It stands as the Capital of the Free World, seemingly resplendent in wealth and power. It should not lack for any material good — and for many (but certainly not all) of its residents, it does not. It boasts some of the richest communities in the richest country on earth, and a sense of affluence and abundance that has grown exponentially in recent decades.
But Washington lacked one of the most important things of all. Only a team long acquainted with suffering could bring it to them.
* * *
During college, one of my university’s chaplains used an interesting turn of phrase to characterize his job: “Loitering with intent.” The term aptly describes the task of proselytizing to adolescents on a college campus, but it equally describes a life philosophy that has served me well. Loitering with intent — putting oneself in the right place at the right time — has led to some memorable encounters with celebrities, as well as truly sublime experiences during my travels.
On Saturday, the Washington Capitals had just returned from Las Vegas, where they won their first National Hockey League championship over the Vegas Golden Knights, and with it the famed Stanley Cup. The Capitals and their captain, Alex Ovechkin, would celebrate at the Washington Nationals baseball game that afternoon, with Ovechkin throwing out a ceremonial first pitch.
With tickets to the game cheap and plentiful, I purchased a pass and walked to the stadium. I thought I might luck into a photo with the Stanley Cup, or a player autograph or two.
I ended up with much more.
* * *
Things started simply enough: During pregame festivities, Ovechkin, the Capitals, and the Stanley Cup came out of the dugout and on to the field. All received sustained ovations from the crowd. The Cup, as recognizable a symbol as any in sports, replete with its own Twitter account and entourage, sat on a pedestal behind the pitchers’ mound. Nationals and Capitals players took a group photo surrounding the Cup, a memorable display of bonding among Washington sports teams. The Capitals and the Cup then receded back into the dugout, allowing the baseball game to begin.
By the third inning, noises and pointing throughout Nationals Park revealed that the Capitals players — and the Stanley Cup — had removed to a suite along the left field side of the stadium. I didn’t know exactly what would happen when I got there, but I knew there was only one way to find out.
It was time to loiter with intent.
* * *
As part of its infancy narrative, the Gospel of Luke includes the Canticle of Simeon. According to the Gospel and Christian legend, the elderly man Simeon had been promised that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. When Joseph and Mary brought the young Jesus to the Temple for his consecration, Simeon upon seeing the child spoke the following words:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
That prayer, dubbed the Nunc dimittis from its Latin incipit, has served as an evening benediction since the 4th Century. When sports announcers or others say, “Lord, you can take me now — I’ve seen it all,” they quote the Nunc dimittis.
* * *
I soon found the corridor at Nationals Park near the suite where the Capitals players — and the Cup — had come to watch the game. So had dozens of my fellow fans.
We spent two-plus hours loitering with intent, in the hopes of capturing glimpses of both the Capitals and the Cup. And the Cup made numerous appearances during the game. Inside the stadium, Nicklas Backstrom hoisted it high to celebrate a Bryce Harper home run — an ironic twist, since the Nationals’ Harper originally hails from Las Vegas, and rooted for the Golden Knights (not the Capitals) to win the Cup.
Meanwhile, our small yet raucous group outside the Capitals’ suite sought a close-up view of the hardware. Repeated and loud chants of “Show Us The Cup!!!” led to several displays of same, including during the seventh inning stretch.
We knew a baseball game was taking place feet away — a game the Nationals did end up winning — but didn’t much care that we couldn’t see it. The Nationals play 81 home games every season, but the Capitals had won their first Stanley Cup in 44 years — and Washington’s first championship in any major sport in 26 years. That math made the choice to loiter in place obvious.
Even after the game ended, fans stayed in place — in fact, the crowd continued to grow. What started as a few dozen spectators looked like more than one thousand. Fans crowded on to the concourse above the Capitals’ suite, and the concourse below the Capitals’ suite, hoping to gain a glimpse of their conquering heroes.
Sure enough, after the game, Capitals winger T.J. Oshie brought the Cup out for one last spin, as the crowd let out a deafening roar:
Even after that — even after the rest of the stadium lay silent and empty — the fans huddled around the Capitals’ suite remained. They didn’t know what they kept waiting for — but they would not be disappointed.
* * *
It might seem inappropriate, even blasphemous, to discuss a Scripture passage celebrating the birth of the Messiah in an essay about sports. Fully to equate religion and sports unduly lowers the former and unduly exalts the latter. That said, many people quote the Nunc dimittis, including in a sports context, whether wittingly or not. And more to the point, the Nunc dimittis also celebrates the accomplishment of a life well-lived — a faithful servant who achieved his mission.
For years, despite all his professional accomplishments — a record seven scoring titles, and three Most Valuable Player awards — Alexander Ovechkin has always seemed unable to accomplish his most important mission. He faced years of criticisms that he shrunk from the biggest stage at a time when his team needed him most. He couldn’t win the big one — and his teams choked under pressure. They couldn’t beat Sydney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that beaten the Capitals in nine out of the ten playoff series the teams had played coming into this year. They coughed up 3-1 playoff series leads four times under Ovechkin — and ten times overall, a staggering tradition of playoff collapses.
This year and this playoff run, however, proved different. Ovechkin played with an intensity and emotion seemingly lacking in prior years. He celebrated with his team, and exhibited a focused frustration that showed his drive to win. And win he, and his team, ultimately did.
* * *
As the crowd on the concourse at Nationals Park stood waiting — for exactly what they knew not, but waiting nonetheless — he suddenly appeared. Ovechkin heard the crowd screaming his name: “OVI!!!” The security guards and police had massed outside the Capitals’ suite; having dealt with shouting onlookers for hours, they doubtless hoped that the Capitals would leave quietly, and the crowd eventually disperse.
Ovechkin would have none of it. The man who had taken the slings and arrows of the sports world for a decade — and now had that entire weight lifted from his shoulders seemingly overnight — wanted to celebrate with his fans. Three hours earlier, when his ceremonial first pitch sailed high, Ovechkin insisted that Nationals All-Star Max Scherzer throw the ball back to him so he could take a second shot.
This was his time — having brought Washington its first championship in a quarter-century, it was his city — and Alexander Ovechkin was going to enjoy himself, security concerns be damned.
The crowd that moments earlier had hoped for autographs from Capitals players got something else instead: A hug.
That embrace — a hybrid of a mosh pit and hugging it out — encapsulated the special nature of this moment in time.
The Capitals, and Ovechkin in particular, didn’t just give Washington a championship. They’ve given them something much more valuable.
* * *
Since winning the Stanley Cup Thursday night, the Capitals have already taken Washington by storm. Suffice it to say that the video highlighting Ovechkin and the Capitals’ greatest moments with the Cup includes many with the label, “Don’t try this at home.”
But as a city constantly consumed with politicized and hostile arguments large and small — from the North Korean negotiations to “Spygate” to yes, even debates over health care — Washington deserves something to unite over, and smile about. The Capitals fit on both counts.
Many days, even the sports pages provide little respite from controversy — disputes between greedy players and owners, protests over the National Anthem, performance-enhancing drugs, and much else. What have the Capitals brought to Washington since Thursday night? An infectious exuberance permeating much of the Nation’s Capital. As one sportscaster put it, “Look at the emotion on [Ovechkin’s] face. This man wants everyone to know how much fun he’s having.” A commentator said that Ovechkin has provided “the kind of stuff that you tell your grandchildren you were alive to see.”
That proved the Nunc dimittis on Saturday afternoon at Nationals Park, both for Ovechkin and the fans that saluted him. We could, and did, leave that empty ballpark in peace, and — thanks to the light that the Capitals have brought — radiant with joy.