Published on October 26th, 2011 | by Charm City Now0
Really, the Capitals? Baltimore’s Strange History with the NHL.
Sometimes I dream.
I’m leaving Mad River in Federal Hill after meeting up with some of my friends. We’re all marching joyously up Charles Street, right on Key Highway then up Light Street. The beautiful Harbor gleams in the background. Giddily, my friends are recapping the action from around the NHL, talking about how Baltimore’s team has the best Stanley Cup chances. We pass by some fans who have just poured out of the restaurants at Harbor place and, fueled by the alcohol they’ve been drinking, they lead us in a “Let’s Go!” chant. The sun is setting on a perfect Baltimore evening as we stroll by the statue of a Charm City hockey legend from a bygone era.
The fans from Harbor place get more boisterous as we get closer to the arena. “Let’s go ______ ______! (Clap! Clap! Clapclapclap!) Let’s go ______ ______! (Clap! Clap! Clapclapclap!) Let’s go _____ _____! (Clap! Clap! Clapclapclap!)… Baltimore’s early day flirtation with the NHL is not as tragic as the Colts moving to Indianapolis or the Angelos-era Orioles but holds the similar “paradise lost” motif that so often appears in the city’s complex sports history.
In 1967, the NHL was looking to expand and Baltimore was the frontrunner with a strong ownership group (the same people who owned the minor-league Clippers) and a new arena. Baltimore was big time in sports then, with the Orioles, Colts and Bullets all fielding championship-caliber teams. Apparently, the league took one look at the Civic Center and decided “Eh…probably not.” Still, Crabtown was in the lead for the final spot until a thief in the night by the name of Bill Wirtz, penurious owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, decided to put the final team in St. Louis because he owned the city’s arena despite the fact that St. Louis had not even fielded an ownership group. Certainly Baltimore is no stranger to being screwed over during the expansion process (paging Mr. Paul Tagliabue!) but this was especially ridiculous. Baltimore was passed over again in 1970 and 1972 and two years later, Abe Pollin bought a spot and put the Washington Capitals in his Landover, MD complex, thus ensuring that Baltimore would be minor league in hockey forever.
I wasn’t born into a family of hockey fans so, in 1994, being nothing but a neophyte, I gravitated towards this tragically cursed franchise that hadn’t won a Stanley Cup since (one last time, Ranger-haters) 1940! Led by a cocky veteran, a cold-blooded goalie and other greats, the New York Rangers rallied to win their first Stanley Cup Championship in 54 years.The team, the unis, the history…I was hooked. And since Baltimore did not have a hockey team, I decided to follow the Broadway Blueshirts for the rest of my life. Though there have been many lows (no playoffs despite having the highest payroll in the league from 1997 through 2004) and few highs (the play of goalie Henrik Lundqvist), I have no regrets. I really love my team. I’m also a proud Baltimorean, born and raised. I never had to reconcile the two until 15 years later.
In his indispensable book From Colts to Ravens, John Steadman, the nonpareil of Baltimore sports scribes, wrote on the Washington Redskins efforts in trying to poach Baltimore football fans by building a stadium in Laurel: “Personally, I have felt for years…that the Redskins could build a stadium in downtown Baltimore – the gates could be open for free admission but the seats would remain empty.” These words always stuck with me because there has been a historic disconnect between the two neighboring cities. Sure, both share strong working class neighborhoods, quirky cultures and corrupt local politicians. But Washington has always had an upper class, a group of rich folks who live in areas like Georgetown and northern Virginia and thumb their nose at the city lower than them in the urban caste system. That extends to sports, where Deadspin’s Drew Magary succinctly puts it: “As I’ve said before, the Redskins fanbase consists of a million little Dan Snyders, all of whom think the team is constantly on the cusp of returning to gloree (We signed Heensworth, Cooch!), treating every win like some kind of historic…milestone.” This is not at all an indictment on all Washingtonians, for I know several and they are good and decent people. But the entitlement of those who live in the District and bask in the upper tax bracket have helped to drive a wedge between blue collar Baltimore and white collar Washington. I may not have been raised in a hockey family, but I was raised in one who taught me to loathe the Redskins with a passion.
