Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

After Obama, dreams turn to Stanley Cup

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WASHINGTON -- On the southbound platform of the Washington Metro stood at least 25 Ovechkins. Redolent of red, in a last car full of front-runners and long-sufferers, we were on our way to what suddenly has become the hottest ticket in the city, at least since Barack Obama's inaugural balls: Capitals hockey.

As the train rolled along, I heard a woman a few feet away (in one of those Alex Ovechkin jerseys) tell a man (dressed like "Olie the Goalie" Kölzig, who left the team a year ago) that the 11-year-old daughter beside her (Alexander Semin, autographed by same) was delivered mere hours after she attended a game.

"I don't even remember who we were playing," she said. "But I remember waddling all the way up to the 400 level."

"If your water had broken at the end of the first period," I told her, "they wouldn't have needed the Zamboni."

Now, Dawn Jacob said, she and young Sara would be more favourably perched in a pair of $105 chairs just behind the visitors' bench. I wondered whether the Great Recession and 8.5 per cent unemployment had taken its toll on her neighbours in Section 101, but Ms. Jacob said it was just the opposite: in Washington, this spring, it is easier to get a sub-prime jumbo mortgage than a seat at a hockey game.

(Every home game here is a sellout, and every available subscription for next season already has been claimed, a rather remarkable turnaround for a franchise that was last in the NHL in season-ticket sales just two years ago. During the games, amid the thunder of a nearly all-white crowd in a mostly black city, only a single, brief "Support Our Troops" slide show on the scoreboard -- an Air Force bomber, happy Afghan villagers -- cracks the illusion and reminds us that the wartime White House is only eight blocks from centre ice.)

The train came out of the tunnel and in the distance Sara, sitting by the grimy window, could make out the Washington Monument. Dawn was talking about her other child, a hockey-playing boy, but in this town, politics is never far below the surface.

"When Sarah Palin was running for vice-president," she said, "I remember thinking, 'Hey! I'm one of those hockey moms she's talking about!'"

"What did you think of her?" I asked.

"An interesting character," Dawn Jacob said. "But I wasn't a fan." Hillary Clinton was her candidate.

"When Hillary lost the nomination, did you cry?" I wondered.

"I don't get emotional about those things," Dawn Jacob said. "I knew it was coming. But last year, when we clinched the southeast division, THAT'S when I got choked up."

I understood how hockey could substitute for reality in Canada, but in Washington, D.C.?

"Well, obviously, these people in government run our lives," the lady in scarlet said. But hockey went straight for the soul. "At the end of Game 7 last year, the whole arena just stood there. It was like, what do we do now? Do we leave? Do we stay? My son was distraught. We were all in disbelief. It's like ripping off a Band-Aid: it happens so quick, and it's done."

Last year, the Washington Capitals, who've never won the Stanley Cup in their 34 full seasons of existence, rose from oblivion to make the playoffs on the final day of the season, then took the Philadelphia Flyers to the limit before losing in overtime in the deciding match of the first round. This year, with the thermonuclear Ovechkin on the power play and the adorable Bruce Boudreau behind the bench, the championship is a real possibility.

What a year it would be in Washington if they made it: first, an African-American president, and then a Stanley Cup.

In fact, on the wall of the Capitals' dressing room, there already was a poster of the sainted mug with these words imprinted over it:

IF NOT US, WHO?

IF NOT NOW, WHEN?

"If not you, who?" I asked Eric Fehr, the right winger from Winkler and the Brandon Wheat Kings.

"Do you actually want me to say who I think will win if we don't?" he replied with surprise. Then came his answer: the Detroit Red Wings: "They've been there and they know how to win."

Eric Fehr and I talked a bit about the surreal aspects of playing hockey in the nexus of American power, and he said that "growing up in Winkler, you learn about all of this but you never think you'll actually see it, and now here I am driving past the White House every day on the way to the rink!"

"I think Obama's great," he went on. "He doesn't hide behind his doors. He's a real 'people president.' He seems like more of a normal guy than some of the other presidents."

Fehr might have been talking about Coach Boudreau, whom I used to see every day, back when I was covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and he was an eager, chatty, unaffected young prospect, which was only about 32 years ago.

Now I found him in the hallway and he was an eager, chatty, unaffected old Coach of the Year. He had just told the local press corps that coaching was "like parenting -- if you yell at them all the time, they just tune you out."

"If not now, when?" I teased Boudreau. And then, more seriously, "What if you DON'T win the Stanley Cup?"

It's not like it's life and death," Boudreau replied with his characteristic humility. "But boy, would that make the lifelong dream come true."

"When you're asleep, do you really dream about winning the Stanley Cup?" I wondered.

"Yes," the coach answered. "Also, when I'm awake."

Allen Abel is a Canadian writer and broadcaster based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2009 A12

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