What It’s Like to be a Washington Capitals Fan

It’s now been a few days since the NHL’s Washington Capitals’ season ended without raising the Stanley Cup.  This is the 36th season in a row that this has happened.  In fact, it’s happened every single year of the franchise’s existence.  As fans, we’ve come to expect that.

Unfortunately, for us fans, it’s not just that the Caps have failed to win the Stanley Cup.  It’s how they’ve done it.

Photo Courtesy Yahoo Sports

They’ve made the playoffs 22 of their 36 seasons.  But, in those 22 playoff opportunities, they’ve lost to a lower seeded team 13 times and lost after leading in the series 16 times, include four losses when they were up three games to one in a seven game series.  For more about the futility, you can read about it at Japers’ Rink.

Somehow, we fans keep coming back each year with eternal optimism and hope that “this season” is our year.  We somehow sign up to suffer again.

Yes, it’s just sports.  “At least you have your health,” my grandmother used to say.  We’ve not lost our job, been hit by a tornado or lost our home to a flood.  Being a Washington Capitals’ fan is frustrating and disappointing.

Want to understand?  Being a Caps’ fan feels like:

  • Drinking a delicious McDonald’s egg nog or mint shake on the last day of their short Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day availability, knowing you have to wait 11 months to get another.
  • Getting a front row ticket for the last show of a limited run musical or play, only to have the understudies perform and ruin it.
  • Driving from Miami to New York on I-95 at 10 mph over the speed limit and making the best time you’ve every made, but then getting a speeding ticket in New Jersey for going 56 in a 55 mph zone.
  • Attending a mid-season baseball game and being stuck in a beer line while your team comes back from 10 runs down, but then returning to your seat just in time to watch them let the other team win by committing three errors in a row.
  • Buying the latest DVR to record a show you’ve been dying to see and isn’t on again for a few months, then returning home to learn a sudden thunderstorm ruined the satellite signal.
  • Finally getting reservations at the best restaurant in town just before it closes for renovations, getting dressed up with your spouse, and then busting a fan belt on the way there.
  • Buying an upper-deck seat to a concert, slowly moving towards the stage occupying empty seats, but then getting kicked out by security after the seatholder arrives 90 minutes after the concert starts.
  • Waiting all summer with you group of best friends to visit your local amusement park on the last weekend of the season, then finding out that all of your favorite rides are closed for the season already.
  • Watching a fantastic, suspenseful movie on DVD, having the DVD crap out 10 minutes before the end, and not having another copy when it’s already too late to run back to the store.
  • Getting hours or days deep into World of Warcraft or Portal 2 or Halo, only to have the Internet die and realize that none of your progress had been saved.
  • Waiting four years of college to ask out the girl you first saw freshman year, having her say yes, planning out a spectacular date on the last night before you fly home, but then being forced to cancel because your mom needs you to take her to the doctor to get her boils lanced.

But, wait!!

Now imagine if any of those things happened to you, not once, but over again in 22 of the last 36 years.

That, my friends, is what it’s like to be Washington Capitals’ fan.

A Tweeting Ovechkin is a Happy Ovechkin is a Winning Ovechkin

On January 30, 2009, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals stopped tweeting.

Ovechkin's Last Tweet for 14 Months

Suddenly, on March 2, 2011, he returned.

Yes! A Tweeting Ovechkin!

In just under two weeks since this tweet, Ovechkin has tweeted another 65 times.  Since his return to Twitter on March 2, the Capitals have won 5 games in a row.  Scoring in each of these 5 games, Ovechkin has 2 goals and 5 assists, a game winning goal, and the only shoot out goal in a victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

After Beating the Blues 3-2 on March 3

Going back a bit farther, the Capitals have won 9 of their last 10 games, and Ovechkin has 4 goals and 8 assists in those 9 victories.  If it wasn’t for a 6-0 beat down at the hands of the New York Rangers, Ovechkin might very well have a 10 game point streak on its hands.

