Each of them had his own little bit of flair. Nicklas Backstrom calmly blew kisses to the crowd, and Devante Smith-Pelly held up a wresting belt. Lars Eller wiggled all 10 fingers in a come-to-me gesture, just as he had done when he scored the goal that won the Stanley Cup. Philipp Grubauer draped himself in the D.C. flag. Tom Wilson patted his heart. T.J. Oshie pulled his jersey over his face, drank his beer through the fabric and poured the rest on his head. Whatever works.
That’s what a team is, a pulsating mess of individual personalities, each with his own quirks and foibles, many apparently with steel livers. When Alex Ovechkin leaned into a microphone on a perfect Tuesday afternoon on the National Mall and looked out at the masses before him — red as far as he could see, red everywhere, an astonishing amount of red — he began by smiling broadly, before saying slyly, “What’s up, babes?”
The Washington Capitals — excuse me, the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals — roared with laughter on the stage behind him. It was an inside joke, the kind of thing Ovi says to them — his babes — every day. And because Ovechkin said it as he stood beside the Cup he had spent all morning raising above his head, it’s the kind of little inside joke that will never be forgotten. Not by these guys.
“I love these guys,” Wilson told the crowd that packed the Mall at the conclusion of the parade down Constitution Avenue. “We’re all family now, forever.”
And there’s the difference. Winning the Cup last week in Las Vegas healed so many wounds. It served as a sporting salve for a city whose fans repeatedly had seen their loyalty and devotion questioned, all while their hearts were being stepped on. Winning the Cup means the District knows, for the first time in a quarter-century, what a day such as Tuesday feels like. Winning the Cup could make people here feel like more good fortune is possible.
But for the men who spent the weekend acting like rampaging frat bros all across town, what it changes most is their relationships with each other. Not in the moment. But forever.
Professional athletes who have long careers can look back and not remember quite which guy played on exactly which teams. What year was Troy Brouwer traded? Oh, that was the deal that brought Oshie here. So it had to be, uh, 2014, right?
For guys such as Backstrom and Ovechkin, that’s a routine drill. The players who fill the stalls in the adjacent lockers rotate through frequently enough that after a while, you can’t remember which guys skated during which disappointments.
That’s what’s changed for this group, and this group specifically. None of the lunatics who made their way to that stage Tuesday afternoon will forget that any of the others were there. Could be Braden Holtby or Shane Gersich. Could be Evgeny Kuznetsov or Madison Bowey. Could be Brooks Orpik or Jakub Jerabek. Stars or scrubs, extra pieces or central figures. On Tuesday, and forever, they’re one thing: teammates.
“Sorry about my voice,” Oshie said as he took the mic, the first player to speak to the crowd. “We’ve been partying in the streets for a couple of days.”
That public party had its final stage Tuesday. Wednesday, these guys will gather at their Arlington training facility, grab whatever gear they’ll need for the summer, and begin the process of scattering all over the globe. They’ll go to western Canada and central Russia, to Denmark and Minnesota, to the Czech Republic and Sweden. Shoot, the Stanley Cup presumably will make its first visit to Australia, home of Nathan Walker, the first Aussie to play in the NHL.
“We’re very diverse,” Barry Trotz, their Manitoba-born coach, told the crowd. “It sounds just like D.C.”
Now, they are bonded like they weren’t two months ago. A team that comes back to beat Columbus and finally wriggles past Pittsburgh would have memories, and some would be fond. The group that staved off Tampa Bay to reach the championship round — the first of the four major Washington teams to do so in 20 years — would be able to look back at moments along the way, and smile.
But what was striking about Tuesday was how different those bonds and memories become with a championship, with the Cup gleaming as a reminder of what they collectively accomplished. Walker played just seven games for the Capitals during the regular season. He appeared just once in the playoffs: Game 6 against Pittsburgh, when he contributed a massive assist in a victory the fans along the Mall will cherish forever.
That was the extent of his tangible contribution. Yet he is forever a part of this team and a part of this day. When he was introduced to the crowd and began chugging his beer, Ovechkin and Wilson snuck up on him from behind, scooped him up — and nearly flipped him over.
Take that away from him — or any of them. There’s no chance.
Teams that flame out in the second round just don’t have those images on which to look back. Maybe Walker will play with Ovechkin and Wilson for years going forward. Maybe not. Either way, they have the game against the Penguins, and they have Tuesday. Each is indelible.
Think about those old Caps teams that flamed out in the second round, too. That could happen again, right? It’s likely. Prepare yourself for it. Yes, Oshie introduced a “Back-to-back!” chant, and Ovechkin later followed up the idea.
It’s a heady thought on a perfect day. But whatever happens next year or the year after or five years from now, what this group changed is the feelings about any second-round exit from this point forward. Blow a three-games-to-one lead now? It’ll sting in the moment. But it’s never again the “same ol’ Capitals.”
Not to get all melancholy, either, but it’ll never again be these same ol’ Capitals. “Sign Trotz, Carly, Beags, DSP — Everyone!” implored one sign along the jammed parade route on Constitution Avenue, a sentiment that was expressed on other placards. There’s the sports-as-business reality on a franchise’s best day.
The checklist: Trotz has no contract for next year, though he’ll certainly be offered one now. But John Carlson, the mainstay defenseman, and Jay Beagle, the fearless penalty killer, and Smith-Pelly, the newly minted playoff hero — they’re all free agents. Let’s not dwell on the potential losses while Tuesday’s sun is still shining and the remaining beer is still cold. But they won’t all be back, for sure.
Each year is a different group. This is the group that won the Stanley Cup. Remember each one of them — as players or personalities, as garrulous or reserved, as beer-guzzling or teetotaling (though who that would be, we can’t really say). Tuesday was a chance to see the 2017-18 Washington Capitals together for the last time. As individuals, they’ll never forget each other. As a team, they’ll never be forgotten.