Friday, April 25, 2008

Hitch Up the Bandwagon

As the second round of the playoffs gets underway and we are left watching it from our couches, we suddenly find ourselves with a wealth of time to talk about this season - what went right, what went wrong, and what we can expect next year.

But we'll get to that later.

Right now, though, I wanted to discuss something that is among my top five pet peeves, right behind the moron who gets up to use the bathroom a second after a faceoff and just ahead of people shouting "O" during the national anthem. And that, dear readers, is this persistent misconception other fans have that Caps fans - without exception - are bandwagon fans.

It seems that whenever supporters of a certain team can't think of real, legitimate things to mock about the Capitals they go for their favorite attack - the fans. It's the old standby that never fails to get a cheap laugh no matter how true it may or may not be. Washington isn't a hockey town, they chuckle. DC is a joke. Caps fans couldn't name a player other than Ovechkin if they tried; they're not real fans. Not like us, the proud Flyers/Penguins/Rangers/[insert evil team name here] fans who know what it takes to truly love a team.

Bull.

I remember a time when the Caps were the hottest ticket in town. Night after night the Capital Centre would be rocking, and it wasn't because the team was racking up the Cup wins. Far from it, in fact. They were good, exciting, but never all that successful when it really counted - perpetual choking dogs, a moniker we all wore proudly if not a little sheepishly. It didn't matter, though. People turned up every night, year after year, packing the seats and showing their support for the greatest little team that couldn't. It was because the team was fun to watch and there was always that nagging feeling that this year - this year would be different.

So are we to believe that all those people who paid good money back in the 80s and early 90s to see this team were holograms? Actors paid by Abe Pollin and friends to play a part? Did they all merely die out? Seems highly unlikely.

The more reasonable explanation is that a lot of them simply got tired - tired of being ignored by the media, tired of the team's inability to hold onto it's star players or attract new ones, tired of being subjected to a product that was less than scintillating. We had our good years between the heyday of the late 80s and today, but they were few and far between...and as a hockey fan, there was nothing during that period that even comes close to the level of excitement this young team can generate.

The fact is hockey is exciting in DC again and that's why people were back in the seats en masse during the second half of the season. It wasn't so much bandwagoning as it was a rebirth, a reunion of sorts for fans who are rediscovering the team and the sport - and you can tell that's what it is because it started before the team really got hot.

It started, in fact, when Alex Ovechkin signed his long-term deal, January 10, 2007. The Caps' record at that point? 16-21-8. You would have needed a crystal ball to predict the ending the season would have, and yet people showed up, people filled the seats and started to believe again. It was so much more than knowing Ovechkin was ours for the long haul. It was fans buying into what ownership had been trying to tell us all along.

Be patient, we're rebuilding and it will be painful at times...but this team is going to be great, and soon, and for a long time. That's all people needed. A little faith, hope that even if this season didn't turn around the way it eventually did, next year would be better. The year after, even better than that.

You know, it's very easy to sit up in cities like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh and look down on Washington, to smirk and point and make fun of what they don't understand. And I choose these two cities for a reason - partly because they are the most notorious fans when it comes to dragging out the "bandwagon" taunt but partly because they each serve as an example of a skewed perspective, of people having no right to point fingers.

In Philly, fans are always so proud that even in the dark times they supported their team - and they should be proud. To maintain a fan base when a team is lousy is very hard to do, and the Flyers did it well...for one year. One year of darkness sandwiched between years and years of success, if devoid of Cups, in the form of perpetual playoff appearances. Their first year in the league the Flyers went to the playoffs; seven years in they had the first of back-to-back Cups. It took the Caps that long just to get into the postseason, and twice as long to get to their first Conference Final.

In fact, the Flyers have missed the postseason only eight times in their forty year history, and only once have they gone consecutive years without putting in at least an appearance. That's consistency. That's success. That's why fans continue to pack the Wachovia Center, and good for them - Flyers fans, you should celebrate what your team has accomplished. But don't come to DC with your one bad season and flaunt the fact that you "supported them even when they sucked". It just doesn't fly, so to speak.

