Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Watch night for the Caps

Twenty-four hours ago I had no idea that Bruce Boudreau, Washington Capitals head coach, had been fired. It had been an unusual morning for me; I hadn't checked email or twitter or even listened to the radio.

I arrived at Kettler Capitals Iceplex just before 11:00 for the public skate. I hadn't been on the ice for a week and was really looking forward to a good workout, in spite of a sore foot. To my dismay the parking lot at the top of the garage was very crowded. The Caps' cars were there, of course - they would start a homestand Tuesday after a couple of humiliating losses over the weekend - but their assorted sports cars and SUVs don't fill the lot. As I circulated looking for a spot I imagined that the rink would be, as it was last week, full of children on school holiday, streaking around recklessly and impulsively, adding a dash of je ne sais quoi to my morning.

Anyhow, I had to drive partway back down into the garage to get a spot, which is pretty unusual. When I walked into the building there was a definite buzz, but I averted my eyes from the Caps' rink. All I wanted was to skate; after a long holiday weekend of distractions (albeit pleasant ones), I wouldn't be deterred.

I exchanged pleasantries with the skate guard, but my regular rink buddies weren't there, so I didn't talk with anyone else. I just got onto the ice as quickly as I could. About 15 or so minutes in, a large group of very nice looking young men in suit jackets came in through the mall entrance and circled around to the locker room area. Turns out they were the St. Louis Blues, in town early for their game tomorrow against the Caps, and scheduled to practice in the public rink at 1:00. Maybe they were the cause of that extra buzz?  

The rink became more crowded and my sore foot got tired. I decided to pack it in, but since I'd only been on the ice for about 35 minutes I thought I'd go across the lobby and check on my boys. Immediately I realized that something was up. The bleachers and the balcony and the standing room all around the Caps' rink were totally jammed with people. (The Post this morning said that there were "more than 100" - yup, way more than 100, I would say.) Normally there are quite a few folks at Caps practices, but never this many, except when the schools are closed  - and then it's a majority-kid crowd. Today was different. The spectators were adults, intense and expectant. They sat in pairs or small groups, greeting friends as they came in, talking about how they found out, or what plans they had changed in order to attend this impromptu gathering. There was a real community feeling, almost like a town meeting, and a feeling of expectation. A camera man was making his way up the bleachers, filming interviews with some of the fans. Overhearing one of these interviews - of which the main topic was Dale Hunter - I finally realized what had happened.

The oddest thing was that, even though it should have been the middle of their practice session, there were no players on the ice, only piles of pucks.  Clearly the thing to do was to join the wait, and so I did.

Finally Alex Ovechkin led his team onto the ice, and the crowd broke into cheers. Even louder, more sustained cheering and applause, though, were reserved for the entrance of Dale Hunter, a very popular player and captain of the Capitals in the late '80s and '90s, named to the be new head coach. 

Practice commenced. It actually looked fun. I saw a tweet by a Baltimore news outlet saying that it was intense, that guys were trying to impress the new coach, and I'd be worried if that wasn't true. But I saw some smiles on the ice, and that gave me heart.

As a fan, you want to see your team work hard, but you want them to have some fun with it. Otherwise, how can you have fun? All of these guys worked to get where they are today, and they know they have to work now, to pull themselves out of this latest round of misery. Under these circumstances, it should feel good to get to work; they should be smiling. That is the hockey credo so oft repeated: work hard and you'll be rewarded. And if somehow a renewed joy in work - brought in by a former player who was known for his hard work - can bring some lightheartedness to what was once a thrilling team full of swagger, but has lately been a lost, dazed-looking group, there should be a snowball effect.  Let's hope.

When I left the building I stopped to take off my jacket - even on a late November day it was much warmer outside than in. As I dropped my skate bag on a concrete planter and fished around for my car keys, I became aware of a man standing to my right, speaking loudly into a cellphone. Joe Beninati! Caps commentator extraordinaire! I didn't want to eavesdrop, but I couldn't help but overhear. He said something to this effect: (and I apologize for quasi-quoting without permission this verbal gem from a man who is known for them) ...When I came here this morning, part of me felt like I was going to a funeral, and part of me felt like I was going to a birthday.  For Dale Hunter, it's a birthday...  

I'm sure that Bruce Boudreau tried his best, and no one can deny that the Caps had a lot of success during his tenure, but it's time to bring in the new. As the fans at Kettler demonstrated yesterday, holding a sort of vigil for their team at what was effectively a "watch night" - a time of great vulnerability but also of promise and renewal - the Team is bigger than any one person. Though owned by Ted Leonsis, it is really a collective property, fed by the endless stream of words and ideas, blogs and tweets, agony and ecstasy and (we can't forget) cash of its fans. In the heart of each one of them there shines a vision of the Stanley Cup held aloft by a player in a Caps jersey. Time to get back to work!

Let's hope for not just a birthday, but a re-birth day for the Caps. 

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