WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Stanley Cup pre-game festivities in Las Vegas are the wildest 21st birthday party you’ll ever attend. In D.C., they're your dad dancing at a wedding reception with two light beers and a glass of champagne in his system. After Sting and Shaggy performed together on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery before the Capitals’ first home game of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night, Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak announced the starting lineup by spelling out players’ names on the video board above center ice. It was a stark contrast to the show the Golden Knights put on in their shiny new arena for Games 1 and 2, which came complete with performances by Lil Jon and Imagine Dragons, as well as pyrotechnics, a plastic castle, acrobats flying from the ceiling, an elaborate light show and techno so loud it made the beer in cups vibrate on its own.
The two cities are equally passionate about their teams, they just express it differently. Golden Knights fans don’t know any better than to celebrate a Final appearance as though it were a rave on a rooftop pool—they’re teenagers in love. Hockey in Vegas didn’t exist a year ago, and here they are, competing for the biggest trophy of all. Fans of the Capitals are more like the older lead in a Nancy Meyers movie, the one who understands that love is mostly pain but doesn't stop hoping for Happily Ever After anyway. The team has been ripping its fans’ hearts out since the 1970s, and it’s been 20 years since the Caps last made it to the Cup. They got swept in four games and for two decades have tortured loyal supporters by repeatedly making it to the playoffs only to blow it in the second round. Alex Ovechkin is probably the greatest athlete to never win a championship.
Yet despite the drastic differences between each team’s narratives, the two cities battling for the Cup are more similar than either would probably like to imagine. Perhaps on par with having a team repeatedly break you is not having a team to break you at all. Either way, fans of both teams are thrilled and surprised to be where they are.
“I 100% want them to win, but to be honest with you, I think everyone is just so proud to have gotten here,” said Greg McKillop, 27, who grew up in Washington and flew back from his home in Los Angeles to attend Game 3. He was wearing a red jersey like everyone else inside the Green Turtle, a bar next to Capital One Arena, before the puck dropped.
“It was that second-round hump specifically for this team,” he continued. “It didn’t used to be fun to watch playoff hockey in D.C. because of how stressed you were. And all the superstition and the rumors. It was just scary. So after they beat the Penguins [this year], it’s like we’ve been playing with house money. It gives you chills.”
“There’s this passion for the game in Vegas,” Big D, the in-arena and radio host at T-Mobile Arena. “And fans understand how crazy this ride has become.”
There’s a significant transient population in each city. In Vegas, people move in and out for jobs in the service industry and the cheap cost of living. In D.C. they cycle through according to political administrations and the school year. Both have huge tourist attractions, thanks to institutions that dominate the public perception but don’t necessarily accurately reflect the town their locals know. In Vegas, it’s the Strip, the river of neon sin that cuts through the desert. In D.C., it’s the Hill, the dome of American democracy that sits above the swamp. Both are corrupt, but at least one city is more honest about that.
To locals of both, the Strip and the Hill don’t define their cities. Outsiders might focus on the towns’ superficial reputations, but the thriving local populations deeply care about their true homes. Hockey has provided a way to claim their identity of place. To be a part of something historic that belongs only to them, not to the millions of interlopers who come through each year.
There’s been some noise during the series that Caps fans are bitter Vegas is new to the game and so quick to do what’s taken their team over 40 years. While some probably are, that doesn’t seem to be the predominant attitude.
“We’re long-suffering, yup,” said John Salkukash, a Caps fan in Vegas before Game 1. He and his buddies were a lonely dot of red in the black and gold crowd. “But Vegas is great, it’s a great story for them to come out in their first year and make the Cup Final. We’re just happy to be here. All the Knights fans have been nice—they’ve been giving us handshakes and saying good luck.”
The games in Vegas were so loud that it was hard to imagine any other arena being able to produce the same level of noise. But Washington did it as fans waved their red glow sticks, erupting as the Caps scored three goals to Vegas’s one, handing the Knights their only back-to-back losses of the postseason. The team seemed fueled by the crowd, and Ovechkin on the bench was as emotional as any fan in the stands, raising his hands to the sky as Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the game-winning goal.
Once Washington won and claimed a 2–1 series lead, any weariness and trepidation hanging around before the game was gone from the streets of D.C. A drunken Caps fan walked head first into a glass door and didn’t even care; strangers were going up to each other high-fiving; fans shouted “CAPS IN FIVE, BABY!” The place looked like a college campus after a weekend of partying, and the damp air was electric with hope. It felt very similar—if swampier—to the scene in Vegas after its Game 1 win, when fans flooded the local bars around T-Mobile. At 1:30 a.m. in D.C., locals were still going strong at the Irish Channel, a dive bar near the arena. They’d been there for hours, and the place had run out of Guinness, Bud Light and a summer shandy on tap. A bartender poured Miller Lite until last call and he’d already ordered 150 more kegs for Monday night’s Game 4.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do if they win,” he said, shaking his head. “This place is going to be insane.”
The same will be true about Vegas if it pulls this off. What a wonderful problem for both cities to finally worry about.