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The Washington Capitals Want Out of the Desert

The Caps have yet again been booted from the NHL Playoffs. A long-suffering fan laments and searches for an oasis.

Armin Rosen
May 11, 2016

For my entire life—and for the entire lives of people who are over a decade older than me—Washington Capitals seasons have ended only one way: in soul-grinding disappointment. Though the names and the numbers and the exact circumstances change, a Capitals season is an 8-month march to failure, engineered for maximal cruelty and existential angst.

The 2015-2016 season—which ended Tuesday night when possibly the best Capitals team in the franchise’s 42-year history fought back from a 3-0 mid-game deficit against the arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins only to have their campaign extinguished by a Carl Hagelin wrister five minutes into what had already been a lopsided overtime—is different only because it’s even crueler and more angst-inducing than usual.

Luckily (I guess…), Caps fandom is an ordeal with an eerie, almost mystical repetitiveness across time, such that the individual failures begin to lose all definition or particularity: A game 7 home loss in quadruple overtime blurs into a too many men on the ice penalty which blurs into a Joel Ward high stick or a Jaroslav Halak hot-streak. Did this happen last night, or in 1987? Who even knows anymore.

The failures become one failure; the seasons, a single season. The ebb and flow of the individual years cohere into a single arc: Heroes arise and we dare to believe that they’re capable of reversing what we’ve already feared to be an immutable law of reality. We dream of these heroes—Gartner, Bondra, Ovechkin— vanquishing the past and upending the hockey universe’s entire moral and metaphysical order in a single hoist of the Stanley Cup (I had this dream as recently as Sunday night). Then, once thrust back into waking life, we encounter reminder after crushing reminder that the world is what it is and may always be. Repeated dozens and dozens of times, the details become a single, almost cosmic drama of disillusionment, enacted on the same group of people (namely, hockey fans in the D.C. metro region), year in, year out, to the point where there are barely any lessons in sports fandom that we haven’t learned by now.

After decades of watching this sort of thing, and this sort of thing, I’ve started to wonder whether it’s wise to read any meaning into it all. Probably not—as the great moral philosopher Tom Brady once put it, this isn’t, like ISIS, y’know? But another Caps season, maybe the most heinously wasted of all Caps seasons, is over. So let’s try anyway.

After Tuesday’s game, the iconic D.C. sports miserablist, Twitter user @wzzntzz, likened local sports fandom to samsara, the spiritual state of being stuck in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth in Buddhism. I, for one, am beginning to notice a certain sick humor, and maybe even a glimmer of hope, in the fact that the Stanley Cup Playoffs overlap with Pesach and the counting of the Omer: the requirement that the Jews recall their journey from national humiliation to spiritual transcendence, and then from spiritual transcendence to the trials and disenchantments of the wilderness.

One of the messages of Pesach and Shavuot is that freedom and sublime revelation mark the starting point of our wanderings, rather than their ultimate goal. And what Caps fan can’t identify with that, especially in the Ovechkin era? Alex Ovechkin is the greatest Washington athlete of my lifetime, or maybe anyone’s lifetime. He’s human poetry, the athletic sublime—genius in the service of cosmic failure. Want proof? Watch him corral the puck through a hapless defenseman’s legs, or score from his knees or his back.

I still think he’ll hoist the Cup one day. The Jews made it out of the wilderness; why not the Capitals as well? The story of Pesach and Shavuot is one of highs and lows that would be all but meaningless without each other. That’s sort of encouraging, right? On some June day—hopefully in 2017—the Caps will sit atop the hockey world for the first time in history. Until then, we’ll toil a familiar and seemingly endless desert, believing against decades’ worth of evidence that the destination lies somewhere ahead.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.