It's not America's team, or Canada's team -- it's "Russia's team" -- but I can't stifle my excitement. The Washington Capitals of hockey led by the "next Great One" Alex Ovechkin are in the playoffs after a red-hot run.
I feel slightly sheepish for even spending time on this, searching the Net for the dates of NHL playoff games I attended, letting myself catch a little of the bug I vowed to never succumb to again... For a long time, I was immune -- I just gave up on the Capitals, who were good only for springtime heartbreak. I didn't even blink at the "Great One" rhetoric (remember the next great one Reggie Savage? Of course not.) Plus, my view of pro sports in general has become a lot more cynical over the years. What does this organization, or hockey in general, have in common with the Capitals teams I followed in the 1980s and 1990s? Very little.
It must be the excitement of watching a young talent rise to the occasion in the clutch. The universal sports narrative -- in the purest, fastest team sport.
That's probably what drew me to hockey in the first place, which is an unlikely sporting choice when you grow up just south of the Mason-Dixon line and don't have a mullet or rattail. Maybe it is that way in Saint-Tite, too, but redneckiness seems to be one requirement for following the sport, with many of the fans in the South seemingly recruited from NASCAR (stock car racing) or WWF aficionados.
But soccer (football) -- the "other game" with goals -- seemed like a war of attrition waged on the moon. Not that it was really broadcast on TV but occasionally public television would show a spectacle of motes circulating pointlessly on a huge green field in Germany. Perhaps once every few hours of game time, if you were lucky, you would see the ball "ballooning" in what appeared to be a harmless lob but finding a corner of the goal which the goaltender appeared in fact too short to defend. This always prompted puzzlement in me.
What I liked about hockey, especially as played on the narrower North American rinks, was that the proportions of the field and number of players were perfectly matched (much like the case of baseball). The result was that, in hockey, a goal had just the right amount of excitement -- enough for a standing ovation and a siren to be sounded in the arena, but not enough to prompt apoplexy or outbreaks of war between Latin American countries or something.
And while it was physical, it was rarely cruel or violent -- the simple truth was that you are less likely to be injured if you "met" the opposing player's check, and the ice acted as a cushion rather than a surface that could catch a cleat and destroy a knee.
When I started watching the NHL, some players like "Secretary of Defense" Rod Langway, wore no helmets but never got seriously injured. They had some kind of inner radar and caginess. Nowadays, you have stars that have to be kept in an incubator when they aren't playing. You also have more freakish injuries, like skates cutting throats. And just this Game 1 in the Capitals game on Friday, a player was hit by a hard slapshot and he may have to have a testicle removed. Here is the video, not out of prurient interest, but sheer awe at seeing someone skated off (as opposed to being carried off on a stretcher with a morphine IV) after having something like this happen.
Agony. The game 7 that launched the annual pastime of watching the Capitals lose painfully in the playoffs was almost twenty-one years ago, on April 18, 1987. It was the second hockey game I attended. Alas, I was coming down with the flu and only lasted for the first two overtimes. (I think my mom would have stuck it out and then driven back home through the District at four in the morning.) So only when I woke up the next morning, I found out the news that Pat LaFontaine had scored for the Islanders in quadruple overtime. I had left the radio on, prompting a bunch of confused dreams about a Caps victory. This game was dwarfed by later overtime marathons, but then it was the first such game in a long time.
LaFontaine's goal seemed to do something to the team. Year after year, the Capitals would win or nearly win the division, usually but not always beat the hated Philadelphia Flyers, and then find new ways of blowing series to the Penguins or Devils.
Mike Gartner, one of the most consistent 30-goal-scorers of all time and a boon to the community, was traded away for a much less well-rounded player, Dino Ciccarelli, who (after the Caps advanced to the conference finals) promptly found himself accused of a dalliance with a 17-year-old in the back of a limousine. This was not the same team.
For years, the GM flailed around. The Caps always had seemed to be about good offensive defensemen. But this gradually ceased to be so. The core of the team was gutted in rash and expensive decisions, such as acquiring Jaromir Jagr from our nemesis the Penguins, in the magic hope that he would be a viable player when surgically separated from the fellow Czechs who fed him assists. Even the Caps top scorer on the opposite line, who was a Slovak, was sympathetic to his situation. With the game getting tighter-checking, chemistry was all-important.
Now it seems the Capitals have a team carried by their dream - the franchise offensive player who is not a recycled player from another franchise. Even if he is Russian.
I'm kidding, of course -- I have nothing against the Russians. But the economic logic is that with rising standards of living, the Russian leagues may lure Alex Ovechkin back at some point.