Red Rising: The Washington Capitals Storyby Ted Starkey
The story of the rebranding and reemergence of the Washington Capitals Featuring original interviews with Capitals players, coaches, and staff from the past decade, including team owner Ted Leonsis, as well as the expertise of the NHL’s most informed media personalities, Ted Starkey’s Red Rising looks at how a chronically underachieving hockey
The story of the rebranding and reemergence of the Washington Capitals Featuring original interviews with Capitals players, coaches, and staff from the past decade, including team owner Ted Leonsis, as well as the expertise of the NHL’s most informed media personalities, Ted Starkey’s Red Rising looks at how a chronically underachieving hockey franchise became a success on and off the ice in Washington, across North America, and around the world. Fueled by the arrival of charismatic Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin, as well as gifted youngsters like Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, the Caps have transformed themselves from a team in danger of becoming the NHL’s laughingstock pre-lockout, into an organization players, media, and fans respect and adore. Now rivaling the NFL’s Redskins for the hearts of Washington fans, the Capitals are a dangerous contender, a true power that could bring the Stanley Cup to America’s capital.
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The Washington Capitals Story
By Ted Starkey
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2012 Ted Starkey
All rights reserved.
STRUCK BY LIGHTNING, CAPITALS BOTTOM OUT
Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson skated behind his own net, collected the puck and looked up-ice at the canvas in front of him. 2011–12 had been rough through 62 games — the Capitals were in a playoff berth dogfight in the tightly packed Eastern Conference. They'd been hit with several key injuries and had even experienced a mid-season coaching change. The fact that their postseason hopes were still in question was unusual for a team that had enjoyed tremendous regular-season success in recent years, winning the Presidents' Trophy in 2009–10 and having been the East's top seed two years running.
Even though players were glancing at the out-of-town scoreboard, they knew only one score really mattered: the one on the high-definition screen that hung over center ice. Right now it showed the Capitals trailing the New York Islanders by two with less than four minutes remaining in regulation. Despite their struggles, the Caps still owned one of the league's best home records, but they'd been frustrated by Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. The sellout crowd of 18,506 was looking for a reason to cheer when Carlson decided to skate out from behind the cage toward his right and delivered a long pass to Jason Chimera at center. The winger tipped the pass into the corner of the Isles' zone, outraced a pair of defensemen and chipped the puck back to Mathieu Perreault. The center took the feed and sent it across the goal line to Troy Brouwer, who was parked just at the far side of the blue paint and tipped the puck past Nabokov with 3:29 to play.
The crowd roared its approval, with the fans — and the players — sensing that perhaps a Washington comeback was possible. While the Capitals buzzed as the clock wound down under a minute, the crowd tried to do its part, rising during a timeout taken with 31.8 seconds left in regulation by Capitals legend-turned-coach Dale Hunter. Tonight's game was Washington's 136th consecutive sellout — three years had passed since a Capitals home game had had any empty seats, and that crowd also had gained a reputation around the league as one of the loudest in the NHL. Washington fans created an impressive visual display: a majority of them wore the team's signature red sweater.
The ensuing draw was in the Islanders' end. Washington center Jeff Halpern — who grew up a Capitals fan, just a few miles away from the city limits in Potomac, Maryland — was able to send the puck back to winger Brooks Laich. The veteran forward ran a quick give and go with defenseman Dennis Wideman. After Laich took the return pass, he wound up and fired through traffic in front of the net. The shot grazed off Troy Brouwer's stick and in past Nabokov, sending the crowd into a frenzy with just 25.5 seconds left in regulation. The six players on the ice mobbed Laich, and the team's superstar captain, Alexander Ovechkin, pumped his fist.
With the two-goal deficit erased, all that was left was a player to complete the storybook ending.
Early in overtime the Islanders broke into the Capitals' zone, but defenseman Mike Green poke-checked the puck free to Ovechkin. The top pick of the 2004 NHL draft picked up the disk and gained steam along the boards; Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic skated backward, looking to defend. Once Ovechkin reached the faceoff circle in the New York zone, he fired a wrist shot. The puck whistled by Hamonic's skate and through Nabokov's pads. The goalie could only tilt his head back and look toward the building's rafters; Ovechkin skated to the corner and the entire Capitals roster mobbed their captain. The fans pounded on the glass in celebration behind them.
The overtime win eventually led to celebratory dance music in the Capitals' locker room, and a large media contingent entered and surrounded the Russian at his corner locker. In the other corner, Brouwer, still wearing all his gear, also answered questions in front of a mob of cameras and recorders. He talked about the two goals he'd scored, but made a point of explaining that the fans fueled the comeback. "We could feel the positive energy in the building, and it's so much more fun to play at home," he said.
Dale Hunter spoke to the media in a crowded room underneath the stands — and the local journalists would use his words to backbone their improbable comeback stories. It's a tale local hockey fans have read time and time again — ever since the seemingly down-and-out franchise underwent the transformation that made it one of the league's most visible and successful.
