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Posted at 2:40 AM ET, 01/ 1/2011

Caps fans, Pittsburgh, New Year's Eve

By Dan Steinberg

(By Cheryl Nichols)


PITTSBURGH -- I'm writing this after 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve. I just walked about 3 miles back to my hotel, and en route I saw the same scene repeated over and over, a scene that I had seen all night amidst the tiny dresses and crooked stumbling and stupid hats and public vomiting.

Caps fans walked down the street. Penguins fans jeered, made cracks about Stanley Cup deficits and Ovechkin chokes, about history and heartache, some that were off-color and some that were G-rated. And the Caps fans responded with wry grins, or with curse words of their own, or, frequently, with "C-A-P-S, Caps Caps Caps!" Loudly. Repetitively. Until it became like a song stuck in your head, something that cycled around your skull, even though it was just four letters and three tuneless words.

Various reports have suggested that 20,000 or 30,000 people came from D.C. to Pittsburgh on this weekend. They filled hotel rooms and bars. You saw them everywhere you went in the city's downtown. At one of the semi-official gathering spots -- a massive, accordion-and-Hops-fueled bar called Hofbrauhaus -- the security guards were saying they'd never seen visiting fans take over the place like that, for any sport.

The Caps fans stood on tables, singing goofy songs and chanting about the hockey team. They wore red winter hats and red jackets and red shoes and red pants and red jerseys. They fist-bumped random people. They bought car bombs for bloggers who occasionally write about the team. They joined the natives for a "Philly Sucks" chant. They were proud of what they were doing. It was quite a scene.

Now, what does this all mean? It's not that D.C. residents think grown men imported from West Bend, Wisc. and Calgary and Krasnoyarsk, Siberia are the best that Washington, D.C. has to offer the world. It's not that they really, actually believe their city's hockey players are more noble or humble deserving of praise than the professional players employed in Philadelphia or New York or Pittsburgh. It's not that they care that much about a business owned by Ted Leonsis, or a business plan executed by George McPhee.

But it's about pride, and it's about community. It's about a huge army of people in Pivonka sweaters and Clark sweaters and Kolzig sweaters and, yes, Ovechkin sweaters seeing each other on the street, and honking horns or slapping hands, and getting a small surge of solidarity, and feeling good about the place they live, or the place they grew up, or the place they were born. Not to invite WaPo discipline or anything, but if you're a working journalist and yet fond of your city, you might even feel some of this yourself.

People used to say that the only thing that could unite Washingtonians was the Redskins. And sure, when you follow the team on the road, you see a great deal of this stuff, but it's different somehow. I don't want to say a bad word about that team, but whatever you think of their recent history, there's something decidedly musty and almost desperate about the whole operation.

These Caps, though, feel vital. They feel fresh. They still feel new and shiny and pretty, something to brag to your friends about, something to reverse the never-ending stream of fan invasions into D.C., something to fling at the people who think Washington is the Smithsonian and Metro and bureaucrats.

Sure, the Caps fans largely look the same. They're white. They're mostly in their 20s and 30s and 40s. Facial hair is evident. There are no shortage of hipsters. They have disposable income. It's not like a cross-section of the D.C. area suddenly showed up in Western Pa. And it probably speaks more to me because so many of them look just like my friends.

But it's a community all the same, and it's a community of people happy to export D.C. to another community for a wacky weekend. I have mixed feelings about the whole sports fandom thing, but to see the strangers -- united by red jerseys and similar zip codes -- in a full-on, city-wide, New Year's Eve embrace... well, it makes sports fandom seem a little less irrational.

Someone chants "C-A-P-S," and involuntarily, you think, "Oh yeah, that's about me. That's part of my city. That's where I live. That's kinda cool." And I'm not sure what the other side of that argument would be.

By Dan Steinberg  | January 1, 2011; 2:40 AM ET
Categories:  Caps  
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Comments

You should have come over to the Radisson for the Caps Fan Club party. We had a good time. Locker even stopped by.

Posted by: EricS2 | January 1, 2011 3:05 AM | Report abuse

I might be drunk and listening to "We Are The Champions" for no good reason, and I may have spilled whiskey while telling my dad about Peter Bondra's use of magic to get into Hasek's head in 1998, but this is a good way to start 2011. Thanks Dan.

No one drunk-types better!

