WASHINGTON, D.C. — After one final lap to end their first summer as champions, Alex Ovechkin was skating back to his Capitals teammates when he began jiggling his arm. “I think it was heavy for him,” Nicklas Backstrom would say later. Indeed, maybe the Capitals captain had fallen out of practice hoisting the Stanley Cup overhead once his Moscow party wrapped in July. Or perhaps he had already shoulder-pressed the trophy so many damn times that he was still fatigued. “I just worried he was going to toepick,” Backstrom said. “Thank god he didn’t do that.”
Either way, it was a flawless moment on a night filled with them. Forty-four years in the making for Caps fans—and a quarter-century for any District-area diehard—Wednesday’s ceremony slapped an appropriately festive coda on what team play-by-play voice John Walton announced as “the greatest sports summer our city has ever known.” A video montage recapped all of the team’s drunken escapades, from the visiting locker room in Las Vegas to the streets of Georgetown. A brass band covered “We Are The Champions.” A crab was chucked onto the ice and landed near the Stanley Cup, as though it wanted one last sip of celebratory champagne.
“And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for,” owner Ted Leonsis told the sellout crowd. “Let’s raise this banner into the rafters.”
Up it climbed, rising slowly, a spotlight trained on the Cup below. Standing along the blue line, before everyone was herded for a group picture, Backstrom felt “chills” and “goosebumps.” Aside from Ovechkin, he was the longest-tenured Capitals player when they finally broke through—past Pittsburgh in the second round, Tampa Bay in the conference final, and Vegas for the franchise’s first championship. Turns out winning totally changes the tenor of an offseason. “It’s the greatest feeling ever,” Backstrom said recently. “You just went around smiling all the time instead of having the thought of, why didn’t we go further, why can’t we go all the way?
Only one person on the ice at Capital One Arena already knew how that felt. Nine years ago, defenseman Brooks Orpik watched a banner go up in Pittsburgh and came away with an idea about how title defenses should be treated. “I think the one thing that is a guarantee is you’re going to get everyone’s best game, because everyone’s going to use you as the measuring stick,” he said. “If you’re not at 100% mentally and physically, you’re going to get embarrassed.”
Those are problems for different days. For now there was Ovechkin, grabbing the Stanley Cup when the house lights turned on, stealing one last goodbye kiss before lowering the trophy into its protective trunk. There were the chants that then rang through the building, as the carpets were refurled and the puck drop approached before the Capitals’ eventual 7-0 bludgeoning of Boston:
“I heard something today. How many beers will the Stanley Cup hold?”
Leonsis is leaning forward in his chair, eagerly awaiting a response. It’s early Wednesday at the Capitals’ practice facility and the team owner is nibbling a croissant in an upstairs conference room, rocking a white OVECHKIN jersey and a diamond-bedecked championship ring. When his 8:30 a.m. appointment shrugs, Leonsis grins and provides the correct answer.
Small wonder that he waited this long to find out. More than four months ago Leonsis was ensconced in a visiting suite, waiting out the waning moments of Game 5 against the Golden Knights. As the Capitals were clinging to a 4-3 lead with roughly four minutes remaining, a small phalanx of arena employees came bearing strict orders to escort Leonsis—and team president Dick Patrick—downstairs for the looming celebration.
Loathe to miss any action, Leonsis reluctantly obliged. “They were very slow,” he says. “Then some fans in the elevator got off at a different floor.” After what felt like several hours, Leonsis finally reached the stadium bowels and parked in front of a television within sight of the Washington bench … at which point NBC cut to a shot of Leonsis and Patrick still watching from the luxury box. “Then we went out on the ice,” Leonsis says. “There’s no etiquette. You feel like, What am I doing here? What am I supposed to do?” He takes a bite of croissant. “And then you improvise.”
That is one word to describe what happened next. Dancing atop restaurant roofs, flopping into public fountains, performing Stanley Cup keg stands, receiving late-night tattoos, belting out Queen alongside the entire Beltway … all safely chalked up to some libation-fueled ad-libbing. The parties raged through the summer, spanning six countries and six Canadian provinces, touching hometowns and hospitals, before returning for one final gettogether Monday night.
The ring ceremony was held at The Palms steakhouse in Tysons, featuring a surf-and-turf main course and dessert adorned with Stanley Cup-imprinted candy. Most of the roster had remained with the organization over the summer, but invitations were extended to those who left; when goalie Philipp Grubauer entered the restaurant, fresh off a plane from his new home in Denver, chants of “GRU-BEE, GRU-BEE” rang out among his former teammates. A toast was offered by Ovechkin, as well as assistant captains Orpik and Nicklas Backstrom. A video was shown containing behind-the-scenes celebration footage, which many players were watching for the first time since clinching against Vegas on June 7.