* * *
Back when the 2003–04 regular season was drawing to a close, labor woes began to spread the dark shadow of pending doom over the NHL's member cities. Washington, however, was a gloomy place even before the Capitals' painful 82-game campaign of disintegration mercifully made its way into late March.
The very real threat of an extended work stoppage put the entire 2004–05 season in jeopardy. The game's economic landscape looked destined for a major overhaul, with the league's owners determined to install a hard cap to control player salaries. Sensing what was on the horizon, the Capitals' management took a gamble with both the team's fan base and its roster by electing to try to completely overhaul the team as the season wore on.
The Capitals shed most of their expensive veteran salaries, trading the team's popular stars for prospects and draft picks in an effort to get a jump on a new economic system — one that was still to be determined by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that was months away from being hammered out in the bitter and protracted negotiations between the NHL and the National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA).
The result of a season's worth of dumping players and their pricey contracts — not to mention the fact that some of the remaining players weren't thrilled to be part of the kind of rebuilding project not seen in America's capital since the NHL franchise first arrived in 1974 — led to the Capitals and their fans suffering through the worst season in decades, and the team nearing its lowest point in the team's 30-year history.
On March 30, 2004, with less than a week to go in the regular season, the purple-hued scoreboard at then–MCI Center hanging above center ice featured the names of familiar rivals: Capitals and Penguins, a showdown that would normally attract a sellout crowd. The former Patrick Division foes had fought through seven bitter playoff series the previous dozen years and produced some of the most memorable moments in the two teams' histories — legacies that had become entwined since the Penguins beat the Caps en route to their first Stanley Cup title in the spring of 1991.
On this night, however, the team names and uniforms were pretty much the only common threads between the players on the ice and the two teams' successful pasts as they skated at the seven-year-old arena in Washington's Chinatown neighborhood, battling to stay out of the league's basement. The sounds of blades cutting into the ice and the players' chatter was clearly audible thanks to the rather small number of souls in attendance.
While the Capitals were no strangers to the playoffs in their previous 21 seasons — missing the cut just three times between the 1982–83 and 2002–03 seasons — the only postseason hope for Washington that spring would be landing the chance of picking first overall in the NHL draft.
Washington and Pittsburgh were in the unusual position of battling for that top pick and the chance to select a young Russian named Alexander Ovechkin, perhaps the best player to come through the draft since the Penguins took Mario Lemieux in 1984.
While the official attendance that night was listed as 13,417, the number of empty purple seats certainly outnumbered actual fans in the stands. Wide open spaces throughout the arena created a surreal setting. Like the Capitals, the Penguins were also seriously rebuilding. They were a shadow of their former selves, but with a young nucleus, Pittsburgh had rebounded from a terrible start — at one point being a league-worst 11–42–5–4 — to making a run at climbing out of the league's basement.
The Capitals' netminder, Matt Yeats, had trouble hooking on with an East Coast Hockey League team when the year started. With the roster upheaval, however, the Alberta native had signed with the Caps on March 19 and was making his third straight NHL start when the Penguins arrived. Yeats was looking for his first-ever NHL win.
Journeyman forward Trent Whitfield, who had scored only six times all season, was able to notch a pair of goals for Washington — the first time he had ever scored more than a single point in an NHL contest. Jeff Halpern, a Maryland native, had scored one of the more memorable playoff goals for Washington in Game 4 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Penguins to square the series, and he also had a goal in the 4–2 win, essentially assuring that the Capitals would not finish with the worst record in the league. Afterward, Halpern told reporters the victory did more to take the sting out of losing than create a sense of accomplishment by avoiding the cellar. "The guys in the locker room obviously want to win," Halpern told the Associated Press. "For the last two or three weeks, any chance you get to have a win, it gives you two days when you don't have to think about losing. At this point, sometimes that's enough."
"I would love to play in a meaningful game or be in the playoffs where those plays, scoring a goal or making an assist, just amplifies that much more," he told the Washington Times.
The bright side was that a few young players who normally wouldn't get a shot in the show got a chance to play — even if they were playing in front of numbers more typical of an American Hockey League crowd than an NHL franchise.
"A bunch of young players got the opportunity to play, but at the same time, it was disappointing that we were going to be part of it but not a playoff team," Brian Willsie later recalled of that squad.
Matt Yeats celebrated his first — and what turned out to be his only — NHL win. "It's a great feeling," he told reporters. "I counted down the last seconds and gave myself a fist pump. I was cheering inside." After his five-game stint in Washington, "Yahtzee" never played in the league again.
Washington's win was its 23rd and, as it turned out, its last of the season. The Capitals finished with 59 points — just one ahead of the league's worst club, the Penguins. Tied with Chicago for the league's second-lowest point total, the Capitals held the "tiebreaker" and finished with the third-best chance at winning the NHL's draft lottery.
Clearly, the main reason for the sparse crowds at the end of 2003–04 was the fact the Capitals' fire sale had dealt away most of the team's recognizable stars. They plummeted to their worst record in a non-strike-shortened season since 1977–78, when the franchise was still dealing with growing pains of being a recent expansion team.