Posted by: Chest_Rockwell | January 1, 2011 3:37 AM | Report abuse

As a lifelong suffering DC sports fan, this is the greatest thing I think I could read. After years of seeing terrible towels at FedEx, Philly Invasions at Nats Park, and just general losing and apathy, to know that DC can take the show on the road and show up in a "real sports town" gives me hope for the future. It's great to get the opportunity to shine on a national stage like the Winter Classic, but to know that it's more than people sitting around at home is very promising. Five years ago if you had told me that this was going on, I'd have been shocked, but I think it's great the town can embrace a team like this, and hopefully we will be rewarded at the end of the year for it!

Posted by: StabbeDabbe | January 1, 2011 4:22 AM | Report abuse

The other side is that there will be a fan invasion when DC (and it better be DC and not Baltimore which the NHL is considering) hosts the Winter Classic. By offering 15000 (or whatever) tickets to Caps STH, the precedent has been set. So, if the NHL holds true to their word to let the Caps host a Winter Classic, they will certainly be inviting 10000+ opposition fans to do what the Caps fans are doing.

Posted by: wfyurasko | January 1, 2011 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Outstanding post Dan. Nice to see the dispassionate veneer pull away a little bit, even if it's just for a single post.

Posted by: dralison | January 1, 2011 9:25 AM | Report abuse

It was just about the neatest thing we've seen. Our first stop was Mario's about a 15 minute walk from Haufbrauhaus and that place was also completely taken over by Caps fans. Chants rang out and it was great. Best part? Max Talbot's house was directly behind it. Do with that as you like, Caps fans.

Posted by: HM328 | January 1, 2011 11:15 AM | Report abuse

I just pity those folks for having to spend time in Pissburgh. But cool nonetheless.

Posted by: poguesmahone | January 1, 2011 11:23 AM | Report abuse

By the way, I'm amazed how much of the Caps Winter Classic gear has been sold at my local Dick's Sporting Goods. Are you sure we aren't a hockey town?

Posted by: poguesmahone | January 1, 2011 11:26 AM | Report abuse

If the NHL lets Baltimore have the Winter Classic, the Caps will be dead in DC. Forever. That is a non-starter.

Posted by: poguesmahone | January 1, 2011 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Dispassionate Veneer removed indeed. Great article Dan.

There's no need for hand-wringing "i have mixed feelings about the whole sports fandom thing" or "I don't want to say anything bad about the Redskins franchise".

You write a fantastic sports blog. It's not a therapy couch. Today you wrote like a man and captured the passion of other men who read what you write. Phenomanal

Posted by: chmick50 | January 1, 2011 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Steiny - this may be my favorite thing you've ever written. Well done, man.

Posted by: Ootek | January 1, 2011 11:38 AM | Report abuse

Splendid, Dan.

Posted by: jen-s | January 1, 2011 11:59 AM | Report abuse

It's about time, i'm sick and tired of seeing Steelers/Penquins jerseys in DC and Maryland. I realize their economy sucks, and they had to move down here - but i hate it just the same. The Caps ARE the team in DC now, the Skins are a joke. You nailed it, there is something fresh and vital about the Caps - it's the fact they were built the right way, they are OUR players -not free agents for hire.

I wish i could have been there. Go Caps - Kick the Ptuckians in the mouth tonight!

Posted by: gs12 | January 1, 2011 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Dan,
I have been a loyal reader since this blog started and have never posted anything but this post forced me to. This is THE BEST piece you have ever written. I've been a caps fan my whole life and root for them more so than any other D.C. team. I cant tell you how nice it is to finally see the Caps get some real recognition, not just flash in the pan press like the '98 Stanley Cup run. Finally, there are true caps fans that actually care and this piece shows what D.C. sports could be.

Posted by: as85 | January 1, 2011 4:08 PM | Report abuse

Dan,

My dad took me to my first Caps game in February 1975. I was 12 and instantly hooked. Over the years I've endured tremendous pain following the franchise. Lots of ribbing, too. But, I've never experienced anything like what I have in Pittsburgh since arriving Thursday night: Caps fans at every turn, a true sense of pride and camaraderie. On the walk back to my hotel this afternoon I overheard a man in a Steelers jacket tell his family: "those Caps fans are everywhere."

All my life, I've sort of measured how the Caps were doing by comparing them to the Redskins -- both as far as game performance and media/fan love goes. Reading your column, I realized something for the first time in my life: The Redskins no longer matter.

The truth of the matter is DC's team is here, in Pittsburgh, and not one person in this football town has mentioned the Redskins all weekend.

I'm looking forward to going to Heinz field in about an hour. 2011 is, finally, THE year.

Posted by: forssell | January 1, 2011 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Dan - great piece...glad you made the trip and are sharing the experience with those of us unable to attend. Sounds like an amazing experience. GO CAPS!!

Posted by: LizDAvonLady | January 1, 2011 5:07 PM | Report abuse

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