Take any moment for Washington Capitals fans over the past two weeks — the arena watch parties, the living room celebrations, those mass gatherings on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery, the hugging, hopping and howling — and double it or triple it. Then, somehow, think even bigger.
And make sure to add stakes, lots and lots of stakes, because the Capitals are playing for the Stanley Cup, on their home ice, for the first time in two decades stuffed with enough playoff pain for a handful of cities, let alone one.
That will all funnel to Capital One Arena at 8 p.m. on Saturday, when the Capitals host the Vegas Golden Knights for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals. All those moments bubbling with hope and disbelief steadily built to this, the most anticipated home game in Washington’s hockey history, with thousands of fans in attendance and thousands more coating the surrounding streets.
This is not, for once, about the letdown of years past. This is about a magnetic pull to the present, a need to see or hear or just feel the game from outside the arena, a force so strong that fans are making a one-day trip from Atlanta or driving 14 hours from northern Ontario or flying in from Kolkata, India, to make sure this is really happening.
They soon will find out that it really is.
“I remember back when we had the ‘Save The Caps’ campaign to see if we could even keep the franchise in town,” said George Henschel, one of the team’s original season ticket holders. “So you think about all the valleys and some of the peaks that never quite got there, and this is hard to believe. It feels almost unreal, and I think people need to see it for that reason.”
Much of Saturday’s hysteria will be rooted in promise.
Sports franchises cannot promise anything to their fan bases. The Capitals’ following knows this as well as anyone. There are untimely injuries or unlucky bounces or unquestionable goals that are instead blocked in midair.
But sports fans can make promises to themselves and their friends and loved ones. Many Capitals fans did that, long before this team was assembled around star Alex Ovechkin and long before it went on its improbable run to right now.
It was because of Ovechkin that Darcy Martin, a firefighter from Kitchener, Ontario, fell for the Capitals in 2005. He made a promise to his friend, Abe Reimer, that they would be there the next time the Capitals played in the Stanley Cup finals. So the two of them will hop into Martin’s 2016 Chrysler 300 at 4:30 a.m. Saturday and make an 11-hour trip to the arena. They do not have tickets, and they do not care.
Neither does James Paterson, who is driving 14 hours to Washington with his wife, two daughters and the son of his kids’ school principal. He has been a Capitals fan for more than 30 years and promised his wife they would be there for this, even if each passing spring made it feel as if this may never come. Paterson watched from Canada as Pittsburgh Penguins fans celebrated on the Portrait Gallery steps after beating the Capitals last year. He then smiled into his iPhone Wednesday night at a video of Capitals fans chanting “I believe that we will win!” in the exact same place, bathing in the first Stanley Cup finals win in franchise history.
“I want to be right there,” Paterson said. “I don’t need to be in the arena. I don’t need to have a ticket. I just need to be on those steps with all those people, chanting that we believe in this team. That’s all I want.”
And then there is Jamie Dragon, a U.S. foreign services officer based in Kolkata. Dragon’s promise was to himself, a Capitals fan since the team’s inception in 1974, when he was a kid growing up in Silver Spring. His father took him to his first game in 1979, and they sat in Row J as the Capitals took on the Blackhawks at Capital Centre.
Dragon’s next game will be Saturday after he flies from Kolkata with a layover in Doha, Qatar, and he will have traveled for 20 hours once he lands at Dulles International Airport. He called that “pretty easy for such a long trip.” His suitcase is filled with two Ovechkin jerseys, home and away, a red Capitals golf shirt and two Capitals T-shirts for the humid weather.
“I’ve sworn I’d come see the Caps in the finals, regardless of where I was living, ever since I was unable to swing tickets to the ’98 finals,” Dragon typed in an email from Doha. “The day before Game 7 of the Tampa [Bay] series I looked for tickets online and ended up calling the Caps ticket office and getting season tickets for next year, which gets you seats to the finals at a very reasonable price.”
“Time to go sit my butt on the plane now for 13 more hours!” Dragon concluded, and he had to be the only person so excited to board that flight.
Now add these traveling fans to those already in Washington, who have packed Capital One Arena to sit around an empty sheet of ice and watch the Capitals’ recent road games together on the scoreboard video screen. About 11,000 fans were there for the Game 7 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals, 12,400 for Game 1 of the Cup finals Monday and 14,000 for Wednesday’s Game 2, more than the team averaged for home games during Ovechkin’s rookie season.
Those crowds erupted for plays big and small, from a cleared puck during a penalty kill to that sprawling save by Braden Holtby on Wednesday, even though it all happened more than 2,400 miles away. Then they all migrated to the Portrait Gallery steps, history made clashing with history in the making, to chant into the night and hint at what is to come.
“I have been to a ton of sporting events, and watching Game 2 at the arena was probably top three in my entire life,” said Brett Harris, a 25-year-old Capitals fan from Montgomery County. “There wasn’t even a game there, and it was insane. So I can’t even imagine what is going to happen Saturday.”
Imagine more people. Imagine more red. Imagine more noise.
Washington Capitals fans will have their moment. That, if nothing else, is a promise.
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