After Beating the Lightning on March 7

Statistics show that the Caps have improved this season on defense, but statistics also show that Ovechkin is having a bad year (or at least one less productive than earlier years).  Pundits say that Ovie is weighed down by the Capitals’ playoff failures and Team Russia’s Olympic failures.  They say that he isn’t himself, and that he might be hurt.

Now, Ovechkin’s point streak and the Capitals’ success are leaving some of these critics with nothing to say.  When other teams see a happy Ovechkin, an Ovechkin slamming against the boards after scoring, an Ovechkin enjoying himself, an Ovechkin tweeting again, they are scared.  Nothing appears to be weighing him down now.  Whatever “himself” is, that’s what Ovechkin is now.  And that’s good for the Caps and their fans.

Thanks for Letting Us Know!

One Man’s Obsession – The NHL Trading Deadline

Yesterday at work, I was preoccupied with something of incredible importance:  the National Hockey League trading deadline.

Of course, I’m being snarky about the “incredible importance.”  At the same time, for hockey fans, the trade deadline is an amazing time of anticipation, prognostication, jubilation, and humiliation (see what I did there?).

For you uneducated — this deadline marks the last time in the season that teams can trade players or draft picks.  After the deadline (February 28 at 3:00pm EST), NHL teams only have a limited number of roster changes they can make for the rest of the season, typically by calling up players from their top minor league affiliate.

I’m already an obsessed hockey fan, but this day qualifies as the most obsessive.  This obsession is fed by the media, but enjoyed by the fans.  TSN (Canada’s ESPN) started wall-to-wall coverage six hours before the deadline.  Twitter was awash with special hash tags, massive speculations, and made-up stories.  Japers’ Rink, a board for Caps’ fans that I frequent, had over 4,300 posts from early morning ideas through to evening commentary.

As fans, we were faced yesterday with questions of global importance  such as whether the Washington Capitals will add a center for their second line, whether the Dallas Stars will trade their soon-to-be-free-agent superstar, and whether the Florida Panthers or Ottawa Senators will begin to dismantle their teams by trading players for draft picks and minor leaguers.

(The answers, by the way are:  yes, no, yes, no.)

To get these answers, I had to stay connected all day.  Twitter was on the iPhone and iPad, as I went from meeting to meeting.  The browser was open on my desk, tuned to Japers’ Rink and twitter.  I watched a ticker from TSN, as I was on conference calls in my office.  I then caught wrap up shows on XM Radio driving home and on NHL Network when I got home.  I relived every moment.

For fans like me, the trading deadline is what election day is to political folk, Oscar night is to movie fans, and the American Idol or Dancing with the Stars finale night are to some television watchers.  It’s a day to revel in fandom and the excitement of the moment.

It is indeed an obsession, but an enjoyable one.

Sports League Relegation in the U.S. – I Can Dream, Can’t I?

With seven games to go in the 2010 Major League Baseball season, fans of the American League are focused on the race between New York, Tampa Bay and Minnesota for the best record in the league.  Just one game separates all three as we head into the last week of the season.  The team with the best record gets home field advantage for both the American League Division Series and the American League Championship Series.

At the other end of the spectrum, just four game separate Baltimore, Seattle and Kansas City from having the worst record in the American League.  However, no one is really watching those teams.  There’s no interest there.

Should Durham Be Promoted to the Major League?

Imagine, however, if the team with the worst record in the league at the end of the season were demoted, or “relegated,” to AAA the following season?  That would make the “race” not to be last more interesting and more impactful on the teams involved.

Imagine, if, correspondingly, the team with the best record in the AAA International League was promoted to Major League Baseball the following year.  For 2011, we would welcome the Durham Bulls, who finished the season one game ahead of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.