By the time the season had reached its last few games, the players wearing Capitals sweaters were a ragtag bunch comprised mostly of skaters called up from the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Portland, Maine, along with some waiver claims and players signed — like Matt Yeats — just to fill out the roster until season's end. It was the end of a rapid fall for the Capitals, who had qualified for the playoffs as a sixth seed in the Eastern Conference just 11 months earlier. The Capitals had finished 2002–03 with 39 wins and a respectable 92 points, falling just short of beating out the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Southeast Division title. What happened on the ice and in the stands in the 10 days of that first-round playoff series loss to the Lightning proved to be the catalyst behind the organization's plans for the future.
Matched up against the Bolts in the playoff series, Washington was able to jump out to a quick start, grabbing a 2–0 lead with a pair of wins in Tampa and looking like they would cruise past the young, inexperienced Tampa lineup.
But when the series moved north to the MCI Center for Games 3 and 4, Lightning coach John Tortorella made adjustments to his lineup and was able to grab momentum with two wins. The series shifted in Game 3 thanks to an ill-advised pair of penalties early in overtime that set up Vinny Lecavalier's goal just 2:29 into the extra frame. "If you look back on that series, [Lightning netminder] Nikolai Khabibulin was not very good," Tampa Tribune beat writer Erik Erlendsson recalled. "The goal that Brendan Witt scored to force overtime in that game was a terrible one for Khabibulin to let in, and you thought at the time Washington had all the momentum.
"Khabibulin wasn't very good, but [Jaromir Jagr takes a] penalty in overtime, and it was so obvious the [Ken Klee elbowing] penalty. You can't go down 5-on-3 with Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and at the time Dan Boyle and Vinny Prospal on the ice."
With the two-man advantage, Lecavalier poked a rebound past Washington goaltender Olaf Kolzig, snapping a Lightning 11-game MCI Center losing streak that stretched back four years.
More importantly, it gave the Lightning confidence, and the Caps weren't able to wrestle it back.
"That [Lecavalier goal] really changed the whole momentum of the series," Erlendsson said. "It's a cliché, but there's a big difference in being down 3–0 and down 2–1, and so that's obviously where that series changed, on that penalty."
Capitals coach Bruce Cassidy, the replacement for Ron Wilson — who had led the Capitals to their only Stanley Cup Finals in 1998 — wasn't able to respond to Tortorella's tweaks and counter the shift in the series. As a result, the Capitals were quickly run out of the playoffs with four straight losses.
"[Tortorella] took the momentum, and the Jeff Halpern–Steve Konowalchuk–Mike Grier line just could not contain Lecavalier, St. Louis and Prospal," Erlendsson recalled years later. "They're all calling them the MVP line, and they played like it. They just took over. Washington relied on Jaromir Jagr and Sergei Gonchar and Peter Bondra for offense, but it was actually Tampa's forwards that took over the series."
With the lack of a big-name playoff opponent — and playing back-to-back games over Passover and Easter afternoon — Washington's three home games in the series were several thousand fans short of sellouts. The empty seats certainly didn't make Capitals' owner Ted Leonsis very happy.
Leonsis, who purchased the club in 1999, had been aggressive in looking to boost the franchise's flagging ticket sales, not only by instituting more flexible ticket plans and making himself accessible to the fans, but also through adding some expensive pieces to the roster. With crowds noticeably below MCI Center's capacity — the deciding Game 6 was nearly 3,000 short of a sellout — Leonsis was visibly upset after the season came to an end. In his remarks to the press in the wake of the team's playoff loss, he hinted at big changes in the team's salary structure following the team's quick exit from the postseason.
"It's incredibly disappointing to have 14,000 people in the building for the final playoff game," he told reporters after the game. "I think the market has spoken and I have some real re-evaluating to do on the kind of investments we're going to make in the team because the city didn't respond. You cannot have a playoff game with 14,000 people with the kind of marketing and consumer focus that we've had."
"I do remember it was a little odd — although one of the games was played on Easter Sunday and right around Passover, that might have something to do with it," Erlendsson recalled. "I remember people like to say stuff about crowds in Tampa, but it's still a playoff game.
"You look around, and you see empty seats, and you wonder why the seats are empty. It's a playoff game. [MCI Center] wasn't empty by any means, and the fans who were there were loud and into it, but it is weird to look around and see that many empty seats — especially when they were up 2–0 in the series coming back home."
Years later, Halpern talked about how he felt the team was a playoff-caliber club, but with a labor dispute on the horizon, it was clear Capitals management elected to tear down the team instead of trying to tinker with the expensive lineup.
Excerpted from Red Rising by Ted Starkey. Copyright © 2012 Ted Starkey. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Ted Starkey is a veteran sportswriter whose work has appeared in the "Tampa Tribune," the "Washington Times," and on BuffaloBills.com, FanHouse.com, and USAHockey.com. He has covered several Stanley Cup playoffs, the 2002 Salt Lake and 2010 Vancouver Olympics, as well as the 2011 Winter Classic and 2010 Stanley Cup Finals. He lives in Ashburn, Virginia.
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