As for the Penguins, well...it's always fun to remind them that in the days before their own personal Jesus came along, things weren't so happy up at the Igloo. In 2001, when their rebuilding was just getting under way, the Penguins ranked 16th in league attendance - perfectly respectable but nothing to write home about. By the next year it was down to 22nd; in 2003 that number dropped to 25th. And by 2004 they were dead last, drawing just over 11,000 fans per game. Mellon Arena is smaller than a lot of arenas, sure, but still. That's not exactly bursting at the seams.

Now I don't point out those numbers just to rub it in the face of every Penguins fan who laughs at DC.

...okay, maybe I do, a little. I'm nothing if not willing to use my bitterness to my advantage. But it's also to make a point, and that is this - when a team is unsuccessful for any stretch of time, when the playoffs are out of the picture by Christmas for years at a time, it is only natural that the fans start to disappear. It happened in Pittsburgh, it happened here, and it's happened in just about every NHL city in the league. It's nothing to be ashamed of, and fans who have been through it would do well to remember those times and learn from them rather than mock other teams going through it now.

Did attendance in the 'Burgh spike when Captain Crosby came to town, even as the team continued to rebuild? Sure it did...doesn't make them bandwagon fans (or we'll say they aren't for now, just to take the high road). Did Pens fans catch on to Crosby's talent faster than the Caps fans did to Ovechkin? Absolutely - and it's because we've been burned before. The fact that Crosby's arrival triggered a rash of sellouts in Pittsburgh is no more a coincidence than the fact that Ovechkin's new contract triggered a rash of sellouts in DC.

We are, to put it mildly, a fanbase in need of healing. We've been through the wringer, not just the past few seasons but for years, decades. But there is a sense, a buzz on the streets, that this team is going to make those of us who stuck around in the lean years proud that we did so - and those fans just finding their way back now glad to be back.

No one knows what will happen for sure in the coming years...but I have a feeling we'll be Rockin' the Red for a long time.

7 comments:

Carol in NoVa said...

Hear hear

exwhaler said...

"Bandwagon," especially in this day and age of luxury boxes and high ticket prices, is an insult thrown around far too much with a unhealthy helping of ignorance. Anybody who knows anything about the Capitals' franchise history knows that even in good times, very few if any other NHL teams and their fans have suffered as much heartbreak in such a short period of time (four decades) as the Caps. The simple fact they've maintaines some semblance of a fanbase core in spite of that should speak volumes.

And that's coming from a former Whalers fan.

Great post, CapsChick. This with Peerless's "Passion of a Caps Fan" and the "Growing Up with the Washington Capitals" site should be required reading for bandwagon critics.

DrCapsFan said...

I think a lot of people had their hearts broken back in the 80's when lots of guys left town and the team seemed forever doomed to playoff disaster.

If you look at the attendance records, the Caps were at the top of the league in the late 80's/early 90's.

Maybe some people (Dan Snyder) need to realize that to be successful, you have to build from the ground up. The team in 2004 was horrible despite their payroll. Something like the Rangers of the late 90's. They had to dump them to start over.

As painful as it was, it had to be done and we are finally starting to see the benefits.

dmg said...

I don't know about near the top, but the Caps certainly had their years.

What people don't realize a lot of the time, I think, is that any team can suffer at the gate if they don't perform on the ice. For instance, coming into this season, the Caps had outdrawn Boston in 6 of the last 10 seasons. When Pittsburgh was the worst team in the league they drew less than 12,000 a game one year. Chicago's had terrible attendance created by their terrible (past) owner and lack of success. Yet you don't hear near as many people clamoring that Boston, Chicago or Pittsburgh aren't hockey cities.

Debcapsfan said...

What a terrific post. For those of us who have been here forever (my story is actually pretty similar to yours) we feel the same way. I am looking forward to growing the fan base.

Nadine said...

Well-written and I completely agree with your point regarding last year's Flyers suckitude. Our one basement season does not compare.

So can I get some extra credit for growing up in northeastern Ohio and being - to this day - a Cleveland Browns, Indians, Cavs and Force/Crunch fan?

Unlike the outrageously orange-clad crew, I may not know how long-term stint at the bottom of the ranks feels in hockey but at least I have experience at it in other sports worlds!

interpathway said...

how do you feel about people who yell "OH'..."VEEEEE" during the national anthem? :)