The Washington Capitals Stanley Cup Victory Is A Bittersweet DC Moment
aka…The Ballad of Braden Holtby, Devante Smith Pelly, and Gentrification
Twenty-five years ago I lifted the Second Session Shohola Cup as a backup defenseman for the Buddha Blue Cheese of the Camp Shohola Second Session Street Hockey League. As a young African-American sports fan growing up in Washington, DC, it was readily apparent to me that when it came to hockey that, while watching the mostly all-white and often European Washington Capitals, that I’d have to be my own best hero. Though not broadcast on worldwide television, and without a $163,000 check in compensation, on a steamy August evening in Greeley, Pennsylvania in 1993, I achieved that goal.
Twenty-five years later, I watched as Devante Smith Pelly, a black left winger for the Washington Capitals, scored the game-tying goal in the super-important and ultimately series, and Stanley Cup winning game of the Stanley Cup Finals. My mother called me on the phone when it happened and said, “‘black man of African descent from Canada’ damn sure ain’t ‘African-American.’ So I don’t know why black folk here are so happy. He’s just a gentrifier, too.”
When I grew up in Washington, DC, the city was solidly 70% African-American. Thus, of all of the Washington area teams, the mostly white and European Capitals weren’t exactly representative of the population of the city itself. Until 1997, the team played at the Capital Center (later the US Air Arena), a venue in DC’s suburbs of Landover, MD. Thus, their success, though intriguing to me, had as much to do with my immediate life in the middle of Washington, DC as well, a white child shooting slapshots on a street corner in my far Northeast DC neighborhood.
At present, numbers of African-American residents of DC have dipped beneath 50%, and the Capitals play their home games in the heart of the city proper. And yes, on Thursday evening when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup for the first time in the team’s near five decades of existence, I saw a young white child mimicking shooting a slapshot in an area where, as a child, African-Americans lived and worked in abundance.
Friday morning’s first realizations when I arose? Devante Smith Pelly. World Champion. Wow! Black. Not African-American. Gentrifier. Dammit.
Deep down, I remembered when I saw this day coming, and how exciting that felt. I then felt like I had sold myself out. It’s an AWFUL feeling.
Ten years ago I was also a massive hockey fan. I had a cable package that allowed me access to more channels than there were days of the year. Thus, hockey — because it was live and intriguing to watch as I would half-drunkenly stumble through my apartment door at all hours of the morning as a then-burgeoning hipster raver/freelance music journalist — became my game of choice. As a native Washingtonian, I remembered the mid-1980s when the Caps were dependably good enough to make it to the playoffs, and somehow fail to win the Stanley Cup in an unbelievably epic manner. But, via West Coast games and recap highlights, the 2009 Capitals, in particular, seemed a cut above usual. They were a goal-scoring (and defense-poor) juggernaut who seemed to win, or lose games where over five goals were scored, or there were exciting overtime or shootout bonus periods due to the score being tied. Though that team did not win the Cup, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were brilliant to watch, and there was a possibility that the team was building a dynasty.
Furthermore, what intrigued me was that the Caps had a minor league franchise, the Hershey Bears, who, in winning 75% of their regular season games in 2009, were even better than the Capitals were! Moreover, they had a goalie in Braden Holtby, who, when I’d watch clips of his skill, was “stand on his head” good. Looking back through stats, he allowed 2.3 goals per game and saved 92% of shots against him that year, while the Bears scored 4.3 goals per game. Upon actually driving to Hershey to watch this team in action, I sat next to a white-haired woman wearing a Bears jersey who said, “when these kids get to the NHL and get into the mix with Alex Ovechkin, they’re going to be champions for YEARS.”
2009 Hershey Bears stars Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux never indeed made an impact with the Capitals. But, Braden Holtby did. Holtby was called up to the Capitals in 2010, and in 307 National Hockey League games has improved as a goalie, letting in fewer goals than ever before.
In the past decade, I’ve grown away from my love of hockey. Instead, I’ve fallen in love with music and journalism, as well as much less than athletic exploits like politics, studying population shifts, demographics, and cultural evolution. Hockey, especially the 2017–2018 Washington Capitals, entered into my life at the same time as I was heavily researching neighborhood-by-neighborhood gentrification at-present in DC. I quickly accessed data to see where the NHL was at in regards to representation regarding players of African descent and then, I took one data point further and looked into players of African-American origin.
4.3% of the NHL (including African-Americans) is black and of African descent, with 1.1% of the league being African-American. The Capitals themselves have two black players; the previously mentioned Devante Smith Pelly, and Madison Bowey. Realizing this at the same time that I began to understand that black residents of Washington, DC proper face the possibility of markedly lessening in population in the next ten years, I jokingly remarked to a friend, “of all of the DC sports franchises, the Caps are the ones who are closest to a title. With all of these white and European guys, they might also be the ones who best reflect where the city is headed.”
The Washington Capitals outlasted the Las Vegas Knights and are the NHL’s 2018 Stanley Cup Champions. In so many ways, I’m a proud native Washingtonian who enjoys watching the Capitals and is proud of their victory. However, there’s a part of me, in the back of my head, that’s watching all of this happening and more officially than ever before, feels like the Nation’s Capital is less my hometown than it has ever been.
I’m 25% certain that somewhere in the basement at my mother’s house I have the blue ribbon I was awarded for my 1993 Shohola Cup street hockey victory. Maybe I can meet up with Devante Smith Pelly and exchange it for a swig out of Lord Stanley’s Cup. Or, I could move away from Washington, DC. Both options seem equally more appealing than they’ve ever been before.