Fans of European, South American, and Central American football experience such a system every year.  In English football, three teams in the top-tier Premier League are relegated each year to the Championship Level, and four are promoted.  The British system is so robust that this trickles down seven levels to regional leagues.  Similar systems exist in Italy, Brazil, Germany, Portugal, Argentina, Mexico and others.  This system is clearly designed to give smaller teams greater opportunity, although some leagues do have requirements for promotion in terms of financial stability, stadium capacity, and other factors.

The concept is not entirely foreign to the United States.  We take part in several sports world championships with relegation systems, where by only the top flight teams can really compete for the world championship.  For example, in the most recent ice hockey world championship, the United States team, based on its performance, was forced to win games to prevent relegation for 2011.  Tennis’ Davis Cup has a similar system.  The eight teams that lose in the first round of the 16-country tournament must then play the winners of regional competitions for the right to compete the following year for the Davis Cup.

So, why doesn’t this system work in the USA?  Baseball, hockey, and soccer have thriving leagues at lower levels.  Basketball has the NBDL.  Football has the Arena League, the United Football League, and other regional leagues.  Secondary leagues, therefore, aren’t a problem.

The problem lies in how the leagues are historically structured.  Owners buy teams, sign players, build stadiums, and operate based on expectations of revenue and prominence.  Correspondingly, players choose teams based on the team’s ability to compete for the championship and pay them commensurate salaries.  Baseball, basketball and hockey minor league teams are not independent competitors in a lesser league, but are fed teams by the big league clubs.  In soccer or football, the leagues are completely separate and owners are unwilling to consider demotion and relegation.  Based on the current system I don’t blame them.

Changing the system would be a multi-year process, and, in my opinion, is theoretically possible.  It would involve setting requirements and standards for each league level.  It would involve baseball and hockey teams dissociating themselves from the minor leagues, including player contracts.  Rules around developmental squads, drafts, free agents and signing from one league to another, including transfer fees, would be established.  Players associations/unions would have a say in the matter, for fear that salaries would diminish considerably.

Unfortunately for me and many other fans, there is no way that US sports team owners will ever agree to this system.  We can argue that relegation and promotion is more egalitarian and more capitalist and should be in America, the Land of Opportunity.  Unfortunately, sports leagues aren’t equal opportunity.  They are controlled by a tight group of owners who want to maintain their profit base.

Until that changes, we’ll never see the headline “The Hershey Bears win the Stanley Cup,” and we’ll continue our disinterest in the Orioles, Mariners and Royals the coming week.

Pledging to Be the “Right” Parent of a High School Athlete

Just over a month ago, I posted somewhat of a diatribe about how poorly the high school ice hockey league in the St. Louis metro area is run. I’m sad to say that the issue did not resolve itself as I had hoped.

In the end, my son’s public high school will not be able to field an ice hockey team for the 2010-2011 season. Instead of allowing us to merge his school’s program with another from a nearby school, the adults that manage the league want to disperse the kids to other teams via a draft or the equivalent of free agency.

The dispute I and other parents have with the Mid States Hockey Association is a bit political.  It’s two sides with different opinions, both of which seem logical to the holder of the opinions.  I won’t rehash the argument here.  Like many political arguments, the dispute is not, at this point, resolvable.

I am able to justify the blog post and a couple of widely broadcast emails because I believe I was doing what I needed to do as a parent to support my child.  Upon reflection, however, I suspect some other parents or the leaders of Mid States didn’t perceive my actions in the same way.  I wonder if others thought I was lobbying for my son in a way that put my son above the others because my son is “special.”  That’s certainly not what I intend.  I never want to become that ugly parent of an athlete that clearly thinks his child is above everyone else.  I want to be known as a supportive, fair parent, who encourages his son to play to the best of his ability.

