LAS VEGAS — Four minutes to 2 a.m., down a few buttons on his pink button-down and high on a cocktail of athletic glory, Stella Artois, life itself and God-knows-what-other-liquids, Alex Ovechkin danced on the Hakkasan stage as confetti rained and lasers flashed, a few feet from both his friend Tiesto and the Stanley Cup, singing along to a pulsing, EDM version of The Outfield’s “Your Love.”
Well, what would you do in his shoes?
First, the Washington Capitals won the NHL championship Thursday night. And then, as their red-rocking fans were passing out in a fit of euphoria back East, they took full advantage of the location in which they claimed the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. They hit the club, prize in hand, and they partied.
Some say the sun doesn’t rise in Vegas. The Caps, led by their captain, were up to the challenge of finding out.
Ovechkin first touched the Cup at 8:19 p.m. local time. Following it from there until daylight threatened — from the ice to the booze-soaked locker room to a subdued family dinner to a thumping nightclub hosted by one of the world’s most famous DJs and back out to the fluorescent desert — meant witnessing an entire work day’s worth of unadulterated joy, a party 44 years in the making.
“This is crazy,” said former Capitals forward and team broadcaster Alan May, looking over the dance floor at the Hakkasan night club, beer in hand. “What a way to do it after all these years.”
The celebration started when Ovechkin first hoisted the Cup. It really got going about 45 minutes after midnight, when Capitals players loaded onto two buses at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, many of them with beers in hand, and trekked down Las Vegas Boulevard to the MGM. One bus — the one without the Cup — pulled into the Hakkasan VIP valet, as instructed. The other bus, the one Ovechkin had carried the Cup onto, drove to the main valet. It caused commotion and blocked entrances.
But Ovechkin had revealed a new capacity for surmounting adversity all spring, and this obstacle didn’t faze him, either. He simply carried the Cup through the lobby and the MGM casino, into Hakkasan and directly to the stage.
Ovechkin danced, Cup in hands at times. Others hoisted the Cup and posed for pictures. A conveyor belt of metal vats packed with ice and beer bottles traveled to the stage. Other drinks followed. A magnum of Champagne with sparklers affixed to the neck. An outlandishly large bottle of Grey Goose.
Jakub Vrana, the 22-year-old rookie who scored the clinching game’s first goal, danced in a throwback Capitals jersey with Brooks Oprik’s name and No. 44, first on the stage and then with a throng of fans. At 2:35 a.m., Ovechkin wove through the crowd, hand in hand with his pregnant wife, drawing shouts of “That’s Ovi!” He exited early, but the party raged ahead. Just before 3 a.m., forward Tom Wilson poured beer from the Stanley Cup into Tiesto’s mouth.
Tiesto’s shift ended, but the music thumped with another DJ. “If you’re [expletive] celebrating the Washington Capitals winning the [expletive] Stanley Cup,” he yelled at one point, “make some noise!” Every few minutes on stage, the Cup would rise above the fray, bouncing to the beat. Sometimes, it needed a break. At 3:42 a.m., it rested on a couch next to defenseman John Carlson, who caressed it with his right hand.
The threshold for who could venture on stage started to lower. Disbelief had yet to dissipate. “How amazing is it you can walk into a bar and the Stanley Cup is there, 10 yards away?” one Capitals employee asked, standing by the bar. He then escorted onto the stage a longtime Caps season ticket holder who had gained entry, in part, by buying acceptable clothing off the back of a man on the street for 20 bucks. (He had previously been denied on the grounds of wearing sandals and shorts.)
A bouncer was asked when the place closed. “Four,” he replied. He checked the time on his phone: 4 on the nose. He shrugged. “When the lights go up,” he said. Then an EDM version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” started blasting and Carlson walked past. The lights remained down.
The Cup’s journey into the Vegas night had begun early in the afternoon, some 12 hours earlier. Packed carefully into a black trunk, it rolled into a small room in the bowels of T-Mobile Arena, across from the officials’ locker room. The room was marked TR05.
It would be moved to the “Hockey Night in Canada” pregame set, eye candy for television. Late in the third period, after the Capitals had taken a 4-3 lead, Phil Pritchard polished it until the silver gleamed. Pritchard works for the Hockey Hall of Fame in a unique job. He is, to put it simply, the keeper of the Cup. He travels with it wherever it goes, on all the journeys players from the winning team take it on over the summer.
When the game ended, Pritchard and his partner, Craig Campbell, wore white gloves as they carried the Cup down a red carpet toward center ice. Campbell joined Pritchard on the job 20 years ago. The first time he carried the Cup was in 1998, at what was then known as MCI Center in downtown D.C., when the Detroit Red Wings beat the Capitals.
They placed it on a black podium. At 8:19 p.m., Ovechkin grabbed the Cup, hoisted it over his head and kissed it. He screamed, “Yeah!” toward his teammates, then kissed it three more times.
“I’ve obviously seen it before, but every year, it’s so special,” Pritchard said. “Every year, you see all the emotions that he had going, from joy to happiness to tears — everything. Right before he grabbed the Cup, he turned to the guys and cheered. That’s Alex Ovechkin. He’s such an emotional player, and so deserving of a Stanley Cup championship.”
