On game days, Trevor White leaves his office at Walter Reed Army Medical Center at 4:30 on the dot and hustles back to his apartment in Silver Spring. The 36-year-old medical-records technician puts on a jersey, amulets, and a streaming red cloak and heads to the Verizon Center.
From his perch in section 417, White—a holistic healer, tarot-card reader, and season-ticket holder—does more than cheer for the Washington Capitals. Waving multicolored rave lights in flowing, mystical sequences, White calls upon a higher power. “Everybody else is doing what they can to help the team,” he says. “I’m just doing what I can.”
On the lower level, not far from the glass, is the Capstronaut. This mysterious fan—a middle-aged entrepreneur who lives in DC’s Palisades neighborhood but keeps his identity a secret—wears a white space suit and an astronaut helmet. “It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for fankind,” he says.
He made his first appearance as the Capstronaut earlier this season just for a laugh, but he enjoyed himself so much that he kept showing up in the gear. Dancing during time-outs and miming outrage at unfavorable calls, the Capstronaut has become a rogue mascot.
Says Capitals right wing Matt Bradley: “I got to give that guy credit because that can’t be fun with that outfit on all game.”
After nearly two decades without a major championship, Washington’s sports fanaticism has been revived in an unlikely place: an ice rink. It wasn’t long ago that Capitals players poked fun at their half-empty arena, joking that it was “dress-like-a-seat night” at Verizon. The Caps sold out just 15 games in the four seasons preceding the fall of 2008.
But then first-round draft pick Alex Ovechkin developed into perhaps the NHL’s most electrifying player, and the Caps made the playoffs the last two seasons. This year, the team is among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
Fan enthusiasm has created an arena environment so spirited that it reminds Caps players of the serious hockey towns up north. “It compares to a Canadian city,” says Jason Chimera, who used to play with the Edmonton Oilers. “[The fans are] standing, they’re cheering, they’re loud from the get-go.” The Capitals are on pace to sell out 41 games this year.
No one is more excited about the team’s resurgence than William Stilwell, a 35-year-old graphic designer who has been losing his voice at Caps games since the late 1980s. Today his bearded mug appears often on the arena’s video board, leading the crowd in his trademark “Let’s go, Caps!” cheer.
“Even sitting on the bench you can hear this guy yelling—in a building of 18,000 people,” says Capitals center Brooks Laich.
Caps fans occasionally pick up Stilwell’s post-game beer tabs, and he’s been recognized as far away as a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop—by a Boston Bruins fan.
Then there’s 35-year-old Sam Wolk, more commonly known as Horn Guy. With long hair and a stocky frame, Wolk begins blaring three-blast refrains from his red-white-and-blue horn as the referee drops the puck.
“He starts the game off,” says Caps owner Ted Leonsis. “You hear the national anthem, and if you don’t hear Horn Guy, the game really hasn’t started.”
Wolk and Stilwell, the two original superfans, got to know each other at Caps games in the early 2000s, a mostly disappointing period in the team’s history. “It was me, Sam, and 5,000 of our closest friends,” Stilwell recalls. When Wolk’s horn was destroyed by Pittsburgh Penguins fans, Stilwell provided a replacement.
Leonsis has invited White, Stilwell, Wolk, and the Capstronaut each to spend a game in the owner’s box. Staying in character, the Capstronaut spoke to Leonsis through an intermediary.
For his part, head coach Bruce Boudreau won’t pick a favorite. “We have the best fans in the league,” he says.
As their playoff run gets under way, the Caps will need every supporter to do his or her part—with or without a space suit.