Mondays like this are especially difficult. Some say that the music of my favorite band sounds like suicide music. In fact, one friend of mine often notes that if Blue October is on my iPod in the car, he’s going to grab his razor blades to slice his wrists. I’m listening to Blue October today… but not in a kill yourself kind of way, more in a wallowing kind of way.
You’re probably already aware that those who put their heart and soul into both the Bears and the Caps faced devastating losses yesterday. After listening to John Walton’s call of the Bears’ 5 to 3 loss in Charlotte last night, I switched off the radio and headed to the family room in hopes of redeeming a heartbreaking Hershey game with a strong Washington showing at Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, my plan to redeem my evening didn’t work out so well.
There are many similarities in these two teams that I love so much, and a handful of them are obvious on the surface. They play the same system, the same style. They run similar plays. They play in front of passionate fans with high expectations and low tolerance for lack luster efforts.
While numerous Caps players are nursing injuries and recovering from ailments (Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Matt Bradley, Tyler Sloan, DJ King – and you could argue the impact of the latter two being out, seeing that they don’t see much ice time when they’re healthy), Bears players have been called up to fill in. Mathieu Perreault, Brian Fahey, and Andrew Gordon are all wearing red instead of maroon right now. The Bears are not only trying to fill those holes, but also the holes of their own walking wounded, like Keith Aucoin and Patrick McNeill, who have both been out for what seems like an eternity to Bears fans. Pair that with the bumps and bruises of guys like Phil Oreskovic– and the organization is trying to fill a lot of holes in lot of places.
The bright side of these holes is the preview of the future. Fans at both the AHL and NHL level are able to preview the talent brewing a level below. Washington fans have been treated to a lengthy Mathieu Perreault preview and a glimpse of what Andrew Gordon can bring to the table (although, in a 7-0 game with a team playing so poorly, I don’t think it’s fair to count this as his NHL audition).
Hershey fans have seen the gem that is Maxime Lacroix along with the strong improvement of Dmitri Kugryshev. Imagine the Stingrays position in all of this. There’s no one under them to pull from within the organization, and they’re still plugging along as well as can be expected. Scroll through the Stingray’s roster on the ECHL website and look at all the red X’s on the team – it’s no wonder they’re struggling so mightily. I’ll leave the Stingrays talk there, as I don’t know enough about the team to make any bold statements.
What I think is the biggest factor this year for both the Bears and the Caps are expectations. Fans in both cities have come to expect more from their teams. We all drop tons of money (in a tough economy) on tickets, jerseys, t-shirts, etc. We spend our time reading newspapers and blogs to keep up on the latest news. We invest our time, our money, and our emotions – and expect the best out of our investments.
The scenarios behind those expectations, however, are quite different. Caps fans have been waiting for a Stanley Cup Championship in the Capital District since the team’s inception in 1974. One trip to the Stanley Cup Finals (in 1998) over the last 36 years (with no Cup to show for it) has made being a hockey fan in DC especially difficult. All the investment, all the waiting, and every year thinking that “this could be our year.” When Ovechkin joined the team in 05-06 the local hockey fans were buzzing, but there wasn’t much of a buzz beyond the cult-like-followers of the (then) Black, Blue, and Bronze. As more talented players were drafted or added to the roster and Bruce Boudreau arrived in town, Washington exploded into a hockey town. With more excitement and more victories came more fans, more mainstream media coverage, more blogs, and more merchandise. Playoffs have been a proverbial thorn in the side of these young stars, and with each passing spring, the expectations have become greater, while the failures and early exits from the playoffs have hurt the patient puck fans in Washington more and more. Each year begins with that “this year will be our year” mentality, to end with another disappointing finale. With the recent skid the Capitals have hit in this young season, fans are filled with heartache and loss in December – not April. I’m not sure which is worse: Capturing the President’s trophy and seeming to go through the regular season with ease only to fall short in the first round of playoffs; or hitting the skids in December, leaving fans wondering if the boys in red, white, and blue will be playing puck at all in the current season beyond April 9th, 2011.
