This pep talk is for all supporters of the Washington Capitals – myself included. It is a must-read for call Caps’ fans, so please send the URL all over Red Nation ASAP.
While my father is the eternal optimist and always thinks positive thoughts (so he says, anyway), I am the opposite. After 27 or so years of Caps-induced postseason heartache – sprinkled with a few memorable, exhilarating moments, it’s hard not to be a pessimist.
Those of you who have followed the team faithfully through the 80s, 90s and into the 21st Century know where I’m coming from. Unfortunately there are countless thousands of you out there, and many – if not most of you – will be in the arena for tonight’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the scrappy Montreal Canadiens.
In my professional life – which has spanned 20 years in the sports industry - I’ve been a P.R. guy, a media relations guy, a marketing and promotions guy, a publications guy, a writer and an editor; but in my “other” life, outside of the business world, I’ve been a coach of various sports at various levels for more than 20 years.
My career has afforded me the opportunity to work with some incredible coaches, and I’ve used that opportunity to observe, learn, dissect and pick the brains of these amazing people. Some, such as Princeton University basketball coaching legend Pete Carril and former U.S. Olympic hockey coach Tim Taylor, you may know. Others, such as UMass hockey coach Don “Toot” Cahoon, former WNBA coach Pat Coyle and Bill Herrion, who led the Drexel University basketball team to three NCAA tournaments and scored one of those amazing first-round upsets, you may never have heard of.
And one more, former Loyola College (now university) women’s lacrosse coach Diane Aikens, inspired me and an entire nation of female athletes by leading her team to multiple final four appearances despite a battle with brain cancer that lasted more than 15 years.
You think watching a 3-1 series lead slip away is adversity? Diane, whose niece works for me now, went out on the field every day during her last season as coach knowing she had a few short months to live, and no matter what challenge her team faced she managed to convince those young athletes that if they worked hard, trusted in each other and stuck to the plan that everything would turn out fine.
Hockey fans, again myself included, talk about bad calls, bad bounces, hot goalies, superstitions, playoff beards, conspiracies and all sorts of crazy stuff this time of year. Staring at the end of her life, Diane still was able to simplify and help her teenage and 20-something players find comfort in believing in themselves.
My long-winded point is that I have watched coaches at different levels very closely over the years. I’ve studied them from up-close and from afar, stealing bits and pieces from their approaches and using them in my own life. I’ve witnessed good and bad, successful and unsuccessful. I’ve read books written by the great ones and seen all the sappy sports movies and memorized all the motivational speeches (can you name the movie?) – “This is your time;” “I love you guys;” “On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us apart for that inch;” “No one comes into our house and pushes us around;” “When you take that field today, you’ve got to lay that heart on the line. From the souls of your feet with every ounce of blood you’ve got in your body, lay it on the line until the final whistle blows. And if you do that we cannot lose.”
I’ve become a student of motivation, leadership and sports psychology – a walking reference book, ready with a plan, a quote or strategy for almost any time and any situation. Still, today, as I await a Game 7 that some say could define the Washington Capitals franchise for years to come, I can assure you that no one is more nervous than me. I also can assure you that all of the coaches mentioned above, as well as any of the coaches quoted in those movies, were as competitive as anyone who ever lived. And, I can tell you with ultimate confidence that they were the most nervous people in the room when giving their big-game speeches.
That’s when the coach becomes a psychologist, understanding the personalities in the room and the emotional state of the team. Knowing who can be pushed and challenged and who needs to be coddled. Understanding that in that particular time of adversity the players are looking to the coach to provide them with the reassurance that they are good enough and that everything will be okay. I guarantee you that no one at Verizon Center tonight will be more nervous than me. But, today, I think Caps fans need a little pep talk. A coach. A psychologist. Some reassurance. So, for better or worse, here goes my speech to all of you:
Relax and enjoy the experience. Game sevens, although they seem to becoming a regular part of our Aprils around here, do not happen very often. Nothing in sports is more exciting.
