Thursday, October 1, 2009

Caps Ready to Take Over the Nation's Capital?

The Washington Capitals have an unprecedented opportunity this season. They can literally take over the town – and that mission begins tonight when the puck drops to begin the 2009-10 NHL season as the Caps take on the Bruins in Beantown.

Many doubted that D.C. ever could be a true hockey town, but three men have the franchise perched on the verge of making what once seemed impossible a reality - Alex Ovechkin, unarguably the best player in the world; owner Ted Leonsis; and coach Bruce Boudreau.

Ovechkin, the two-time reigning Hart Trophy recipient and back-to-back players' choice as the league's MVP, has captured the imagination of Washington sports fans like no other athlete since ... well, like no other athlete during my 39 years. Previous teams have captured our hearts – and so have some charismatic athletes – for short periods of time, but no one has elevated a franchise or a sport to the forefront in this locale like the Russian Machine.

Ted Leonsis, plain and simple, is the best professional franchise owner in the D.C.-Baltimore area. He's made hockey affordable for the loyal fans that followed the team during the lean years and is not gouging those same diehards now. He's provided the best in-game experience around. He's embraced the cutting edge of technology and maintained open and (mostly) honest communication with the fan base. And, finally, he's let the hockey experts in the organization do their jobs, which took quite a bit of patience during the down times. The end result is the league's most exciting team along with a true home-ice advantage and an atmosphere that ranks among the best in the NHL. It's certainly a far cry from the 12,000 empty seats we used to see on a Tuesday night in February.

Bruce Boudreau simply has been the most successful coach in professional hockey the past 1-1/2 seasons, compiling an eye-popping 87-41-15 record and winning two Southeast Division championships. Remember, he inherited a team that was in last place in the conference around Thanksgiving 2007, instituting a free-wheeling style that capitalized (pun intended) on the team's speed and skill, and led them all the way to the division crown. He managed this after countless years toiling in relative obscurity as a player and coach at the minor league level.

His formula for success is as plain as the image he projects: Get after the players behind closed doors and challenge them to give their best every time on the ice, be straightforward and let the players know where they stand, show compassion and empathy for those like him who are on the fringe as NHL players and never take shots at anyone publicly. That style breeds loyalty, camaraderie from the top down and the type of chemistry needed to win a championship. Guys may come and go between Washington and Hershey, but instead of sulking, they return to the AHL with a purpose and the unyielding desire to do whatever it takes to get back to Washington and be a part of what Boudreau is building. That is a tribute to the coach, especially in this day and age of temperamental coddled professional athletes.

Oh, and one other piece of the puzzle that is important to recognize is general manger George McPhee, better known as GMGM in Twitter- and blog-speak. He has been often maligned, sometimes beloved and frequently second-guessed by the public and the media. But, at the end of the day, he's the rare sports executive who has successfully taken a veteran, reasonably successful team apart, stripped it down and overseen a complete rebuilding to the point that the team is on the brink of exceeding anything it has accomplished during its 35 years of existence. Love him or hate him, there's something to be said for what McPhee has accomplished.

So, where does that leave us as the Capitals prepare to embark on what potentially could be a historic season for them - one in which they quite possibly could rise to greater heights than ever before? Not only are the Caps a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, some have dared to label them a favorite.

The Penguins are still a great team, but we'll see how they handle Lord Stanley's hangover. The Red Wings lost more talent than ever during the off-season. Boston's success is predicated on the performance of a journeyman goaltender who was the best netminder in the league last year. But can Tim Thomas put together two seasons in a row of that caliber? Chicago seems to be the next Western Conference power, but still may be where the Caps were a year ago; a little bit of seasoning will make them really tough. San Jose? They just can't seem to get it done in April. Others have reloaded, but the Caps enter year three of what seems to be a natural progression toward greatness.

At least one national sports publication has picked the Caps to win the Cup, which as we all know can be a blessing or a curse. Nonetheless, it is a sign of respect. There are two things that I know: I've never seen the Caps win the Stanley Cup, and I've never seen the Caps picked to win the Stanley Cup - by ANYONE. They must be doing something right.

It's an exciting time to be a Caps fan. Those who are already aboard the express should consider themselves lucky. With the way the Redskins, Wizards, Orioles and Nationals are performing these days, Washington is one step away from being a hockey town - for a long time. I believe Ovie has another 11 or so years left on that contract, right? If you haven't gotten your tickets yet, it may be a long time before you can head to Chinatown to Rock the Red. To me, as a long-time Caps supporter who has been involved in youth and amateur hockey in this area for nearly 35 years, that's the coolest part.

Enjoy tonight. Enjoy the season. Remember that only one team ends the year on a truly positive note. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Revel in the fact that people areound North America pay a lot of money to go see YOUR team play. D.C., you have arrived as a hockey town. Let's hope the ride is a long and fruitful one.