Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire

FRIEND: Capitals are little brother all grown up

BY TOM FRIEND | MAY, 27 2018

You’ll always remember where you were when the Caps won that Game 7 on the road to reach the Stanley Cup Finals – me, I was catatonic on my easy chair.

I also remember where I was when the Caps lost their infamous 1987 Game 7 to the Islanders in four overtimes — I was grocery shopping at Giant, was at Booymongers for a BLT, was at Baskin-Robbins for Rocky Road, was at the Sunoco on Wisconsin Avenue for gas…and still made it home in time for the third and fourth overtimes. Again, I ended up catatonic on my easy chair.

The point is, the Washington Capitals have routinely raked me, you and your neighbor over the coals for four decades without apology. But if you’re going to break through, if you’re going to finally grow up at the age of 44, if you’re finally going to reach Redskins/Bullets status in this town, then it was one hockey game in Florida that did it.

Winning Game 7 of a conference final on the road is arguably a Top 5 moment in D.C. sports history, maybe higher. The Washington Capitals have always been the baby brother of the teams here, the only expansion team, the one that arrived in ’74 and quickly turned into a nuisance. But their gap-toothed superstar scored a goal 1:02 into the Tampa night and, a couple hours later, Alex Ovechkin reached the level of Riggo.

I remember the day the Caps arrived in the DMV. We didn’t call it the DMV back then – the DMV was the place where you’d take your driver’s test. But they came nevertheless at precisely the same time we were taking the Bullets from Baltimore and taking Abe Pollin’s money to build Capital Centre in Landover. The Caps were an afterthought at that point. The Bullets had Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and Phil Chenier, not to mention a terse rivalry with Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Earl Monroe and the Knicks. We’d already been coveting the Bullets for years, particularly because they’d play periodic games at Maryland’s Cole Field House. So when we inherited this championship-ready team with all-stars in their prime, it made hockey semi-irrelevant.

The Caps had their little cozy fan-base from the start – transients from Buffalo or Chicago or Boston who actually understood what icing was. But for us D.C. natives, hockey was an acquired taste, something to take our mind off of the Senators leaving for Texas in ’72. When the Caps went 8-65-1 in their inaugural season, then 11-59-10 the next, they had secured their niche as lovable losers, as the D.C. sports team best seen and not heard.

The “I remember where I was’’ moments were reserved for the Redskins and Bullets, not to mention Maryland and Georgetown basketball. Each of those teams had taken us down a treacherous road, but each had experienced a seminal or breakthrough moment to become talk of the town.

For the Redskins, I’ll never forget where I was on New Year’s Eve, 1972, when they bulldozed their rival Dallas Cowboys – their Pittsburgh Penguins – to reach their first Super Bowl. The NFL blacked-out home games back then, so you either had to drive to Baltimore to watch it or install a stealth TV antenna to pick up Baltimore stations. My dad’s idea was to rent a room at the Bethesda Holiday Inn, where the TVs could pull in Baltimore’s CBS station, WMAR, with pristine picture quality.

The hotel was sold out that day, family after family filing in to watch Diron Talbert harass Roger Staubach. When Billy Kilmer hit Charley Taylor with a picture-perfect touchdown lob (a Billy pass actually spiraling), you could hear guttural cheers from all the other rooms. The Holiday Inn had turned into a mini-RFK. For those of us who couldn’t get game tickets, it was the closest thing to being there.

The Bullets had their marquee moment in Seattle six years later, but honestly, they had been just as vexing over the years as the Caps. In 1971, while still in Baltimore, they had reached the Conference Finals against the entitled Knicks and dropped the first two games in New York. Behind Earl Monroe – then a Bullet – they took the next two games in Baltimore to even the series. They lost Game 5 back in New York, but forced a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden and somehow won, 93-91, behind Earl the Pearl’s 26 points. I remember where I was – in my basement watching on a 19-inch black and white TV. It was the Bullets’ first NBA Finals, but if you blinked you missed it because they were swept by Kareem and Oscar’s Milwaukee Bucks.

They weren’t our team yet, but, once they arrived in ‘74, the Bullet flops kept on coming. They reached the NBA Finals in ’75, heavily favored to win in a sweep, but instead were broomed by Rick Barry’s Warriors. The Bullets would always find a way to tease you, then bottom out. They fell in the ’76 playoffs to Cleveland – and some guard named Dick Snyder – and then in the ’77  playoffs to Houston’s 5-foot-9 Calvin Murphy. Elvin and Wes were starting to ease past their prime when…the Fat Lady Sang in the ’78 NBA Finals. Just like this year’s Caps, that Bullets team was down 3-2 in the series until they blew the Sonics out at Cap Centre in Game 6 and then went to Seattle for Game 7 and…kicked derriere.

