How a Caps Loss Turned Into a Celebration of Osama Bin Laden’s Death

A year ago today, just as Verizon Center was clearing out in the wake of a gut-wrenching playoff defeat, news trickled through Caps nation that changed the collective mood.
A spontaneous crowd formed in front of the White House a year ago today as President Obama shared news of bin Laden’s death. Photograph by Flickr user theqspeaks.
A spontaneous crowd formed in front of the White House a year ago today as President Obama shared news of bin Laden’s death. Photograph by Flickr user theqspeaks.

It started out as a massive collective bummer. A year ago
tonight, 18,000 beleaguered Caps fans filed out of Verizon Center
digesting the likelihood that their team was about to endure
yet another early postseason exit. Thanks to an overtime goal
by Tampa’s
Vincent Lecavalier, the Caps had just lost the second game of the NHL’s Eastern Conference semifinals and found themselves down two games to
none to the Lightning, having lost the first and second games of the series on home ice.

And then, abject depression turned to unmitigated jubilation.

Within minutes after the game’s conclusion, word began
to trickle out–first through social media, then via the mainstream
press–that US forces had killed Osama bin Laden. At 11:35 PM
President Obama addressed the nation to confirm the news, and,
even at that late hour, the country erupted into spontaneous
displays of celebration and patriotism. Caps fans, many of whom
were already bathed in the red, white, and blue of their team
jerseys, seemed only too happy to lead the brigade of revelry
here in Washington.

As the sports anchor for WUSA Channel 9 at the time, I had
been at the Caps game all that night. At about 10:30, I walked
out of the home team’s dressing room having completed my
postgame interviews, and headed to the Zamboni tunnel, where I was
scheduled to do a live sportscast about the game. That’s when
my boss called. He told me to forget about the Caps and instead
to get up to F Street with my cameraman as fast as I could to
interview as many people as possible about the bin Laden story,
then hustle back down to the arena to do a live-shot in the 11
o’clock news.

It didn’t take long to accomplish his request. Within seconds of walking out the Verizon Center door, videographer
David Satchell switched on his camera top
light, and jubilant Caps fans swarmed to it like moths to the sconce on
your back porch. We were
back inside the arena within ten minutes with a tape’s worth of
patriotic exultations. And while it struck me as slightly
incongruous that I was about to be broadcasting live about the
assassination of a terror kingpin with a hockey rink as my
backdrop, I guess it worked.

Caps owner
Ted Leonsis remembers learning of bin Laden’s
death just after leaving the arena that night. “I heard it on the radio
as a rumor as I
headed home after the game,” he recalls. “Even though I was
upset at the overtime loss, the conversation in the car with my
family turned to the President’s [upcoming] speech.”

Leonsis and his family arrived at their home in
Virginia in time to watch the President make his address from the East
Room
of the White House. “We watched it together and discussed what
it all meant. It was a momentous day for our country and our
President,” says Leonsis.

Outside the White House, thousands of people gathered
to express their pleasure at bin Laden’s demise. Several dozen of them
were wearing Caps paraphernalia and appeared to have made the
ten-block walk from Verizon Center to the executive mansion.
Before and after the President’s speech they offered rhythmic
chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Their lungs were already warm from
a night of screaming “C-A-P-S CAPS-CAPS-CAPS!”

Among those who meandered from the hockey game to the White House was Fox-5 sportscaster
Dave Ross. “When we heard the news, [fellow Fox-5 sportscaster]
Dave Feldman and I went over there, and it was just awesome,” he says. “People were cheering and posing for pictures. It was one of the
most surreal nights I can remember.”

Ross had somewhat of a larger stake in the evening’s
events than the rest of us in Washington sports media. For six years
prior to joining Fox-5, Ross was a Richmond-based US Marine
reservist. In 1990, his unit was called up to active duty in the
first Gulf War. Ross served as an artillery loader in the
“Hotel Battery” firing company, as US forces laid siege to Saddam
Hussein’s Republican Guard, among other units, during the
liberation of Kuwait.

“Just being a Marine and being through an actual war, getting somebody that night that we knew was responsible for atrocities–it
was just a moment we needed,” says Ross.

Ross makes the point that unlike most Washington
rallies he has seen and covered over the past two decades, this one
featured
a complete lack of the customary rage and negative energy
associated with partisan issues. “People were just happy. They were
sitting on other people’s shoulders, and chanting ‘U-S-A,’ and
hugging and laughing,” he recalls. “I mean, I hate to get all
emotional Marine on you, but that’s what I love about this
country. That’s what we fought for.”

Jonathan Bennett never made it to the White
House. Like many Caps fans, Bennett was just looking for a place to
drown his sorrows after the
overtime loss. The Bethesda native, who works as an engineer at
the National Institute of Health, left Verizon Center with
his buddies and headed to Rocket Bar at 7th and G. “At first
everyone was sad that the Caps lost, but then people started
to get the news,” he says.

The TVs in the bar are normally all tuned to sports
highlight shows after a Caps or Wizards game, but a bartender who had
gotten wind of the bin Laden news flipped one of the monitors
to CNN. Within minutes, all the screens in the joint were tuned
to the breaking news coverage, as the full crowd of patrons
listened in rapt silence. Bennett recalls that when the President
took to the podium to confirm bin Laden’s death, the silence
was broken. “People were cheering and singing ‘God Bless America.’
Folks outside were honking their horns. It was an amazing
time.”

Diehard Capitals fan and DC101 morning man
Elliot Segal couldn’t quite remember the
details of the game that night, but he does remember reading the news
about bin Laden on his
BlackBerry as he and his wife, Jacquie, walked down the Verizon
Center’s main concourse and headed for the parking garage.
Segal, who has had season tickets in the front row adjacent to
the Capitals’ penalty box since 1998, was still stinging from
the sudden death defeat just moments earlier, when the was
jolted out of his stupor. “It reminded me it was only a hockey
game,” he says.

Segal had the urge to drive past the White House to
see the gathering throngs, but with his Monday morning alarm clock set
to go off just five hours later, he resisted the urge. “I went
into work mode. I drove home and started thinking about how
I was going to work the news into the show the next day.”

Bin Laden’s death was one of those quintessential
events in American history–like 9/11 and President Kennedy’s
assassination–that
etches in our minds forever the exact moment we learned the
news. For an arena full of Washingtonians, that moment will be
inexorably linked with their favorite hockey team.

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