been around the world and subject to keg stands.”

Driving on golf carts from the Mall toward Chinatown, the crew stopped outside the Canadian Embassy for Toronto natives Della-Savia and Pritchard. A group field-trip chaperones from the Newseum scampered over to take pictures. “Man,” one of them said, after overcoming his reluctance to touch the trophy. “That’s cool.”

The final stop was the Portrait Gallery, across the street from Capital One Arena. Pritchard placed the Cup on the steps and watched a crowd form. Five Metropolitan police officers crouched around it for a photo.

“Wait, is that the real Cup?” a man in a suit walking past asked. “That’s crazy. That’s the Stanley Cup.”

A line formed and snaked down the block, just past F Street, for people to take pictures. People loaned Capitals gear to those who didn’t have on any and wanted to wear it for a photo. At 2:45 p.m. the Cup had its own schedule to keep.

“Alright, guys,” Pritchard said. “See you at the game.”

Pritchard lifted the Cup and walked it down five steps and packed it into a black trunk. Red-clad fans snapped selfies as the tour ended. Pritchard wheeled it across 7th, through an arena entrance and into an elevator, which would carry the Cup to the old Washington Wizards executive offices, the temporary home of the Capitals while renovations finish.

Wizards executives and minority owners took photos of the Cup. It made an appearance on a red carpet outside the arena. And then it made its way to the ice.

The rest of the Capitals had glided across the ice one by one and lined up, leaving one last player and his accompanying hardware. The spotlight fixed at the corner of the Capital One Arena rink. The public address announcer bellowed the name the crowd had been waiting for: “Conn Smythe winner Alex Ovechkin!”

Ovechkin skated toward the center of the ice, hoisting the Cup over his head, the movement players had learned only those with their name on the Cup are allowed. Light glimmered off the polished silver.

Until moments before, it had been kept secret — even from Ovechkin himself — that Ovechkin would skate a lap holding the Cup. Now, Ovechkin skated toward the center of the ice. Over the summer, the Caps had learned a rule about the Cup: only those whose names would appear on it are allowed to hoist it above their head. That’s just what Ovechkin did as he circled the rink, letting light glimmer off the polished silver.

“Tonight,” Leonsis would tell the crowd, “we get to recognize the world’s greatest hockey team!”

“It gave me chills,” forward Nicklas Backstrom said. “I started hearing the crowd sing that song again, it was amazing. I want to experience that again.”

The ceremony offered closure and a final reminder to last spring, the idyllic days when red-clad office workers and federal employees and students and parents and sons and daughters filled an arena to watch on television and jammed streets in delirious celebration.

“The whole community, they won as a city,” Pritchard said. “It’s much bigger than the six guys on the ice at one time. They are so proud. To me, Washington seems to be a hockey town.”

Isabelle Khurshudyan contributed to this story.