When some people talk about baseball and the World Series, they will tell you it’s just a game.
Some persons will tell you that the Super Bowl, especially the last one, was just a game.
Still others will tell you that Thursday’s hockey game between the Washington Capitals and the Las Vegas Golden Knights in Sin City was just a game.
Actually, I don’t think that is quite right nor what truly happened.
The game, won by the Capitals, 4-3, was a lot of things, but it wasn’t just a game.
It was vindication certainly. It was the end of a 44-year quest by the Caps to win the big one, the Stanley Cup, that large, silvery trinket that had eluded them time after time, each time with more bitter frustration than the time before.
Just a game? Don’t say that to the gifted, often pressurized, frustrated and record-breaking Russian star Alex Ovechkin, the goal machine who, when he was drafted in 2004, was expected to lead the Caps to the Stanley Cup promised land. Often undone by his own high expectations, always sporting the middle-of-the-mouth tooth gap, dogged by the American boy wonder Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ovi was often seen as something less than what he was, which was mostly unstoppable.
Just a game? Nyet.
This game on June 7, with the Caps holding an all but untouchable 3-1 lead in the championship coming to Las Vegas, was an exercise in roller coaster excellence: 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 3-3 and, finally, 4-3. Ovechkin scored a goal and did what he did in every game of the playoffs: assisted, cajoled, screamed, joined in the fray. He scored 15 goals in the playoffs, a playoff record, vanquished the shadow of Crosby at last, hoisted the cup screaming, eyes wide open. Just a game? Seriously?
As far as its foe was concerned, the team from Nevada fought like, not exactly knights, but serfs just knighted, which is to say with speed, toughness, swarming around Caps goalie Braden Holtby. Vegas is a first-year expansion team — and against many, if not all, odds acquitted itself beyond expectations.
But we know Las Vegas — brash, bright lights, a place where you can go to any gas station bathroom and pull a slot machine lever or flush the toilet, and not everyone gets it right.
Yet this team chose to call themselves the Golden Knights, of all things, and wear against the grain black-and-gray uniforms — because its owner wanted to honor the U.S. Army, in the first place.
There is not a little irony in the fact that the well deserving MVP for the Caps is the glorious Ovechkin, a Russian and admirer of Vladimir Putin, as is our own president. If there is an unsettling aspect to this outcome in fact, it is the wormy thought that President Donald Trump might take credit for the win. Now that just might be grounds for articles of impeachment.
Washingtonians and Georgetowners have seen all this summoned hope before — and the near-riot celebrations — but probably nothing quite like this in downtown and in nearby bars and restaurants in this century.
There were the three Superbowl wins under Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs — Riggins breaking and lumbering free against the Dolphins in the first, after which people jumped up and down on cars on M Street, a woman named Connie threw a free food party at Peppino’s and people climbed streetlights and cars at Wisconsin and M. There was the Georgetown University Hoyas men’s NCAA basketball championship under John Thompson and one NBA title for the then Washington Bullets (Wizards) — and national basketball championships for the University of Maryland Terrapins, men and women.
But this: just a game? Naw.
There they were during the last two games, a sea of roaring, raw, up-and-down red fans they seemed to be levitating downtown D.C. solely on joy and screaming.
Just a game?
Fans filled up Pennsylvania Avenue, Chinatown, the scene around the National Portrait Gallery, the Capital One Arena. Their joy — ours, too — was controlled but palpable and seemingly endless.
This series, these games and this game of hockey spoke loudly about America as well as for Americans and their passion for other games: baseball, basketball, football and soccer. Yet it was hockey, which doesn’t have a ball to catch, kick or throw.
Every American sport, these days especially, has a data bank, a new set of stats, stats containing an Iliad-like listing of home runs, touchdowns, three-pointers, strikeouts, goals. Essentially, however, American games are the story of quests, with a quest’s aspirations, its holy grails, its shiny rings, trophies and titles — an Odyssey, if you will. No athlete in America has a royal title, although there are many former kings walking lightly among us.
Hockey is a little different.
It has aspirations of both diversity and singularity with its international connections. For my money, it is the most difficult to play. It has a puck, it’s cold in the arena and it’s fast-blurry (few have actually seen Ovechkin’s slap shot in the air, and that includes many goalies). The pace is rocket-like. It is a game that is full of grace and brutality, hence the missing teeth, the flights through the air, the gang war on the boards.
Even though I was once a sports writer — I saw Phil Chenier play at Berkeley High School in California — I couldn’t tell you why there are three periods in hockey, although revelations emerged during the course of these playoffs.
Hockey has been seen as a suburban game — a city game, not so much — yet the times they are a changin’. This fulfilled quest will bring this city together, regardless. (A celebratory parade will proceed along Constitution Avenue from 17th Street NW on Tuesday, June 12, and gather on 7th Street on the National Mall, with the U.S. Capitol looming in the east.)
The home ice of the Washington Capitals stands across the street from the home theater of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where once we heard of the climax of a quest, a crown, a king — Henry V exhorting his beleaguered troops as they faced the French at Agincourt on St. Crispin’s Day:
“Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words —
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester —
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.”
Thus, back across the street: Orpik, Oshie, Niskanen, Eller, Backtrom, Beagle, Carlson, Holtby, Connolly, Kuznetsov, Smith-Pelly, Orlov, Wilson, Stephenson, Djoos, Burakovky, Vrana and Mepny. Sage guide, mentor and coach Barry Trotz. Ovechkin, the prince, of course.
But it’s just a game. Right?
For that night and days to follow, it was and remains life itself. Celebrate yourself, Washington, this time years on, you are worthy.