Saturday, March 29, 2008

Of Fans and Playoffs

It has occurred to me in the past few days that fans can be very misunderstood--by the media, their friends, family, etc., and most of all, by their fellow fans. Bear with me. You've heard the phrase, "Biting the hand that feeds it"? Now, to me, fans, especially fans who have gotten their first whiff of "playoff blood" for the first time in a long time, are prone to become more animalistic in their reactions than others. We're not used to it, we don't really know how to react. The closer the team gets to the playoffs, the more magnified the mistakes become, and the more the fans turn on each other and the team.
Take the Caps' fans Huet v. Olie debate. Now, there are folks on both sides, Huet is a better goalie, Olie's been here and deserves to have his loyalty rewarded, they work well alternating, etc. I personally have no opinion because I haven't really seen Olie's work pre-Boudreau. Both arguments have merit and both sides can see that. But as the new NHL marketing campaign says, "the Cup changes everything." We're not there yet, but the playoffs are so close, fans can taste it. Teams that are perennial contenders have fans that are rooting for them, but rabid? Eh, not so much. It becomes old hat, unless you keep making it in and then losing out, then you're the Toronto Maple Leafs, who make it in occasionally (last time was 03-04), but haven't made it to the finals in 39 seasons, when they ran the table in four of six years. To the Leafs fans, losing in old hat. But Caps fans haven't had a run in what seems like ages. Ten years? In sports, with the shelf life of a pro athlete sitting at about 15 years, (Chris Chellios not withstanding...retire already!! I watched you play as a kid and you were old then!) ten years is almost eternity. Washington has been to the Cup finals once in franchise history (30+ years).
This season has out-done itself in terms of heartbreak, absolute joy, and bitter frustration. Caps fans are getting a little rabid. Look at any Caps blog and you'll see the obvious, everyone would like to be GM. They're already signing players for next season, shipping some off to teams unknown, demoting some, pulling some up from the minors, and trying to force a select few into retirement, early or not. Thus is the nature of sports fans, not just Caps fans. Everyone thinks they can do it better. During football season, fans become "armchair quarterbacks", criticizing every poor throw, missed block, poor tackle. But I think that in hockey playoff season, fans take more to becoming "message board GMs.".
I missed the rebuilding years in DC. I've missed all those "bitter mistakes" GMGM made. But I also see the great things that are happening here. Its obvious to hockey fans in DC (and some non-fans), and its starting to become obvious to the rest of the league too.
I recently watched the behind-the-scenes clips from the Backstrom draft year. My estimation and respect for GMGM grew exponentially. Granted, I had a slight idea at what happened during the weeks leading up to the draft. But wow. Youtube them if you're curious. There is so much feeling out other GMs to see who they're taking before hand. Draft day, there's even more wheeling and dealing to get picks. If I recall correctly, Boston offered a couple of picks for the Caps pick (#3 or 4, can't remember) with the intention of drafting "the Swede". What I do remember though, is that GMGM told the Bruins GM that he had to talk it over with his guys. He goes back to his table, and calmly starts talking to his (scout, president, golf caddy? again, my ignorance shows) about the weather (or was it the guy's family?). They idly chitchat for a few moments, before GMGM calmly gets back to the rival GM with a, "thanks, but no thanks, they would have my job then kill me if I did it, but the offer was super tempting," absolute brilliant bit of acting that, if I handed them out, would have won him at least an Emmy. (no, not Steve, although that's another thing people are bickering about) GMGM and Ovie calmly ascend the platform, shake hands with Bettman, then GM introduces Ovie, who, in still heavily accented and halting English, says "The Washington Capitals are happy to pick Nicklas Backstrom." It put a smile on my face, thinking that a few years later, these two would be lighting it up and becoming as dynamic a duo as Lemieux and Jagr, Gretzky and Kurri.
So while others debate goalie status, free agency, how much to pay players (lets face it, I may never be able to comprehend those numbers, they're so high), whether we can afford so many blueliners without signing a "rugged, stay-at-home" type, what forwards go (we seem to have a problem with having a vast number of players for each position, including being talent-heavy on the left), injuries, etc, I'm just going to hang back. Offer a stat or two if I can think of it, give my general impression, but that's it. I'll let them hash it out. But I will say this, unless he signs away our best players (and I mean Ovie), institutes Capitals Ice Girls, or jacks ticket prices so high I won't even be able to afford to watch games on TV, I'm just going to sit back and let GMGM do his job. He's got a talented team feeding him info, one of the league's best (if not the best) owner in Ted Leonsis, and a squad of great, young guys led by a coach who seems to know exactly what this team needs.
So sports fans, don't get worked up over the little things. A win is a win is a win, regardless of who is in net. I respect Olie greatly, on and off the ice. And I may be in love with Huet. But I'm still an outsider looking in. I haven't quite crossed that threshold from rookie to veteran. I guess I picked a weird time to become a Caps fan if I really want to be taken seriously. I'm just gonna sit back, relax (as long as the guys let me) and take it all in. Because if they play for the next thirty years how they've played in the past thirty games, I'm going to need all the laid-back I can take between games. Cardiac Caps, indeed!!

Oh, and we won last night. On a OT goal by a guy most folks would be fine with shipping back down to the minors, or to another team; after a pretty goal by a guy that most folks think has the "sense of a rabbit" to tie the game.

Kharma's a beautiful woman with bad teeth and body odor.

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