I had no clue who Devante Smith-Pelly was a couple months ago. I could’ve maybe named three Capitals players. Because I don’t care much for hockey. As a DC native born a year after our last major sports championship in 1992, I eventually realized I had to triage my sorrow for hometown teams. I distinctly remember watching the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens down the Capitals in a Game Seven back in 2010, thinking there’s no reason I need to feel so miserable about a sport I don’t even know the rules for. There were already the dreadful Wizards, Dumpster-fire Redskins, and pre-Bryce Nationals to agonize over.
Forget hockey, I thought. Maybe I’d ramp up interest in the playoffs, but since the Caps had such an uncanny ability to disappoint when it mattered most, I tried not to let them bother me. It all looked like more of the same in the beginning of this year’s postseason, when the Caps dropped their first two games at home to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Meh… Back to whatever basketball game is on, or to my Twitter feed for fleeting dopamine hits from the status of the Mueller probe.
Then, this past Thursday, I found myself in a sea of red watching Game 5 of the Stanley Cup on the big screen outside of Capital One Arena. Vegas is up a goal toward the end of the game and the crowd is tensed up with a familiar angst until Smith-Pelly falls over, lunges his stick toward the puck and scores an incredible goal to tie the game. All of a sudden I’m hugging high school kids, older women, street vendors peddling knockoff merch. “I didn’t realize how much I fucking love hockey!” I overheard someone say. Then we score again, the clock (disappears for a beat and then) strikes zero, and DC gets its first major championship of my lifetime. I’m overwhelmed, elated.
You can spare the sanctimony of calling me a fake fan. Because, while I might not know exactly what constitutes an icing, I love my hometown. My much maligned, supremely misunderstood hometown, the one that so desperately yearned for a reason to get excited about something.
Though there are hundreds and thousands of native Washingtonians hidden around the city in plain sight, it often feels like K Street transients drive the prevailing narrative of what it’s like to live here: men wear too much hair gel, women are too “career-oriented,” we care more about updates from Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman than from our family, we’re all overtly political, we make too much money…
No one I’m close with has ever subscribed to any of that shit. To me, DC is less defined by the institutions that happen to be in our backyard than by the delightful smorgasbord of people all around. And yet every day I see how many barriers there are between us. It’s why a civil rights attorney felt compelled to file a federal lawsuit against the city over gentrification and why the magazine I work at rolled out a tone-deaf promotional campaign.
Sports, though, have always sanded down DC’s rough edges for me. While I’ll always be a milquetoast white dude from Northwest DC, I have my days
riding the bench playing basketball for Wilson High School to thank for forging some of my closest friendships with people I probably wouldn’t have otherwise met who, to this day, call me out whenever I sound like a privileged jackass. Spanning all across DC—from the soccer fields in Adams Morgan to the basketball courts at Parkview to the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy east of the Anacostia—sports, and yeah I know it’s a tired cliché, actually bring Washingtonians together.
Especially after a 26-year championship drought, chock-full of missteps and outright failures from our major sports clubs. When the Caps won the Cup last week and downtown DC erupted, I ran into coworkers, people I went to elementary school with, an underground rapper who used to hang out with Fat Trel. Everyone hummed the tune of “Seven Nation Army” and belted “We Are the Champions,” in a sense of unbridled joy I’m not sure I’d ever seen before. It was a rare moment that everyone who calls Washington home could get behind.
Which is why knowing who dominated the neutral zone or understanding line changes shouldn’t be a prerequisite for feeling overjoyed about this championship. It’s hard not to feel all the perils that have struck Washington lately—the political insanity, the socioeconomic tension, the bad weather. So what if you didn’t know who T.J. Oshie was last year. His postgame tribute to his father is something you can immediately get behind. It’s exhilarating watching Alexander Ovechkin drink beer out of the Stanley Cup trophy like he’s a frat star with gills, even if you didn’t know how many goals he scored this postseason.
Washingtonians ought to cling to anything they can bond over. This celebration is for all of us.