Caps Talk Rivalries
The Caps-Penguins rivalry of the early-to-mid '90s is one of the most stomach-gurgling this city has seen in a quarter-century: five postseason meetings in six years, a total of 31 playoff games, and gallons of antacid consumed. The last of that spate of meetings came in 1996, when Eric Fehr was a 13-year old hockey fan. And the rivalry Fehr was most concerned with at that time didn't have anything to do with Petr Nedved. It was the Winkler Flyers against the OCN Blizzard ("Pride of the North") in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, and it was as fierce as it sounds.
"You just make signs, and you boo guys and taunt them, that kind of thing," said Fehr, a proud Winklerite. "Pack the rinks, boo the other team, really have a hatred of the other team."
Ain't no hatred like a Manitoba junior hockey hatred. Anyhow, many of the Caps have no idea about how deliciously their fan base was tortured by Pittsburgh in the '90s; "it's the same fans [but] it's different teams, so there's nothing we need to worry about there," captain Chris Clark said. "I didn't follow the Caps back then; back in the '90s, I was more a Toronto guy," John Erskine said. " I just know that they hated each other....I don't know anything that transpired," David Steckel said. "I wasn't here so it's hard for me to say," Viktor Kozlov added.
But if the specifics of this hatefest are somewhat absent, the Caps still have plenty of experience with some of the most famed rivalries in sports, some even more storied than Winkler-OCN.
Like Steckel, a Buckeye and veteran of Ohio State-Michigan.
"One of the most fascinating rivalries in sports," Steckel said. "If you play Michigan at any time, they're your biggest rival. It doesn't matter what sport. Any time you play Michigan, you [reaalllllly] hate 'em."
Or Clark, raised in New England with the appropriate regard for the New York Yankees.
"I was a Red Sox fan for 20 years, 25 years until anything really happened, so I can appreciate what fans go through," he said. "And getting knocked off in the same round every year is one thing, but if one team does it to you every year then it really becomes kind of emotional."
Kozlov and Tom Poti both experienced the Rangers-Islanders enmity. Erskine went through Windsor-London in the OHL; "I don't think it's as big," he said, when I asked how Caps-Pens compares. Boyd Gordon pointed to Red Deer-Calgary of the WHL. Fehr dipped his skates in the Hershey-Wilkes-Barre battles of the AHL.
"It's just like this, it's crazy," the Hershey alum said. "Wilkes-Barre fans are like Philadelphia Flyers fans, they're just freaking psycho."
Poti did BU-BC, while Clark starred for Clarkson against geographic rival St. Lawrence. Brian Pothier's first rivalry came when he was a pre-teen star for the North Shore Raiders, anticipating each and every meeting with Poti's Mass Bay Chiefs.
"Two powerhouse teams," Pothier recalled. "The rest of the league was ok, but those two teams were the best."
And that's kind of key. Several players said postseason clashes are a necessary pre-cursor to rivaliciousness, although this current Pens thing has come pretty close, what with the accusations of head-hunting, the dueling Russian stars, the sticky webs of personality conflicts and the fans who remember the '90s.
"Oh, I think it pretty much is right now," Steckel said, when I asked if this could approach Ohio State-Michigan. "It's the two best players in the NHL, and I don't think there's been a spirited love affair between us two. I mean, if you look at our previous games, we don't really like each other that much. So with a seven-game series, I can't think anything's gonna be different, except for more of a hatred towards each other by the end of it "
Really? We're talking hatred already?
"Not yet," Pothier said. "I'm sure I will after this series, though."
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