We are privileged to be able to watch the greatest team in Caps history and one of the best players in the world on a daily basis. Celebrate that. Don’t stress over what this team’s legacy will be or if there will ever be a better chance for the Caps to win the Cup. This team and organization is only getting stronger. It has been built the right way. There are young players who will be key contributors for years to come who haven’t even really seen the light of day in the NHL yet. It is not do or die. The Caps are going to be a Cup favorite for a long time. Simplify your thought process and focus on tonight and only tonight.
Realize that the eyes of the hockey world are on YOU, tonight. In the past – even in Game 5 of this series with the Caps holding a two-game advantage – the tension in the building was palpable. Yes, there are some fragile personalities on this team who are struggling at the moment, and they are some of the team’s most talented players. There’s no need to rehash who they are at this point. Believe me when I tell you that every player in that locker room wants to win as badly as anyone else – as badly as you do.
Groaning with every pass that bounces over a stick or misfired shot will not make the situation better or help those players relax and perform better. Urging players to shoot with no understanding of what they are trying to accomplish or how the defense is playing them on the power play does not help their decision-making. And booing, no matter the circumstances, will not endear the players to you and certainly will not improve their effort.
The effort has been there throughout. This team, these players, have given you everything they have. Are they pressing? All of them, no. Some of them, yes. But with every groan, sigh, boo or otherwise negative or frustrated reaction from the fans, the tension grows. Tense athletes are unsuccessful athletes. Your muscles tighten up and you can’t react as quickly, which in the world’s fastest sport can be the difference between winning and losing, between living and dying…sorry, couldn’t resist.
I’ve been to World Series games, NCAA Final Four and championship games, NBA playoff games, Stanley Cup finals games and numerous other championship events at the collegiate and professional levels. I’ve never been in a building as tense as Verizon Center. That cannot be the case tonight.
Tonight, the Caps need to feel the love. They need to feel supported through thick and thin. They need to be able to see that the future is bright and the sun will come up tomorrow. They need it to be made clear to them how much we love them and that we will be there tomorrow, next week, next year, in five years and in 10 years no matter what happens tonight. And the only way for them to be made to understand all of that is for us, the fans, to be as loud and supportive and excited as possible from the moment they take the ice for pregame warm-ups until the final whistle. We need to create the home-ice advantage that at times seems to be missing. We need to be a positive factor in the game’s outcome.
We expect the best from the players, so it is our job to give them our best – for 60 minutes or 240 minutes, whatever it takes. This team has refused to quit, even when bad performances have left them trailing and at times unfairly booed off the ice after two periods. The hockey world will be expecting the Caps to play poorly and their fans to become frustrated and angry tonight. It’s time to show the haters and naysayers that we are once and for all a hockey town and not a bunch of bandwagon, frontrunner fans. It’s time to lift our team to victory and not resign ourselves to defeat. It’s time to forget about Billy Smith, Pat LaFontaine, Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Hextall, Tom Barrasso and all the other ghosts of the past.
This is OUR time. Believe in YOUR team. They are the best in the sport, and they’ve proven that over the course of 82 games. Tonight doesn’t change that. Nobody, and I mean nobody, cruises through to the Stanley Cup. We can talk about winning a series in five and resting and whatever else. The bottom line is that the only way to win a Stanley Cup is by finding a way to dig deep, put your head down and grind it out. No one is going to give the Caps anything, but it is our job to be as intimidating to their opponent and supportive of our players as possible tonight.
So Rock the Red. Give us more cowbell. Wear your lucky shirt. Unleash the fury. Stop by church. Listen to Metallica. Rub your Bruce Boudreau bobblehead’s bald skull. Do whatever it takes to get yourself in the proper frame of mind to make the difference for YOUR team tonight. And then give them your best, and I’ll guarantee they give us theirs. And, if that happens, we cannot lose.
Funerals end … tonight!