The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
I realize that fans, when their team wins the Big One, will often lay claim to some larger, zip-code-transcending Meaning for the event, shaping some narrative about how it represents the culmination of some very dramatic and inspiring story. But I do think that there really was something pretty remarkable—not unique, to be sure, but noteworthy—about the Caps' victory in the Stanley Cup Finals, something that I, at least, had not personally experienced before now (with the possible exception of the triumph of the '55 Dodgers over the hated Yankees, an event of which I have only the dimmest recollection).
It was a perfect sports storm, of sorts. There was, to begin with, the almost unfathomably dismal and heart-breaking history of the franchise itself. For more than a decade—since the arrival of Alex Ovechkin in 2004—they have been a very good team; indeed, they have the best record in the NHL during that period. But they managed, year after year, to fail in the post-season, almost always in particularly horrifying and soul-crushing ways [nicely detailed here]. One telling statistic: In games played after having taking a two-game series lead (2-0 or 3-1) the Caps are 14-43—a .232 win percentage! No team in professional sports comes close to that record of futility. In 10 playoff meetings with the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins—winners of three Stanley Cups during the Ovechkin years (which they, of course, would call the Sidney Crosby years), the Caps lost 9 times. They lost not one but two quadruple overtime playoff games. They had not made it even as far as the Conference Championship—the 'final four'—in 20 years.
Added to the mix, there is a single franchise in the other major sports that can match the Capitals for abysmal and gruesome post-season failures—and it, too, is located here in DC. Our baseball club (since 2005), the Washington Nationals, have also been truly outstanding in the regular season for many years, but they, too, have been the source of crushing disappointment in the post-season. Not only have the Nats not won the Big One, they haven't even ever gotten into the "final four," having never actually won a single playoff series. And their post-season losses have, if anything, been even more soul-crushing than the Caps': a 9-7 loss in the deciding game 5 to the Cardinals in 2012 in which they had a 6-0 lead! At home!; a 9-8 loss in the deciding game 5 against the Cubs in 2017 that featured, for the first time in the history of major league baseball, a passed-ball strikeout, a catcher's interference, and an RBI hit-by-pitch—all with two outs! And bullpen meltdown of all sizes and shapes, game after game.
It meant that it wasn't just Caps fans, or hockey fans, in DC who felt the burden of failure; it was a widespread civic affliction. Not only was DC the leader in the "number of days since a last championship"** sweepstakes among all cities with teams in each of the four major sports, it was full of fans who felt especially numbed by the ghastly post-season performances of our teams. It wasn't just that Caps fans had waited a long time—pretty much the whole city had waited a long time.
**This does not count, to be sure, the four champtionships that DC United, our MLS franchise, won (1996, '97, '99, and 2004). I don't mean to disrespect the achievement; I was, in fact, a DC United season-ticket holder during their glory years, and I remember those campaigns quite well and quite fondly. But I think it is fair to say that those victories didn't matter very much for the DC citizenry at large; certainly in the late '90s, soccer did not have anywhere near the profile, in the public eye, of the other four major sports.
And then there was the Alex Ovechkin saga. Ovechkin is one of the all-time greats, a prodigiously accomplished goal-scorer, who has borne the brunt of the blame for the Caps' failures. He also seems to be a pretty decent guy; he's been the highest-profile Russian in DC, and probably in the entire country, for more than a decade (take that, Sergei Kislyak!), and has managed, as far as I am aware, to avoid doing, or saying, anything particularly scandalous or stupid for the entire time—not a trivial accomplishment. His own personal redemption became a major story line in this year's tournament, and it was very hard not to feel his joy at having a very large monkey taken off of his back.
And finally, there was the particularly attractive and gutsy manner in which the Capitals managed to break through. They trailed in all four of their playoff series' (2-0 in round 1, 2-1 in round 2, 3-2 in round 3, and 1-0 in the Finals) AND (b) they won each of the four series-clinching games on the road. That had never happened in any of our major sports before, and it seemed to testify to a kind of resilience and toughness about this team that stood in stark contrast to the feeble efforts in past years.
The emotional release that the victory provided was very real and very deep, and quite astonishing to see. More than 50,000 people showed up in downtown DC on the night of what proved to be the final game—fittingly, a comeback 4-3 win, on the road in Las Vegas—to watch the game on the big screens set up for the purpose. After the final horn sounded, there were a lot of people—grown men and women—who broke down in tears. I listened to a lot of the radio sportstalk shows the following day, and it was the same thing; a lot of people, even casual fans, were somehow deeply and profoundly moved by the Caps' victory.
It was another reminder of an indisputable but, to me, largely inexplicable fact: that people become emotionally invested in their teams in a way that defies simple explanation. It's just a bunch of guys playing a hockey game—but it becomes somehow a vessel for people to conjure up some serious emotional weight that they carry around—about their families and friends, and about their own past selves, with their disappointments and failures, and the course of their lives.
Which of course brings me to the World Cup! It begins on Thursday and runs for a month, during which time half of the people on the globe will be intermittently transfixed by the sight of a bunch of guys running around trying to kick a ball into the net. There will be astonishing feats of athletic skill, and there will be tears of joy and tears of heartbreak on a massive global scale, ahead—guaranteed. It will be fun to watch—even though (or perhaps because?) there is no US team involved for the first time in 32 years.
The tournament begins with what is by far the least interesting tournament opener ever: Russia vs Saudi Arabia. Neither team is expected to be any good. Russia is in the tournament only because it is the host, and, though I have absolutely no shred of evidence to support the accusation, I can't help thinking that they somehow managed to rig the draw; their group (the Saudis, Egypt, and Uruguay) is probably the weakest of the eight in this year's tournament, and quite possibly the weakest ever.
Although some of the usual suspects are among the tournament favorites—Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Spain, all prior Cup winners, could well wind up constituting the final four—there is, according to the Economist's statistical projections, a one-in-four chance that we'll see a first-time champion this time around. That has to be good news for Belgium, Mexico, and Croatia, which, to my eyes at least, are the only plausible first-time winners in this crop.
I am letting my heart control my head and picking Argentina to beat Belgium in the final to take home the prize this year. So much of what made the Caps' victory so satisfying—the sustained excellence over decades, the many recent excruciating failures in major tournaments***, the appealing superstar (Lionel Messi) who has achieved unprecedented success with his club team (Barcelona) but has never managed to pull his national team over the top—is here, writ on a much, much larger canvas. It's too good a story not to happen in this Year of Redemption.
***Argentina was the runner-up in the 2014 World Cup, losing in the final, in extra time, 1-0 to Germany; and it was runner-up in the 2004, 2007, 2015, AND 2016 Copa America (twice losing to Brazil and twice to Chile); in three of the four finals the games were tied at the end of regulation, and Argentina lost in the penalty-kick shootout.
See you at the parade!