I pledge to be the “right” parent.  Specifically:

  1. I will make sure that my son attends every practice and every game, except for illnesses or for schoolwork problems.
  2. I will attend every game that does not conflict with other family obligations or business trips out of town.  If I cannot attend, my wife will do her best to attend.
  3. I will support the coaches’ decisions when my son complains and encourage him to raise any concerns to the coaches and not to me or his mom.
  4. I pledge not to talk to my son or yell at my son to do something in the middle of the game.
  5. I will allow the coaches to make their own strategic decisions, playing time decisions, and playing position decisions.
  6. If I want to talk with the coach, I will do so privately, but not within 24 hours after the end of a game.  This will give me time to reconsider or calm down, if I am frustrated.
  7. I will not talk negatively about my son’s teammates’ abilities.
  8. I will not denigrate the opponents loudly during the game.
  9. I will volunteer to assist the team in score-keeping, fund-raising or other role.
  10. I will make sure that all fees we owe for the team are paid.

Are these the right things to focus on?  Tell me what you think.

Does it make sense to list out these things and have all the parents sign a pledge?  Personally, I think so.

You Can’t Always Get Them “Next Time”

Those who follow me on Twitter (@STLSpidey) or know me personally, know that I’m in jury duty this week.  The case started Monday and is still proceeding.  I’m back in court tomorrow morning at 9am CDT.  I can’t  tell you anything about the court case, except to say that it’s a civil case (i.e., a lawsuit) and not a criminal case.

Some of you also know that I enjoy coaching my kids’ sports teams in my spare time.  I’m currently coaching my daughter’s 12U softball team, the Bullfrogs.  The Bullfrogs won tonight 15-8, our fifth victory in a row.  We are 5-3, with four games to play and are about to clinch our first winning season ever.

It is definitely fun when you win.  The Blackhawks and their fans know that today (as do the Hershey Bears’ fans).  But the pain of losing in sports is quickly replaced by the desire to compete again.  Losing sports teams always get a second chance.  “We’ll get ‘em next time” is the popular refrain.  The Flyers know that the NHL season starts again in October.  They’ll get a chance to play the Blackhawks and get another shot to advance through the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup.  Until this season, the Bullfrogs were perennial losers in the mold of the Bad News Bears.  But the girls stuck with it and, in what is the fifth year together for the core group, will finally get a winning season – some measure of redemption for all those last place finishes.

Even the Bad News Bears Got a "Next Time""

I was struck driving home from the Bullfrogs game tonight that my court case, although it will have a winner and a loser, is not like sports at all.  You can’t “get ‘em next time” if you lose.  Sure, the lawyers can try cases against one another in the future, but the plaintiff or the defendant (whoever loses) won’t get another shot.  Save an appeals process, there is no “next time.”  For the loser, the anticipation of the next game that follows the sadness of the loss will never come.  The loser might ruminate on what they could have done differently to win, but, unlike sports teams, they won’t get a chance to try the different strategies.  That’s sad.

I love it that the Flyers have a “next time.”  I love it that every batter for the Pirates will get a “next time” against Stephen Strasburg.  I’ve seen the Bullfrogs get their “next time” and do something with it.  I’m not saying that losers of a civil court case deserve a “next time,” but I hadn’t realized the harsh finality of the outcome until tonight.

USA Hockey Wins!

I wouldn’t be living up to my dedication to ice hockey, if I didn’t drop a quick post tonight celebrating the USA victory in the World Junior Hockey Championships. (Junior – by the way, means hockey players 20 years old or younger.) The boys won 6-5 over Canada in overtime. You can bet we were watching in HD on the NHL network.

When the game started, I was on my way to pick up my son from his high school hockey practice, and I was listening to the game on XM. They had a story about the parents of these hockey players and the dedication they showed in getting their boys to the rink early and often from a young age to now. That struck home with me. As one of those parents and a coach, I celebrate the boys’ parents tonight. The boys won the game, but I guarantee you that every one of their parents (and grandparents) had tears of joy reflecting on those 6:00am car rides in snow and ice on Saturday mornings. It is indeed a labor of love.

(By the way — I’m greedy. In one week, the USA has one the U17 and U20 tournaments. The only one left? The Olympics. Here we come Vancouver.)

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