The Washington Capitals have shown us the true relationship between teams and their fans, and neither should necessarily be crazy about the view.
In losing yet another playoff series . . . another playoff series before the conference final . . . another seventh game . . . the Capitals have been declared as proud members of the Chokers Club, outpointing all other perpetually not-quite-good-enough maybe since the Brooklyn Dodgers.
And because the Caps as players and the Caps as fans must by rule of law view this latest failure, a 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, completely differently, they must view each other with greater suspicion.
Here are the raw facts: the Capitals have existed for 42 years and made the playoffs 27 times. They have won no Stanley Cups, and played for only one. They have lost one conference final, 11 second rounds and 14 first rounds, and been blown out earlier than they believed they should be in nine of the past 10 years.
And fans remember every cruel cut. There are only two players – Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom – who played on all those teams, so that the weight of all that history lands on only them and not the other players, but the fans know all of it and define their Caps experience through all of it.
Players? They come and go, except of course for Ovechkin and Backstrom. They disavow the history they have contributed to, and the fans want them to feel their pain, their way, through their prism.
Of such dichotomies do teams and fans part ways, usually in anger.
By way of comparison, Warriors fans have often been upheld as among the best in sports because they loved a series of horrific teams and stuck out the lean decades for what they are getting now, a potentially epochal organization.
But their circumstances are different because they have actually had one disappointing playoff series in the last 41 years, two if you want to count the 2014 first-round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers – and that series, last year’s championship, was quickly papered over by their successful acquisition of Kevin Durant.
In other words, it’s easy to be a Warrior fan. Caps fans, on the other hand, have had a lot of teaspoons of success when they have promised themselves ladles of it, and they need to blame someone for their unrequited love.
Guess who that’s going to be.
Now this is a generalization as these things must be. Most Caps fans will re-up for another run next year, fully knowing what is likely to happen.
But they will also look at their team with more jaundiced eyes because in their hearts they will suspect if not absolutely know that the players run from the team’s history as the fans are forced to endure it. The mostly mythical sense of community between fan and team is at quiet war with itself in Washington because the town wants the players to feel their decade of pain while the players want to limit their pain to this one series, and forget the history that is now its own creature.
That doesn’t work, not in the faux-romantic way sports is supposed to work. The Brooklyn experience has been much romanticized 60 years on because everyone knows that there’s the payoff in 1955, but also because every Dodger failure of that decade came at the hands of another New York team and fans of that era could do battle with each other in defense of their own.
Caps fans have none of that. Despite the idea that the Pittsburgh Penguins are their bête noire, they have also lost to the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers in the past 10 years. And despite the sense that they can’t win Game 7s, they beat the New York Islanders two years ago in seven and Boston in 2012.
No, it’s the broad tapestry of failure that the fans get, and that the players want to deny. It’s the fans’ sense of predestination fighting with the players’ sense of one-off events. And they can look at each other and say in unison for very different reasons, “You just don’t get it.”
Now there may be a point where the Caps break through all of it, probably now that nobody expects it, and they will be able to hug it out with the customers and laugh at the hard times – kind of the way old Warriors have come to grips with their few playoff series and long stretches of bilious treacle.
But for now it’s too soon, and too raw. Too many Caps fans speak the language of a decade, and too few Caps want to speak with them on those terms. They are like two people who speak different languages and are probably happier doing so, because knowing what the other is thinking can only lead to a bar fight.