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.