“It brought you back real quick, once you see the champagne, the beers and everything flying in the air,” winger T.J. Oshie says.
“Stuff that makes a lot of grown men a little bit emotional,” Orpik says.
The real showstopper, of course, came as Leonsis, his wife Lynn, and Patrick handed two small boxes to every player, who opened them en masse. One … two … three … An audible gasp filled the room. Upon learning that Patriots owner Robert Kraft had commissioned increasingly gaudier rings after each Super Bowl victory, Leonsis had told the rep at Jostens, “We want the biggest ring and the best ring and the most rings.”
And so, the final order from Washington totaled more than 1,200 rings, each made from 14-karat gold, two types of diamonds, two cuts of rubies, and a star-shaped sapphire, plus matching pendant necklaces for player wives and girlfriends. According to Orlov, some rings didn’t fit due to inaccurate measurements that were taken at inopportune times. “Swollen fingers,” he explains. “Because of celebration.”
As for Leonsis, the multimillionaire businessman felt self-conscious about wearing something that ostentatious in public, so he ordered smaller backup version for everyday use. Even so, Leonsis balked at bringing his wares to the NHL’s executive committee meeting the following afternoon, unsure how his colleagues around the league would react. Upon arriving in New York, though, Leonsis was quickly confronted by Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs.
“Lemme see the ring,” Jacobs said.
“I didn’t wear it,” Leonsis replied, explaining his hesitancy. At this, Jacobs simply raised his hand to reveal 14 karats of white gold from the Bruins’ win in 2011. Leonsis understood the message.
“Next time,” he told Jacobs.
Back at the practice facility, Leonsis is already dreaming about that moment. He remembers all the opposing rinks where he has seen multiple Stanley Cup banners in the rafters: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Madison Square Garden … He is also considering the Capitals’ regular-season winning percentage over the past decade, an NHL-best .575, and three Presidents’ Trophies now enhanced by the ultimate prize. Not a bad résumé, he reasons.
“There’s something so clarifying about winning a championship,” Leonsis says. “It’s one of the few things in life where there’s no debate. You can become President of the United States and you don’t even have to get the popular vote. There’s nothing that everyone can agree on in most anything. Who’s a better company? Apple or Google or Amazon? But when you win a championship, there’s no debate.”
Then again, as Leonsis recalls telling the team at the ring ceremony, “If we’re down 3-0 at the end of the first period, we’ll probably get booed off the ice.”
They did not get booed off the ice. They did not get embarrassed. Heck, that guarantee from Orpik about getting every opponent’s best effort? Hogwash on opening night.
Twenty-six seconds into their title defense, winger T.J. Oshie hammered a weakside one-timer past goalie Tuukka Rask, left so wide open that it looked like a power play. Eighty-one seconds later, a wobbling puck tumbled over Rask’s waving stick twice and instead reached Evgeny Kuznetsov, who put the Capitals ahead 2-0 before their Stanley Cup banner had time to cozy up alongside the catwalk.
Ovechkin scored from his usual power play office. Fourth-line center Nic Dowd—the one new guy in the lineup—whipped a spin-o-rama backhand through Rask, who was pulled after Kuznetsov flubbed a shot that still snuck inside the near post. When defenseman John Carlson pummeled another power-play goal past backup Jaroslav Halak, the red light behind Boston’s net remained illuminated. Someone probably just figured that was easier.
“Got some run support,” shrugged goalie Braden Holtby, who made 25 entirely forgettable saves.
Of course, if the Capitals had gotten pummeled, fans would’ve just loaded their favorite celebration video on the Metro platform and been cool before the red line rolled through Chinatown. And sure, there will be bumps this season. Maybe the 20-game suspension of Tom Wilson is upheld on appeal. Perhaps the transition to rookie head coach Todd Reirden hits a rough patch. Orpik marvels that no players required offseason surgery, but he adds, “Guys have to be careful of not letting voices outside the team tell you how tired you’re supposed to be. If you let that filter in, you’ll allow yourself to feel a lot more tired.”
Even so, Wednesday night felt like a continuation, not a culmination. The Capitals celebrated when Ovechkin emerged with the Stanley Cup aloft and set about on a solo skate around the ice. Then they forechecked hard, retrieved pucks fast, and generated high-quality offensive chances. It was the same biting recipe that clinched four straight series on the road after facing deficits in each. And the kind that can make the mind wander far to what Washington might witness next.
“Big roof,” Leonsis says. “A lot of room for more banners.”