On Monday (and really in the three months leading up to Monday), I explained why I’ve decided to start following hockey again. Essentially, the timing is right, the mood is right, and now- after the Whalers broke my heart 15 years ago- it’s time to pick a new team to root for (To read Monday’s entire column please click here).
With that said, I’ve already eliminated more than half the league from consideration. Some are gone because of fan apathy (Yeh I’m looking at you Tampa Bay, Columbus and Phoenix), and others because of geography. Simply put, if I’m going to root for a team, there’s a very reasonable chance that I’m going to want to go visit for games. Which is why the Devils, Sabres, Oilers and a few others are no longer in the running either.
Still, there are 12 viable candidates remaining. It’s time to eliminate some more.
Let’s start with the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings and Ottawa Senators. What do they all have in common? Not much, other than that they’re next to head to the chopping block. To their credit, these four teams have great fans, and are in fun cities. But at the end of the day, they remind me a lot of the actress Anne Hathaway: I see what the fuss is about, and why others get excited about them. But they’re just not for me. As George Constanza once proclaimed “It’s not you. It’s me.”
Moving on, the Chicago Blackhawks are in sort of similar position. They’ve got everything I’m looking for in a franchise starting with die-hard fans and a bounty of young players that’s almost an embarrassment of riches. Plus let’s be honest, when it comes to cities, it just doesn’t get much better than Chicago.
The problem with the Blackhawks is that they might be a bit too good. Jumping on their bandwagon now- in the year after they won the Stanley Cup- seems a little tacky, like when a 24-year-old Victoria’s Secret model marries a 60-year-old billionaire or something. It’s easy to throw yourself in the mix when things are going good. But it doesn’t seem fair to everyone who had to survive the bad. The Blackhawks are off the list too.
It’s kind of a similar situation in Pittsburgh. A handful of Penguins fans pleaded their case to me in the last 24 hours, but again, it just doesn’t seem right. The Pens have been to two Cups in the last three years, winning one of them. And with Crosby, Malkin, Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury just now entering their primes, more are on the horizon.
(On a different note, when I was growing up, a lot of my friends turned their backs on the Whalers and ended up picking the Penguins as their team of choice. And in the end, it was hard to blame them. The Whalers were poorly run and terrible every season, and the Pens just kept piling up playoff wins. Still, I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t rub me the wrong way at the time. I guess that Penguins animosity still exists to a degree).
Sticking with recently (and always) successful teams, I probably should’ve eliminated the Red Wings under the “I’ve got to actually want to visit this city,” edict. But come on, Detroit is “Hockey Town.” How could they not make the final cut?
With that said, remember Monday’s column when I discussed all the memories I had of going to Whalers games as a kid? Well one that stands out the most is when Brendan Shanahan forced a trade out of Hartford, and came back six months later with the Red Wings. I’ve never been in an arena with more hate than the Hartford Civic Center that night. We booed for four straight hours, and let out “Shanahan sucks” chants even when he wasn’t on the ice. Even all these years later, how could I root for the Red Wings after that?
We’ve got five organizations left, and- as weird as this sounds- I’m going to cross off the Canadiens and Maple Leafs too. Trust me, it’s nothing against those franchises, because if anything, they’re overqualified to be in this NHL discussion. Which I’ve got to admit is my biggest concern: Am I under qualified to be one of their fans? The Habs and Leafs have fans whose families have been following the team for literally 100 years now. How can I throw my hat into the ring now? I feel like a shy girl getting hit on at a college bar by the quarterback of the football team. Why would they want me?
With those two Canadian blue-bloods gone, we've got San Jose, Vancouver and Washington left. All three are well run organizations. They're three cities I’ve visited and enjoyed. They've got lots of unbelievable fans. Who’s it going to be?
Not San Jose, although it’s not really for any bad reason. I can only pick one team here, and I’ve got to admit that they’re appealing. I went to a wedding in San Jose a few years back and had a blast. Great food, great people, great scenery. The problem is the hockey. It’s been very good over the last couple years, but after all those playoff collapses, do I really want to get into the mix?
Again, it’s nothing personal to any Sharks fan that might be reading. But just looking at their playoff history made me feel like Rex Ryan after hitting an All You Can Eat Mexican buffet. Since the lockout in 2004-2005, the Sharks have made five straight playoffs, and lost to a lower seeded team in four of those years. They’ve been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed each of the last three, and made one conference final and zero Stanley Cups. As a Red Sox fan who spent the first 20 years of my life dealing with postseason heart break, I just don’t know if I can go through that again.
As for Vancouver, I couldn’t think of one good reason not to choose them. I’ve been to the city and surrounding area, and was in love. Honestly, I wouldn’t even mind moving there. As for the team, the Canucks are at the top of the standings right now, are well run and have bona-fide superstars in Roberto Luongo and the Sedin Twins.