Ovechkin passed the trophy to Nicklas Backstrom, who skated a small circle with the Cup over his head, the start of a procession. Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Jay Beagle, Carlson, Braden Holtby, Lars Eller, Dmitry Orlov, Evgeny Kuzentsov, Wilson, Andre Burakovsky, Michal Kempny, Devante Smith-Pelly and on down the line.
Owner Ted Leonsis lifted it last. “It’s heavy!” he said. “They say it’s 35 pounds. It feels like 95.”
Ovechkin lifted it for a horde of Capitals fans to see. He walked to a room reserved for a news conference, skates clacking on the cement hall. He placed the Cup on a riser himself, took off his black CCM blades and sat behind the dais.
“This is going home to our families, our fans,” Ovechkin said. “It’s just something special.”
Back on the ice, his teammates mingled with their families and wondered what had happened to the Cup. Ovechkin emerged from the tunnel, greeted by Wilson. “Who took the Cup?” the Caps forward asked him. Ovechkin smiled and handed it to Orlov, a fellow Russian who posed for a photo with his wife, who leaned down to peek inside the Cup. Wilson grabbed the Cup next and skated away for another photo.
“Where you going?” Burakovsky asked.
For another 14 minutes, players took turns posing with family and friends around the Cup, the trophy always the star, right in the middle. Ovechkin lay down in front of the scouting staff. Leonsis and the rest of the owners huddled around it.
“Let’s go to locker room,” Ovechkin shouted.
“Take it,” Leonsis said. “Make sure you hold it up.”
Ovechkin grabbed it and walked toward the tunnel to the dressing room. “Locker room,” he yelled. He searched for teammates and herded them with his shouts.
Players followed his order until Ovechkin was the last Capital on the ice. As he stepped off the ice, ringed by cameras and reporters, Ovechkin paused, turned back toward the rink one last time and kissed the Cup again. He hoisted it over his head, smiled and shouted, “Thank you, Vegas!”
About an hour and 15 minutes after he had first touched the Cup, he left the ice and carried it into the Capitals’ locker room. An arsenal of Bud Light, Coors Light and Champagne waited on ice. There was screaming and spraying booze. Players sipped from the Cup, two players tilting it and pouring a beverage into one’s mouth.
At 9:45, just after Backstrom had guzzled Champagne from the Cup, Pritchard pushed two black cases into the room. “I got to talk to” the Capitals equipment manager, Pritchard said. “I got to figure out how we’re going to load it and get it out of here.”
The Capitals gave him plenty of time. They downed more beers. They sang “We Are The Champions.” One passerby glanced through a crack in the door and said, “It smells like my freshman year of college in there.”
At 10:33 p.m., Beagle shouted, “We’re going streaking!” The Capitals loaded on to buses, Ovechkin placing the Cup between his legs, and headed to the ballroom on the third floor of the Mandarin Oriental. When Ovechkin walked in, families, friends and staff were already there. He raised the Cup overhead when he entered, and the room gave him a standing ovation as he made a lap.
“He was a captain,” Pritchard said later. “Exactly what you hope a captain is, he was. All class.”
The party of about 250 dined on a buffet of pan-seared chicken, herb-crusted salmon and roasted vegetables. Drinks flowed — Milagro, Chivas 12, Labyrinth gin, Bud Light, Fat Tire. Players posed for photos with the Cup surrounded by parents, siblings, spouses, friends — everyone they loved most in the world. The Cup was a magnet, a sacred totem and a source of joy. Every few minutes, it would be hoisted in the air to whoops and smiles. Over and over, you could hear delight: “There’s the Cup.”
At 12:36 a.m., Ovechkin stood from a table that held the Conn Smythe trophy and drained a Stella. He walked to the corner where an unfamiliar group posed with the Cup.
“All right, sorry,” Ovechkin said. “We have to go.”
He paused to kiss the Cup as he headed to a bank of three elevators. A dozen or so fans waiting by the buses cheered Ovechkin as he emerged and climbed the bus stairs, at which point waiting teammates roared at glimpsing the Cup — their Cup — again. They were headed to the MGM, where the party had not even begun.
Finally, at 4:16 a.m., the lights went up. Vrana still danced on stage, popping his Orpik throwback. Bouncers shooed out clubgoers, allowing the Capitals and the Cup to linger on stage a little longer. At 4:25 a.m., Carlson scooped up the Cup and headed toward the elevator that led to the exit.
“Thanks for having us,” he said to a bouncer.
The elevator opened to the lobby, where straggling gamblers and bachelor-party attendees were greeted by the sight of Carlson carrying the Stanley Cup through the MGM casino. A throng formed behind him, and Niskanen played bodyguard. “Don’t get too close,” Niskanen warned. “I’m going to start throwing elbows.”
When Carlson passed the poker room, players cheered and clapped, and Carlson lifted the Cup over his head. He kept walking until he reached the exit back to the VIP valet. The Cup had a little time left in Vegas, but soon it would head to its new home: Washington, D.C. One party had ended. The ones to come hadn’t even started yet.
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