I was in our family den by myself when it happened, when Bobby Dandridge cherry-picked for a game-sealing dunk, when Bullets play-by-play man Frank Herzog droned, “Warm up the Fat Lady!’’ I saw the players pouring champagne on TV and heard my neighbors banging pots and pans – the first D.C. title since the 1940s. Whatever you think of that franchise now – those dysfunctional Wizards who won’t win another title unless they acquire LeBron or Kawhi – that one moment made them royalty in town, at least with people of my generation. Where were the Caps in 1978? In last place with a 17-49-14 record.

We all grow up, and some of us move away from the area. When Riggo went for a 43-yard touchdown on “70-Chip’’ to seal the Redskins’ first Super Bowl trophy, I was in my room at the University of Missouri, a college senior who was ready, at that point, to die and go to heaven.

When Georgetown won its title in ’84, I was in Kansas City covering the (now Sacramento) Kings for the Kansas City Star, imagining M Street in tatters.

When Doug Williams engineered the 35-point second quarter in Super Bowl XXII, I was in the auxiliary press box at Jack Murphy Stadium, writing for the Washington Post, pumping my fist when no one was looking.

On the day the ’91 Redskins drummed the Bills in Super Bowl XXVI, I remember working on my book, “Educating Dexter’’ with the exiled Dexter Manley, who kept saying as we watched, “I should be out there. That’s my ring.’’

When Maryland beat Indiana in the 2002 NCAA Championship game, I was holding my first child in my arms trying to explain to a three-week old boy that Juan Dixon could walk on water.

During all those years, the Caps were a volatile investment. Their first soiree into a Stanley Cup Final came in 1998, but there were no Alex Ovechkin’s on their roster or hope. The Detroit Red Wings swept them, much like the Bucks and Warriors swept the Bullets, and the experience hardly felt gratifying at all as I watched in my Los Angeles easy chair.

After ’98, as expected, the Caps turned back into the Caps. High expectations would bring new lows, and when the Montreal Expos relocated to the District, the team just moved lower on the area’s totem pole. The fledgling D.C. baseball team felt like the long-lost brother who had gone away (in 1972) to sow his oats and had returned home with a new name, the Nationals. Just like all the other DMV teams, the Nats immediately began to break your heart – and still do to this day. But the bratty, mercurial, unreliable baby brother was still the Caps…until Wednesday May 23rd when Ovechkin, Wilson and Holtby joined Riggo, Doug, Rypien, Theismann, Timmy Smith, Elvin, Wes, Bobby D and the Fat Lady on the pantheon of clutch D.C. performers.

I was catatonic in my easy chair Wednesday night because I couldn’t believe my eyes. Our baby was all growns up. My greatest D.C. sports moments had always been (1) Riggo’s run (2) the 35-point second-quarter (3) the “Warm Up the Fat Lady’’ Game 7 in Seattle (4) the Super Bowl blow-out of the Bills (5) Maryland exorcising its demons in 2002. But now the Caps were in the conversation, after years of being in the dumper.

The irony of all ironies is that, in this upcoming Stanley Cup Final, the Caps play…an expansion team. They play a Las Vegas franchise that has existed for exactly seven months, that has just shown up and won, with no history of collapse, no history with Pittsburgh, no four-overtime gut-wrenchers, no context.

When the Caps were an expansion team, they won 8 games. The Vegas Golden Knights have won 63. The Caps have paid a dear price to get here; the Golden Knights haven’t even had to pay state tax. It just doesn’t seem to equitable.

If there’s any justice in the world, Vegas will have to wait 40-odd years to win a Cup, or at least have a few of their own Sidney Crosby moments along the way — or, in this case, an Ovechkin moment. Vegas may be known as Sin City, but Washington, in the coming days, deserves to be known as win city.

When it happens, I’ll be catatonic.

Contributor Tom Friend is an award-winning writer, native Washingtonian who attended Wootton High School, and author of “The Chicken Runs at Midnight,” to be published by HarperCollins this coming fall. Friend spends his time in San Diego watching every Redskins and Wizards game on his DVR once the kids are situated. He went to every Bullets home playoff game from 1974 through 1979, drinking in the good times with Phil Chenier and Wes Unseld, before becoming a Redskins beat writer for the Washington Post later in life. His print work has been re-published in the 2001 and 2011 editions of “Best American Sportswriting” and was also cited by Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Friend also co-authored the book, “Educating Dexter,” the autobiography of Dexter Manley.


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