The story in Hershey is quite different. Expectations run high in Chocolatetown. They always have, and I suspect that they always will. They are the longest running team in the AHL, having joined the league in 1938 (although they were playing organized amateur hockey in Hershey as early as 1931). Gordie Howe himself once stated that “Anyone who is anybody in hockey has played in Hershey.” 11 Calder Cup Championship banners hang from the rafters in the Giant Center. There’s a lot of history here between the Giant Center, on the western end of the Hershey Entertainment Complex, and the Hershey Park Arena on the eastern end. Recent years have been special in Hershey, with 3 Calder Cups in four attempts in the finals since partnering with Washington for the 2005-2006 season. The expectation here is that the Bears are the best and will continue to be the best. Sometimes I worry that people have taken the recent success of this team for granted. I recall a few years ago talking with some friends at a local watering hole about the expectations of a team after a Championship. I remember one friend pointing out that he considers the five years after a championship (in any sport) as “leeway years.” The title is still recent, many players moved on for more money or better opportunities (which had to happen because of salary cap restrictions coupled with agent/player demands), and the team must again work their way back up to greatness. It isn’t often that teams can skate through the league year after year and continue to be a dominating force, particularly in the minor leagues where players are called up or move on to make the most of their dreams. What has happened in Hershey over the past few years has been amazing, but it’s also left many fans and critics feeling that they’re entitled to a Championship. Or worse, that because they shell out a significant amount of money on season tickets and jerseys, that they players and coaches must answer to them. These are the ones that boo in the stands during the game, leaving me to cringe in my seat. I understand the frustration of these fans, as I myself spend a lot of my money on this team, but I still don’t feel that that gives me the right to ridicule people getting paid to do a job that I could clearly never do as well as them.
Expectations throughout the organization are running high. Coaches, players, and fans alike are frustrated with the outcomes on every level. I, for one, being of the analytical mind, find it interesting to see the different reasons and means in two different teams with the same goal in mind. And imagine how far this spreads through any league in any sport. Take the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL or the Detroit Lions in the NFL. What about the New York Mets in MLB? Let’s not forget about the Notre Dame fighting Irish football program. These are all teams that come in every year thinking that this is their year, only to be let down. Personnel firings, player changes or trades, and shattered dreams are almost a way of life for fans of these teams. So is it really fair to complain that the world is coming to an end?
In Hershey we can celebrate the fact that we have more banners hanging in our rafters than any other AHL team (and in Hershey, they don’t hang division or conference banners – only Championship Banners). We can also feel lucky to have been able to be a part of what lead to 3 of the most recent banners (while many of us were around for a few more, internet, blogs, and social media has allowed us to be more involved than ever before). It’s not fair to expect that we’ll get a new one every year. If that was the case, Calder Cups wouldn’t mean anything anymore. I know it’s frustrating to see the stumbles and falls – but more than anything, these current shortcomings should make fans realize how amazing these last 5 years have been. Lastly, we can know that we’ve had so many great players with promising NHL careers in front of them learn how to win here, in our humble little hockey town.
In Washington we can celebrate that we are a hockey town. Celebrate that we have shown marked improvement over the past few years. Celebrate that the Capitals management and ownership have created a hockey community in a town that no one thought would ever give the team front page coverage. Take joy in the fact that fans are spending money to attend games – often selling out the Verizon Center, that DC has embraced the team and its stars, and that you need the hardships and adversity to know how to win a Championship. We still have the best player in the league locked up for at least another decade, and even though he’s not himself right now, you have to know that he’s going to go back to being the player we all know and love at some point (and hopefully soon). We have Nicklas Backstrom for another 10 years as well. It’s not like we’re running out of time with these young stars. In the big picture, we’re just getting started. And just as we as fans are learning the heartbreak of loss, they as players are learning it too. I can guarantee that they don’t want this to continue much more than any of us can begin to imagine.