It Takes 16 Victories to Win Lord Stanley’s Cup
Tonight the “upstart” Washington Capitals face the Tampa Bay Lightning in game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. For all my writer friends who aren’t sports people, that’s hockey. The toughest game to play, and play well, and maybe the easiest game to fall in love with.
I don’t know when I fell in love with hockey. Maybe it was 1980, watching that scrappy version of Team USA with Eruzione, Craig, Christian, Silk, et al finally defeat the Soviets. Maybe it was because reality was better than any movie (though Eric Guggenheim’s script for the 2004 film Miracle is pretty fine work). Maybe it was because it was an underdog team playing an underdog sport in the last year of President Carter’s malaise. Maybe it was because expectations were so low, and international interest equally so, that the International Olympic Committee scheduled the game for 5PM, and the ABC broadcast with its famous Al Michaels tag line was on tape delay. Or maybe it was because Renee Poussaint, the news anchor for Washington DC’s WJLA TV, blew the suspense on a live teaser for the 11 O’Clock news, telling the hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians who had tuned in to the game that the Americans had indeed shocked the Soviets.
To be good at hockey requires a combination of abilities that I don’t think any other sport requires. You need the same hand-eye coordination of a Jose Altuve or a Roger Federer, the cannon power of a young Nolan Ryan. Having net front presence means establishing, and keeping, your turf in the crease the way Karl Malone used to set up on the block down low. You need the ability to anticipate like Messi, and the ability to orchestrate like a good midfielder. You need to be tough, able to take the collisions of NFL football, and even occasionally the hits of a good light heavyweight. And you need to do it all on skates.
And it’s not just one guy who has to have those skills; it’s 20. Hockey is the only major sport with rolling substitutions, and even the superstars of the game rarely play more than a third of its minutes.
So maybe I fell in love with hockey because it was a thing I could not do. Who knows?
What I do know is that the Washington Capitals have been a part of my life in sports since childhood. My older sister put two tickets to a January 26, 1975 game at the Capital Centre against the Detroit Red Wings. The Caps won that game 6-3, the second of a back to back, and the fourth home win of a paltry seven that season. I was hooked.
I saw my first playoff game in 1983, watching Denis Maruk, Bob Carpenter, and their mates lose to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion New York Islanders.
I saw every minute of every game of the 1998 playoffs except one: I had to listen to Joe Juneau’s game 6 winner against Buffalo on the radio in the parking lot of Dulles Airport, having just arrived from a business trip to Chicago. That goal sent the Capitals to their first ever Stanley Cup final.
I invited myself over to a friend’s house (he had cable, I didn’t) to watch Esa Tikkanen miss a yawning net and the Caps lose in four straight to Detroit.
I’ve seen Ovechkin’s 400th, 500th, and 600th goals on television, live, with the added treat of the great calls by Joe Beninati.
My late father-in-law Tom Brown and I sat along the glass for Mike Knuble’s 1000th NHL game.
But my favorite Capitals moment, until this year, was Joel Ward’s 2012 series-winning overtime game 7 goal against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. It’s a great goal, of high drama, produced by the hard work and solid defense of Knuble and Ward, that year’s fourth liners. I’ve got a Mike Knuble jersey, because he was the kind of lunch pail player late in his career that makes the difference between good teams and great ones. But what I really like about that moment is how I experienced it in my house.
We were living in Jackson, Mississippi, then. I was a couple of years into teaching at Millsaps College, and though I loved my colleagues and my students, Jackson is a tough place to be an outsider. When you add in the fact that you love hockey, a sport that doesn’t get that much traction in that part of the deep south, it makes for a lonely springtime. I spent the money for the NHL Center Ice package and watched as the Dale Hunter-coached Capitals slowed things down, played tough and responsible hockey down the stretch, and squeaked into the playoffs. Their reward for their hard work was a first round match against the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins.
In game 7, the teams battled back and forth, and regulation ended tied at 1. The Capitals were backstopped by rookie goaltender Braden Holtby, who’d seemingly come out of nowhere to post stellar numbers and completely shut down the Bruins.
As overtime began, my daughter, who was four, came wandering out of her bedroom. I guess my cheering had been a little too enthusiastic. I hit PAUSE on the DVR, so that my wife and I could get Colette back to bed; then the dogs needed to go out, so I let them out into the backyard, and grabbed a beer. Elapsed time, maybe three minutes. By the time I settled into my chair, the landline rang. My father-in-law, watching in the DC suburbs, and not making much sense. Knuble. Excitement. Joel Ward. And that’s when I unpaused the game and sped forward to hear this:
“It’s brought back on by Knuble…”
My father-in-law isn’t with us anymore. But were he still around, he’d be calling me tonight, regardless of the result. There’s nothing more exciting in sports than a Stanley Cup playoff game, and I’m hoping for similar moments, and similar results tonight.
And for you radio purists, here’s the call by John Walton, one of the best in the business.