In the 90s, the Baltimore Sun gave token coverage to the Capitals and Bullets/Wizards because they were the closest NHL and NBA teams but to my knowledge, they certainly weren’t Baltimore’s teams. When the Capitals made the Stanley Cup in 1998, it was a cute local story that continued to stick to the back page while people wondered what was wrong with the defending A.L. East Champion Baltimore Orioles (those were the days). But if I may be more historically blunt: No one outside of Montgomery and Prince George’s County in Maryland gave two craps about the Washington Capitals. Certainly not in Baltimore. I gave my daily shrug to the Wings sweeping the Caps off the ice and moved on to more important things. None of my friends talked about it in school because, again, no one cared. And that was that.
I grab a 9-dollar beer and roam the concourses before the game. One thing I love about hockey is how many female fans it draws. I can never explain this phenomenon but every time I’m at a game, the ratio of men-to-women is much lower than it is at an Orioles or Ravens game. I check out the team store before the game, needing a new hat. That throwback one looks really good. My grandfather always liked the old logo more than the new one anyway so I decide to pick it up. Peeling the stickers off the hat, I place it on my head proudly and go to find my seat. The lights go dark as the announcer kicks in.
It all started in 2009 with that team from New York that I had come to love.
The Rangers that year were a band of misfits and nobodies led by a great goalie. Their best player (Jaromir Jagr) had fled to Russia. Their most visible player (Sean Avery) was a third-line pest who was famous for a sexual slur he made against his actress ex-girlfriend and only on the Rangers because no one else wanted him. Their coach had been fired for criminal stupidity and his replacement yelled and swore so much he made Brian Billick look like a Trappist monk. Somehow they scratched and clawed their way into a token playoff spot against the mighty Washington Capitals.
Now up to this point, I still had no beef with the Caps. I had been to a game and had a blast. The pregame atmosphere was fun and electric. Alexander Ovechkin is one of my favorite non-Rangers (and in that game he scored three goals in regulation and one in overtime). The fans were into it and the organization did a great job of accommodating them. It was truly a fun experience as a hockey fan.
I had no expectations that the Rangers would beat the Capitals. I also had no expectations that I would be bothered at all by my Baltimore-area sports fans. Not that I’ve been secretive of my rooting for the Rangers but it’s not like they’re a dynasty or a big rival and the NHL had only just begun to recover the popularity it lost in the 2004-2005 strike. So when the series started, I was surprised at the backlash directed against me when I cheered for the Rangers as they raced to a 3-1 series lead.
“The Rangers? What the hell, man? You’re from Baltimore. Why don’t you root for Baltimore’s team?”
“Yeah man, why don’t you root for the (Washington) Capitals if you are from Baltimore? When did the Capitals become Baltimore’s hockey team?
“What do you mean? They’ve always been Baltimore’s team!
They’re the closest team!” But they’re not from…Baltimore.
“But they play in D.C. And (as if I don’t understand geography) that’s the closest city to Baltimore.”
“Welcome to the (Corporate-sponsor name) Arena in Baltimore, Maryland! Home of your Baltimore _____!!!! (Loud cheering). Tonight, the _____ face the Nashville Predators. (Obligatory booing).”
The Nashville starters are named in a monetary tone then the arena lights go out as laser lights come on. The crowd goes wild as the token “get you fired up!” music begins to play in the background. Player faces flash on the jumbotron talking about team unity, hard work and the goal of winning the Cup. In each one, a shot of the Baltimore skyline is displayed proudly in the background. Finally, the crescendo reaches a fevered pitch as the announcer cuts in “And now, the starting lineup for your Baltimore ____!!!”
