In Defense of Washington Hockey

We're pleased to welcome Eric McErlain to TSB. Along with writing Off Wing Opinion since ’02 and being a lead blogger from NHL FanHouse, McErlain has been an SN columnist for almost a year. Because you could use some hockey in your life, once a week his work will appear in TSB, starting ... now. ↵ ↵

↵Over at Yahoo!'s Puck Daddy, the monster of a hockey blog edited by my friend Greg Wyshynski, Greg has been filling the most hockey barren month on the calendar with a regular feature: 5 Ways I'd Change the NHL. The results have been nothing if not entertaining, but last Wednesday's entry from Yahoo! hockey writer Ross McKeon hit a little too close to home for my taste. ↵

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↵McKeon, who spent 17 years covering the San Jose Sharks for the San Francisco Examiner, led off his NHL revision list with an idea to contract the league by six teams to get it down to 24. On McKeon's hit list: the Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators and the Washington Capitals. ↵

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↵I'll set aside for a moment that McKeon slated for demolition two of the last four Stanley Cup champions. Instead, I'll just deal with the team that I know best, the one I've been watching up close for 23 seasons, the Washington Capitals. Unlike the other franchises on McKeon's hit list, the Capitals have something of a history in the NHL -- one that's 34 years old. Granted, much of that history, especially the team's early history in the 1970s, was rather miserable, like an inaugural season that has to rank among one of the worst in the history of all of professional sports. That first season, the Caps were 8-67-5, and set records that still stand for most road losses (39), most consecutive road losses (37) and the lowest winning percentage in NHL history (.131). ↵

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↵Oh, did I forget to mention the white hockey pants? For those of you who doubt me, the legend is all too true. ↵

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↵I guess I could say that the team's fortunes began to turn in the 1980s, but that wouldn't be entirely accurate. Yes, the team finally broke through and made the playoffs for the first time in 1983, but the storyline merely changed from misery to heartbreak. If the postseason antagonist wasn't the Islanders -- there was the 1987 "Easter Epic" when Pat LaFontaine slipped in the dagger and the six-game loss in 1993 that resulted in Dale Hunter's 21-game suspension the next season -- there was the stretch when the Caps were the personal plaything of Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins. And when the team managed to pry one of the main cogs of that success out of Pittsburgh -- Jaromir Jagr -- it merely augured further disaster for the franchise. ↵

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↵Looking back, outside of a Game Seven OT goal against the Flyers in the 1988 Stanley Cup Playoffs; a run to the Eastern Conference Finals in the 1990 (Rangers fans will never forget John Druce); and the magical run to the Finals in 1998, the moments of pure, rapturous joy have been few and far between for a fan base that deserved far better. ↵

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↵But now, things have finally turned. The team, after enduring a brutal rebuilding program that netted them a No. 1 overall pick that turned into Alex Ovechkin, the reigning NHL MVP, finally returned to the playoffs this past season thanks to a furious late season push that will be remembered for years by Washington hockey fans. The roster is absurdly young, filled with the sort of talent -- Mike Green, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich -- that's sure to keep the team competitive for years to come. ↵

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↵Something else happened during that late season push -- the fans came back and the building roared in a way it hadn't in 10 seasons. Thanks to the simultaneous rise of Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the rivalry with the Penguins is again developing into one of the best in hockey. And if the initial indications are right, the fans will be back next season, and back in droves. ↵

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↵So just when the fun is flowing back into Washington hockey, here comes Russ McKeon telling the world it's time to close down the whole shooting match. Incredible. ↵

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↵One would think that before passing sentence on the state of hockey in the nation's capital, one of the nation's top 10 metropolitan areas, that McKeon might at least pay a visit. He might be surprised at what he finds. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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