While Washington Capitals fans were thrilled with their Stanley Cup victory Thursday night, I'm sure many long-time followers of the team (like a certain morning radio host who shall remain nameless) are also feeling a bittersweet mix of relief, closure and redemption. To understand this odd mix of emotions, you have to appreciate (if that's the right word) the history of the franchise.
In their first season, they finished with 8 wins, 5 ties... and 67 losses, including a 17-game losing streak. Even by expansion-team standards, they were dreadful. The roster was largely made up of has-beens, journeymen, and glorified minor-league guys. Only a couple of the players had legitimate NHL credentials.
One was veteran forward Tommy Williams, playing near the end of his career. He led the team in scoring, and -- on a personal note -- when he was the Minnesota North Stars a few years earlier, he was my sister's neighbor in the same Minneapolis suburb; I think my brother-in-law still has his autograph stashed somewhere.
Another was Garnet "Ace" Bailey, known for his unconventional name as much as his hockey prowess. He was one of those "character" guys that coaches love to have around.
That awful first season seemed to set the tone for the franchise and many of the men who played for the Caps along the way. Bad luck (and worse) seemed to follow them once they wore a Capitals jersey:
Tommy Williams' first wife died under odd circumstances, and it was never really determined if it was accidental or a suicide. His son, who also displayed some hockey talent, died at age 23. Tommy himself suffered a fatal heart attack at age 51.
Ace Bailey was well-liked in hockey circles, and he had some success in coaching and scouting after his playing days. Garnet Bailey was director of pro scouting for the Los Angeles Kings when, on 9/11/2001, he boarded United Airlines Flight 175, bound for Los Angeles from Boston. Later that morning, the Boeing 767 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Eight seasons went by -- a couple were almost as bad as the first -- before the Capitals even made the Stanley Cup playoffs in their ninth year (the New York Islanders put them away in four games). Since then, the long arc of the team's history has generally been on the upswing, although there were a few typically Capital-like bad seasons mixed in. Even when they looked like championship contenders on paper, something always seemed to come apart in the playoffs. It wasn't until the closing seconds of last night's game that I even allowed myself to think they might actually pull it off this time.
And, irony of ironies, this most American of pro hockey teams -- located in the nation's capital, home arena just blocks away from the White House, team colors (of course) red, white, and blue -- is led by a couple of Russians: the great Alex Ovechkin (the team captain) and center Evgeny Kuznetzov. Winners at last? Da! Will they ever go back to being the same old Capitals? Nyet!
I swore I would light a candle in church if the Capitals won the Cup this year. In fact, I plan to light three this weekend: One in tribute and gratitude. The other two will be for Garnet Bailey and Tommy Williams.