Washington rallied to win the series and I never heard the end of it. I racked my mind for when the Capitals had conquered the Baltimore city market without my approval. And as far as I can tell it began that year. Sure, the Capitals had made the playoffs the year before but that was a surprise and not even their most diehard of fans expected it. The 2008-2009 season though, Washington had filled all expectations, rocking to a second division title and a number two seed. They had cool uniforms and one of the best players in the league. And hockey became a trendy sport to follow for the first time since the 90s. I get their appeal. I do.
But where was the love for the Washington Wizards in the 00s? They had Michael Jordan for a two-year stretch. Granted a bad one but still…Michael Jordan. Baltimore remained indifferent. Then the Gilbert Arenas-led teams made the playoffs routinely and had a fun run-and-gun style of play. In fact, before his misunderstanding of the second amendment, Arenas was a fun fan-friendly player much in Ovechkin’s mold. Baltimore remained indifferent. People argue that Baltimore doesn’t care about basketball but that’s just simply not true. The Maryland Terrapins have had a huge following in the city for decades. Some might argue that it’s because the Wizards/Bullets were uprooted from the city to DC but I don’t necessarily buy that. Abe Pollin was more like Junior Soprano, a well-intentioned nebbish than the boozy Bob Irsay. Pollin’s move to get out of Baltimore’s Civic Center was common sense, Irsay’s was greed-fueled and tragic. Even now, the Wizards dealt the troublesome Arenas and are building on John Wall, one of the most exciting young talents in the game. If and when the NBA resumes, the Wiz will take the court with fresh new unis, a franchise player and an exciting future. Yet Baltimore remains indifferent.
So what makes the Washington Capitals Baltimore’s team?
I walked out of the arena with my friends after another win. We decide to back at Mad River for some post game musing before calling it a night. The place is packed and plastered wall-to-wall with Orioles, Ravens and _____s posters. We continue to break down how things might shake out in the playoffs. Highlights are on the screen and music is blaring in the speakers and it’s one of those sports nights that you hope never ends…
In 2010, with the Rangers out of the playoffs and “Baltimore’s team” winning the President’s Trophy (that goes to the team with the best regular season record), I rooted hard for the underdog Montreal Canadiens to upset the Caps. And when they did, was I ever thrilled. But by then, the Capitals-as-a-Baltimore-team narrative had gained steam and wasn’t stopping. Washington’s braintrust has made smart moves in sending players to Charm City for appearances and has really cultivated the market. The Washington Post estimates that 10% of the Capitals season ticket base comes from the Baltimore area. Even the beloved Mr. Boh has given into the craze. Being the eternal cynic, I think it’s symptomatic of more people hopping on a winning bandwagon than celebrating the local team. But it’s impossible to deny the Capitals presence.
The Caps have started the year 7-0-0. They are expected to contend for the Cup. After every win, my facebook and twitter feeds are deluged with some variation of “Yay Caps!” messages. I took my potshots at first but now I have relaxed. People deserve to be happy, especially the few fans I know who have rooted for the Caps before they became Baltimore’s cause célèbre. I have accepted the fact that even with this new arena, Baltimore will never have an NHL team. The D.C. market is too close to the city, the Caps are now entrenched here and the NHL has learned from its mistakes of building teams in Atlanta, Columbus and Nashville (mid market cities that only got teams because they had functional arenas and an owner with a check). I will never accept the Washington Capitals as being Baltimore’s hockey team but I’ll respect them for what they are and remember that the Caps-as-local-fad too shall pass. I will have my dreams of Baltimore hockey nights. They remain dreams but the reality for the NHL fan ain’t too bad either.
-Jacob Simpson (twitter.com/ravensfan40)
- The John Steadman quote can be found in his book From Colts to Ravens
- The Drew Magary quote (edited due to language) can be found in this article:http://deadspin.com/5339893/why-your-team-sucks-washington-redskins
- Information on the team’s season ticket estimates came from this article:http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/baltimore-rallies-behind-washingtons-capitals/2011/03/28/AFS5YWqB_story.html