So, I’ve been following these Washington Capitals since their inaugural 1974 season; and, like you, I watched last week as once again as Lucy pulled the football away from Charlie Brown and the Capitals’ season ended up on its back.
Many of us walked around like zombies the day after the loss. Why should we be shocked? some of us asked. Why couldn’t we be fans of other hockey teams? others wondered.
I write this because I just have to get it out of my system.
Because yes, there are Jewish components among the others involved in the Capitals playoff history.
Early in the Washington Capitals history, Rabbi Ken Berger, then the spiritual leader of Mishkan Torah Congregation in Greenbelt, Md., held a season ticket draft for those congregants who wanted to partake of a team that was, quite frankly, terrible.
In those early days, we counted on guys with names like Guy Charron and Dennis Maruk. There was also Jewish player back then on the Capitals, goalie Bernie Wolfe. His personal continuation of the millennia of Jewish persecution consisted of standing in front of a net that saw no shortage of shots make it through a (let’s be kind here) porous defense. One of my favorite headlines of the day appeared in the Washington Post sports pages over a photograph of Bernie’s Jewish mother. It read, “My Son The Goalie.” (I spoke to Bernie decades after his NHL career, and he was working in finance in Montreal.)
Anyway, Rabbi Berger was a Philadelphia Flyers fan: he remembered the day of his ordination as a rabbi by its relation to when the Broad Street Bullies won the Stanley Cup. I’m sure there are many of us in the DC area who remember the fun times we had picking from the Capitals’ schedule and attending games, sometimes with the rabbi, at the old Capital Centre in Landover.
(Rabbi Berger, who delivered the greatest Yom Kippur sermons I’ve heard to this day using life lessons from the classic baseball book “The Boys of Summer,” died in 1989 with his wife Aviva when the plane they were aboard crashed in Sioux City. I will never forget what a wonderful man and rabbi he was.)
The Jewish part of my hockey fandom continued for me when I moved to Detroit for eight years as an adult. While living there, I saw the Red Wings win two Stanley Cups. In 1997, they defeated the Philadelphia Flyers; and yes, Washington fans, in 1998 they swept through the Washington Capitals in four straight games. (That, by the way, was the last time the Capitals appeared in the Cup round.)
I learned that in my Southfield, MI, neighborhood, the tradition during the playoffs (which occurred over Shabbosim and Shavuos) was to walk through the neighborhoods and see if anyone was washing or working on their cars with the radio on. The neighbors would see us, know what information we wanted, and fill us in on the score or result of the Wings’ game.
Since we’ve returned to the Baltimore-Washington area, the Red Wings have won two more Cups, including one over, dare I write, the Pittsburgh Penguins. And yes, they had Sidney Crosby back then.
So let me tell you what you don’t want to hear, because I didn’t want to hear it myself. The difference between those Red Wings teams and the Red Wings. Yes, they had a guy named Scotty Bowman behind the bench, but those teams also had a captain named Steve Yzerman who would lead his team through a brick wall to win. He rallied together elite and role players from around the world who followed his lead and simply outworked other teams to win those Cups. There was a character about those teams, with role players like Igor Larianov and Brendan Shanahan and others. We knew the Red Wings had a chance to win, because they had created a culture of post-season winning. There wasn’t an opposing team in own their heads, the position the Penguins hold over the Capitals.
Like you, I have watched many a great hockey player come through Washington, be it Mike Gartner, Rod Langway, Peter Bondra, and even early guys like Guy Charron. But even with its recent roster, with superstars like Alexander Ovechkin and Braden Holtby, the post-season Capitals still play not to lose.
And that was the difference from those Red Wing teams I saw play at the Joe Louis Arena.
They played to win. They were the team in their opponents’ heads. And on those Shavuos and Shabbos days when they were playing, I didn’t worry. I knew they were going to win.
I had a rabbi friend in Michigan who attended so many games when he could that he was considered the Red Wings rebbe. He told me that you have to have the “mazel” to win in the NHL. The Red Wings, he said, had a mojo made of mazel.
One night a Red Wing scored a hat trick, putting three goals in the net. From everywhere, baseball caps came flying out of the stands— and I spotted a black fedora among them.
I looked for the area from which it came, this black hat now sitting in a pile of baseball hats. Sure enough, there was the rabbi, his arms up in the air in pure joy.
The Red Wings had the “mazel” that night in Detroit.
I wish that mazel could find its way to Washington.
Phil Jacobs is on the Kol HaBirah Advisory Board. He is the Associate Editor of the New Jersey Jewish Link and writes from Baltimore.
By Phil Jacobs