My dad texted me just after 10 p.m. ET on Thursday night. “I’ve never been so negative,” he wrote. “Need therapy.” The source of his trauma was the Washington Capitals, who were within striking distance of their first Stanley Cup, just one goal down in Game 5. For Caps fans, the moments that are supposed to provide joy—playing in the Stanley Cup Final, the trophy within reach—instead ensnare you with an awful sense of foreboding, as your mind inevitably drifts to leads blown and hearts broken. Your natural instinct is to curl up in a fetal position on the couch.
I inherited many traits from my mom: her sense of patience, her sensitivity, her levelheadedness. My dad gave me, among other things, the Washington Capitals.
Some of my earliest sports memories involve the Caps teams of the late ‘90s—Peter Bondra, Joe Juneau, Adam Oates, Chris Simon, Dale Hunter, Olaf Kolzig—and their run to the Stanley Cup Final in ’98. Caps fandom seemed pretty great until that last round, when they were forced to play the defending champion Red Wings, the favored NHL club of my mom’s family. Her brother showed up on our Maryland front porch ahead of a Cup game in Washington, grinning in his Wings jersey, his confidence unmistakable. I recall making a passionate case for Olie the Goalie, who ended up conceding 13 goals in a Detroit sweep.
In retrospect, the ’98 bunch let us off easy—there’s no shame in losing to a team featuring several future Hall of Famers. But over the next two decades, the Caps found new ways to inflict pain on their fans every spring.
Dropping four straight games to the ’02-03 Lightning after taking a 2-0 series lead, falling in seven to the eighth-seeded Canadiens in ’10, blowing a 3-1 lead to New York in ‘16, losing two home Game 7s to Pittsburgh. The initial positivity my dad instilled in me—that a dude nicknamed Olie the Goalie would somehow stop the Red Wings juggernaut—evaporated with every playoff heartbreak, particularly during the Ovechkin era, which arrived with such fanfare and genuine hope. For my dad and so many other Caps fans, swearing off the team every spring after yet another gutting playoff defeat became a distasteful tradition—though inevitably they’d draw us back in.
These playoffs offered a welcome reprieve. The Capitals displayed a fortitude that past Washington teams lacked: they rallied after losing their first two games to Columbus; finally beat Pittsburgh in the postseason, despite a crushing defeat at home to open the series; and rebounded from blowing a 2-0 series lead against the Lightning, winning Games 6 and 7 to seal a place in the Stanley Cup Final. But even as this team proved it was a new breed, my dad still couldn’t bear to watch more than a few minutes without self-combusting in agony.
I visited my parents for Game 3, and he managed to squirm through most of the first two periods without incident. But when Vegas cut Washington’s 2-0 lead in half after Braden Holtby’s error gifted the Golden Knights a goal, he finally broke: He exited the room in a huff, declaring he was heading to the gym to walk on the treadmill despite his beloved Caps leading in the third period. Even by the standard of Capitals fans, this isn’t normal behavior. But after years of letdowns, the potential for heartbreak was too great.
Despite Washington dominating the series, clearly superior to the Golden Knights, my dad kept up this routine. He’d walk on the treadmill during critical moments of games, the result of nerves and maybe some superstition. After Vegas took a 3-2 lead during Thursday’s Game 5, that familiar sense of dread I inherited came over me—I envisioned the loss that night, followed by a disappointing performance at home and a narrow defeat in Game 7. I tried to make peace with this fate, but I could only imagine how such a letdown might scar me: Perhaps I’d spend the spring of 2019 walking on the treadmill every other night, or electing to watch cable news in a perverse attempt to maintain my sanity.
But then Devante Smith-Pelly scored the equalizer, and a few minutes later Lars Eller gave Washington a lead it never relinquished. Finally, it had happened: No blown lead, no disappointment. As Alex Ovechkin prepared to lift the Stanley Cup, my dad texted me again: “I’m so happy!” He had watched the entire third period.