Last night, I was far from the only one in our hockey fans group chat saying how happy I was that the Capitals won the Cup. Judging from the game threads and other comment sections, there seemed to be a large contingent of our community who felt the same way.
I got to thinking about exactly why that is, at least for me, and I thought it was worth discussing because for me it says a lot about what I love and hate about the game of hockey and the NHL.
Everyone “fans” differently.
I’ve always found that I don’t get as attached to hating rivals as much as many other hockey fans. I find it easier to support other teams in the playoffs, even if they aren’t “my team.” Maybe it’s because growing up an Islanders fan, if I didn’t do that, hockey ended two months early every season.
Interestingly enough, this led to my becoming an all-out Red Wings fan a few seasons back. Detroit was my “playoff team,” and I had a great set of memories of them when I decided I had to escape the circus on Long Island.
The Rangers were the enemy growing up, but as I got older, I didn’t really buy into the whole “hating them because they are your rival.” Maybe it’s because the Islanders teams I knew weren’t really competitive with the other New York team most of the time.
I think I form a stronger level of anger (because I feel the word hatred is too strong and I try not to “hate” things) with players than with teams. I despise Dale Hunter for what he did to Pierre Turgeon in 1993, but that didn’t stop me from rooting for the Capitals this year. I loathe Claude Lemieux for what he did to Kris Draper, although I don’t hate the Avalanche as much as I think I’m “supposed to,” although I definitely enjoy seeing them fail.
Again, that could definitely be because I wasn’t a dedicated Detroit fan during those battles with Colorado. I loved watching the games, and I really wanted Detroit to win, but I wasn’t a hard-core Red Wings fan at that point.
All of this to say that I’ve enjoyed watching (most) players and teams celebrate when they win the Cup. It might not be the team I wanted to win, but there’s always at least a few players I’m happy to see get to celebrate a career achievement.
So the first reason that I was so happy last night was the pure, unbridled joy that we saw from Alexander Ovechkin. Over the years, there have been a lot of examples of classic moments of someone who has either worked for so long to achieve their dream or is at the end of his career and knows this will likely be their last great hockey memory.
Messier in 1994. (I didn’t want them to win, but man, the joy on his face when he gets the Cup.) Yzerman in 1997. Konstantinov in 1998. Ray Bourque in 2001. Scotty Bowman in 2002. Selanne. Lidstrom. Chara. There are many more that I could name, but you get the point.
Ovechkin’s sheer joy might just have topped the list. If not, it’s damn sure close. Seeing him explode off the bench was fantastic.
And he was still celebrating this morning. This video was taken at the MGM and was posted at 4am ET. You can read more about their celebration in this great article by Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post
The second reason I was happy to see this is that it lays bare the amount of hockey analysis that is based on lazy narrative building. Humans like stories, it’s how we process information. It makes sense that the media needs to find narratives for its viewers, but I can’t stand it when those narratives are manufactured.
You couldn’t turn on a Final game without hearing about the difference this year is that Ovechkin “really wants it.” He and Backstrom have carried the label of “chokers” and other similar monikers for years now. The problem with this narrative is that it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. After Nick Kypreos spent two minutes espousing this reasoning, Scott Cullen tweeted this:
Playoff blocked shots per game - Alex Ovechkin— Scott Cullen (@tsnscottcullen) June 5, 2018
Now “blocked shots” does not equal “wanting it,” but it helps to show that this was always a lazy narrative.
“Barry Trotz can’t win when it matters.” Sure, his Nashville teams could never get over the hump. Yes, the Capitals should have beaten Pittsburgh last year in the 2nd round.
So, Trotz, Ovechkin, and Backstrom win the Cup by beating their nemesis team Penguins, a cup favorite Lightning team, and a Vegas team that cut a swath through the Western Conference bracket, backstopped by Washington’s nemesis player Marc-Andre Fleury.
The chokers didn’t choke, and it’s not because all the sudden they “really wanted it.”
Maybe it’s because winning a Stanley Cup is really hard. Many things have to go right all at the same time, and one thing can derail the whole train. The ridiculously stacked Detroit team of 2001-02 lost the first two games at home. That was a much of a sure thing Cup winner as I can think of in my lifetime, and they could have lost in the first round.
I know that lazy and made-up narratives will always be a part of hockey presentation and analysis, but I’ll always have last night to point to.
I’ll always have Barry Trotz getting the Cup from Ovechkin, at the end of a season in which everyone thought he would be let go when his team was eliminated.
I’ll always have Ovechkin raising the cup so forcefully that I thought for a moment somehow he would propel himself ten feet off the ice.
And I’ll always have Ovechkin and Backstrom, two of the best players in my lifetime, holding what people said they would never win. Together.
For me, that’s the best of hockey.