In fact, it’s a summer like many others, for many, many NHL franchises. For many fans that have recently come to love the team, this “early” exit stings like a first brutal breakup. And, just like relationships, they start to get easier after a while. The sting fades, skins thicken, and ultimately the pain becomes promise earlier and earlier in the summer.
And that’s how it should be, because nothing is a given in fandom. Fandom is a one-way social contract, terminable by you, the fan, at any time you choose. You pour your heart, soul, brain, and wallet into a collective idea based on a geographic location and a logo, and really, you are promised nothing in return. You are 100% in control of the demand, and the supply on the team’s end is (unless you live in Seattle) almost inexhaustible. It’s perfect economics. It still hurts like a mother.
So why enter into this “One Way Love,” (as best illustrated by E.G. Daily in the 1985 John Cusack film Better Off Dead)? The Capitals are that special person who will stay up late telling you their innermost secrets and desires, then completely flake on brunch the next day. Why do we keep coming back, Caps fans? Why don’t we move on? Why do we act surprised when they do us wrong every spring?
Well, the answers to those questions depend on how you view the very concept of fandom itself. There are people, many of them lovely, smart people, who completely disagree that fandom is a one-way contract. Lots of folks believe their investment in a team “deserves” commensurate effort and investment on the team’s part. They believed they are “owed” performance up to their expectations. After taking a pulse of a few of these folks after the Tampa sweep, they felt that it was “Eastern Conference finals or bust.” But would those people really be happy if the Caps got eliminated Wednesday night (like Tampa Bay probably will, — I’m writing this on Tuesday) instead of what feels like months ago? Something tells me there would still be pain, crying, anger, and emotional mix tapes being made for lonely, hockey-less summer night drives. These folks are Lane Meyer, Cusack’s character in the aforementioned Better Off Dead. Their devotion is adorable, but ultimately, painful to watch.
There’s also the Lloyd Doblers of the Caps universe. Dobler, of course, is the trench coat wearing, ghetto-blaster raising protagonist of the 1989 classic Say Anything…, Cusack’s breakout role. Lloyd is an optimistic romantic, who proudly proclaims before entering into his relationship with a Stanley Cup-worthy hottie, “I want to get hurt!” This behavior appeals to a lot of us, because it embodies the “all in” mentality we love about sports. There’s no bet-hedging for the Doblers, even though they know they are ultimately doomed. These folks are the most interesting to talk hockey with, because they are the first to tell you how much they hate 7 or 8 players on the team, yet will also be the first people to let you know that they’ve renewed their season tickets. There’s something admirable about commitment in the face of statistically improbable success. That’s probably why Say Anything… is still Cusack’s most memorable role 22 years later. Well, that and stretch of horrid movies he’s been involved in the last two decades.
At last we come to My People. Maybe you think this makes me a bad fan, and that’s okay, but I don’t expect anything of any team I follow. Sure, I have “expectations” about how a team will do for the season with a lowercase ‘e.’ What I don’t have are “Expectations” with a capital ‘E.’ Those are for the intense relationship people. When the Capitals don’t meet ‘expectations’ I maybe lose a couple bucks on Sportsbook.com. When the Capitals don’t meet “Expectations,” people throw things. Sure, it hurts to lose, especially when things go as poorly as they have in certain series. I still watched every game, cheered as loud as I could when I was there in person and proudly wore my red jersey at work like a goof, but I also wasn’t afraid to book a vacation for the second week in May. I feel the pain of the loss, because as R.E.M. taught us, “Everybody Hurts.” What I don’t feel is “betrayed.” A lot of Caps fans feel as though Alex Semin cheated on them with another person, that Bruce Boudreau left them stranded at the airport, or that Mike Green forgot to feed their cat while they were away. To me, the Capitals are a hockey team – a hockey team I love, but still a hockey team. And you know what every hockey team but ONE does every year? They don’t win the Stanley Cup. If you’ve been keeping score, you can probably guess where this is going. I’ve loved and lost too many times to truly invest. I wear a cloak of obscure references and glib observations as protection from my true feelings. For a brief summer in the 90s, I cheated on my true love with the New York Rangers. I, of course, am John Cusack’s record store proprietor Rob Gordon in 2000’s High Fidelity. “Who are your All-Time Top Five favorite Capital goaltenders?”
Maybe it makes me sort of a jaded buffoon. Maybe it means I’m getting older and hockey is occupying a less emotional place in my life. Maybe it just means that I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if the Caps actually won a Stanley Cup.
Whatever it means, and wherever you fall, we continue to play our chosen roles even in defeat. The Lane Meyers will be depressed and figuring out elaborate trade scenarios that will “definitely” result in a Cup-winning team. The Doblers will lament the ’10-’11 Caps until there’s nothing left to lament and they count down the days until Evgeny Kuznetsov’s U.S. arrival, envisioning their idyllic future together.
And us, the Rob Gordons? Well, we’ll continue making lists, being nostalgic for the very recent present, and thinking about Capitals hockey in terms of romantic comedies of varying quality. We can’t help it.
None of us can. We’re fans.