There was a time — say, 365 days ago — when the opening of Washington Capitals’ training camp meant regurgitating some version of a nauseating end to the previous season. Man, that was hard. There was a time — say, 365 days ago — when the Capitals wallowed in the latest of a litany of crippling losses. From top to bottom, the organization admitted to a hangover.
Now the most significant concern might be: Are the Caps still hung over? The pre-training camp questions have been about opportunity lost and whether they can gear up again. They have never before included whether they did one keg stand too many.
And now here we are, because — and even these three months later, it’s so weird to type this — the Washington Capitals are Stanley Cup champions. Thus, the opening of this training camp Friday at (recently rebranded) MedStar Capitals Iceplex began the first season Washington pursues something it already has.
The Stanley Cup champs, going after another Stanley Cup. In Washington.
“We’ve never been in this position before,” said the Conn Smythe-winning captain, Alex Ovechkin.
(Seriously. At some point these sentences will seem normal. They do not now. I mean, Alex Ovechkin as the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs? We’re not used to opening a Caps training camp without hearing questions about the trophy Ovi lacks, about whether he’s committed. Now you have to ask him about — get this — being a father? We are through the looking glass, people, and turns out it’s wacky on the other side.)
The Capitals of years past, as they tried to shake off all that doom and gloom, maintained that their goal was the Stanley Cup. Even last year, when one and all — internally and externally — suspected their roster to be insufficient for winning a Cup, they had to say that’s what they were chasing.
Now? Well, sure, there’s a new coach in that former assistant Todd Reirden steps in for Barry Trotz, who won the Cup that triggered an extension in his contract, then resigned when he couldn’t negotiate a more lucrative deal. But there are more fundamental changes than just the man designing and instituting the system.
“I think the organization feels a little bit different,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “There’s less tension or pressure. It doesn’t mean that we don’t want to win or repeat or anything like that. It just feels different. Maybe it’s hard to explain.”
Except you’re explaining it to fans who are going through the same process. Twenty-first century Washingtonians know how to wallow in the mud puddle of athletic misery. In previous preseasons, you almost could sense the reluctance — in some pockets, at least — to go through the process of buying in again. Sports fandom, at least in part, is built on developing an admiration for and an allegiance to an athlete or group of athletes over time. Those most recent Caps teams hadn’t rewarded that allegiance before this past spring. Indeed, they had taken the allegiance, thrown it down on the driveway and backed over it with their SUV. The annual question, then, became: Can I put myself through this again?
Now the buy-in is built-in. Fans know what they didn’t before: That satisfaction is possible in the end — even if it’s going to be extraordinarily hard to attain that same feeling the following spring.
“I feel like we’re still hungry,” veteran center Nicklas Backstrom said. “It’s going to be a different challenge, I think. It’s going to be a lot harder.”
Nick, Nick, Nick. Have you forgotten how hard it was to win just that one?
He has a point, however. I mean, the last team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions was … oh, wait. What? Turns out the most recent non-Caps champ, Pittsburgh, was the last back-to-back Cup winner, in both 2016 and 2017. Yes, Sidney Crosby’s hated Penguins.
“I don’t know why I’m saying this,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “But you respect a team like Pittsburgh.”
(Other things that stand out as different now: Remember when it was so painful to acknowledge that both of those Penguins titles went through the Caps, who were the higher seed in each case? Now it hardly matters.)
The truth is, what’s ahead is hard. Very hard. Reirden has spent time heading into his first season chatting with coaches who have tried to repeat. Their advice? “After, ‘Good luck!?’ ” he said.
There’s a chicken-and-egg question here: What’s harder, realizing a dream for the first time or sustaining the drive and commitment it took to get there in the first place? The practical evidence is: It’s hard to come back the following year and do the same thing again.
The last repeat champ before the Penguins was Detroit in 1997 and 1998, the Red Wings of Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom. Before that? Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh squads of 1091 and 1992. Before that? The Edmonton Oilers in 1987 and 1988, led by none other than Wayne Gretzky.
You notice one thing immediately about these consecutive winners: Each has at least one generational talent, an instant Hall of Famer, at its core. The Capitals won last year because they shunned individual achievement in favor of a collective spirit, and the group is greater than any single player, and …
Ah, forget all that. They still have Ovi. Yes, his most recent public appearances came with the Cup in Moscow and, before that, flopping around in a Georgetown fountain before shoving the Cup into a cab in search of yet another beer.
“It’s one of the best moments in our lives, in our hockey career for sure,” Ovechkin said Friday. “But, again, this time is over. We are back on track, and I think we’re excited to get started again because we feel the victory mode — and we don’t want to lose it.”
It’s the first day of training camp. They haven’t lost it yet. But life is different around here, for sure. It’s not 365 days ago, when the practice rink felt like a morgue. There is no hangover from a crowbar-to-the-knees loss in a Game 7. There is only the firsthand knowledge of what it feels like to overcome that. What a world in which we now live.