In the end though, my mind was made up. I had to pick the Washington Capitals. They will be my new NHL team.
Let’s start from the top.
I know a lot of you- especially the Pittsburgh fans- might see this pick as me jumping on the bandwagon. I get it. I do. The Caps have one of the league’s best players, and have been one of the league’s better teams for each of the last three years.
Then again, how much of a bandwagon pick could this be when the franchise has never won a Stanley Cup? And despite their recent success, it’s not like the Caps are exactly lighting the hockey world on fire right now. They’re in fifth place in the standings, 4-2-4 in their last 10 games, and had an eight game losing streak earlier this season. Washington may have won the President’s Cup last season, but I’m sorry, they’re a flawed hockey team right now. Taking the Caps is hardly a trendy pick.
But let’s get back to my decision. Remember in Part I how I mentioned that fan support was my No. 1 priority? That while players come and go, coaches get hired and fired, it’s the fans I’m most worried about? Well truthfully, the Caps may have the most underrated fans in the league.
For one, they’ve sold out over 80 straight games. I’m not sure if that streak puts them at the top of the league, but it’s got to be pretty darn close.
More importantly though, having spent a significant amount of time in the city over the past year, the citizens really do care about their team. You see jerseys, hats, t-shirts and scarves everywhere. Alexander Ovechkin’s face is is plastered all over the walls of the city's sports bars. Washington may always be a Redskins town. But as far as I can tell, the Capitals are a strong second.
Beyond that, if you’ve made it this far, you know the other logic in making my pick, was whether or not I’d want to visit the city. And I’ve got to admit, I love D.C. It’s clean, safe and easy to navigate. Plus one of my best friends lives down there, meaning I’ve always got a place to crash if I want to stay for a week and catch a game (Or as I tend to do, stay for a month and catch five).
Really though, this decision comes down to two people. One you probably know. The other, you might not.
The first is Alexander Ovechkin. Obviously he’s the best player in the league or at worst, a close second.
Still, it goes beyond that, because there’s just something about Ovechkin that transcends skill. The guy has it all. He’s funny, intelligent, plays well off people and just seems like somebody that everyone gravitates toward. I can think of a million examples to back it up: His recent Sportscenter commercial; The NHL Network documentary that had me smiling for an hour straight; The fact that his mom still gives him haircuts. As someone who writes about sports for a living, if there was one guy I wish I could follow around for a day and write a profile on, it’d be Ovechkin. Hands down.
On the ice, Ovechkin plays the game the way that I think we’d all like to believe we would, if given the chance to play in the NHL.
Yes Ovechkin is known for his goal scoring, but it’s not so much that he scores, but how he does it. He’s got the skill to match any player on the ice, but also the, “I don’t care if you slash me and break my wrist, I am getting to the goal here,” sheer will that most superstars lack. There’s nobody in hockey that’s like him right now.
The second guy I need to mention is Ted Leonsis. Because I don’t think anyone quite understands the role of a modern owner like Leonsis does.
To his credit, Leonsis wants to make your experience as a fan the best it can be. He answers fan e-mails personally, and when he took over as owner of the Wizards this past fall, even put together a list of 101 things that needed to be done around the organization. Some of it was simple stuff like making sure the popcorn is hotter and the beer is colder, and others were more complex. But it was all done with the fans in mind.
Speaking of which, maybe the most important aspect of Leonsis’ ownership is that he’s a fan himself. He was a season-ticket holder before taking over the team, and it’s nice to know that if I’m following a team, my owner cares as much about wins and losses as I do. To Leonsis, owning the Capitals isn’t about the bottom-line and it isn't "just a business,” to him. The guy wants to win Stanley Cups. Lots of them. And at the end of the day, isn’t that all a fan can ask for? That his owner puts winning above all else?
So in the end the Capitals are my team, but what does it mean for readers of this site? Honestly, I’m not sure.
This isn’t, nor will ever be, solely a hockey blog. My bread-and-butter is still college football and basketball, with a little NBA, MLB and now NHL mixed in. Still, there are only so many hours in the day, and only so many days in the week, and really I’m not sure how much hockey I’ll be able to even watch, let alone write about (Of course as always, I encourage you to help me out by sending any relevant hockey or Capitals links that you think I’d enjoy).
Really though, picking a team wasn’t about my writing career, as much as just about being a fan again. My only hope is that having a team to follow will allow me to do all the little things that I’ve missed over the years: Getting to know the player’s back stories, bickering with friends who are fans of other teams, staying up too late after losses, enjoying wins. All the things that make sports so fun, and keep us coming back day after day, week after week.
Ultimately, all I’ve done is chosen a new team. I have no idea if it’ll turn out good or bad, or nothing at all.
But after being on the Hockey Singles Market for close to 15 years, I’ve got to admit, it’s good to be back.
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