There are different stories about how the word “fan” came into use to describe an avid follower of a movie star, a singer, or a sports franchise. Some say it is a product of 18th century England, when the term “the fancy” was used to refer to followers of a sport. Some argue it dates all the way back to the mid-1600’s and the Latin word, “fanaticus,” meaning “divinely inspired.” And there are those who of a mind that the word is uniquely American, derived from shortening the word, “fanatic.”
Whatever. Fans are the lifeblood of sports. You might say that they are – or can be – the inspiration for athletes on the field, the court, or the rink. How many times does one see a reference to the “12th man” in football? The “sixth man” in basketball, or “the seventh man” in hockey (sorry, ladies, it always seems this reference is made to men)? They are not talking about the Zamboni driver, who might have a fan club of his own.
They are referring to fans. And contrary to opinion in a lot of places in North America, the Washington Capitals have one fantastic fan base. That 181-game sellout streak the Caps have represents more than 3.3 million fans. They rock the red, the scream their lungs out, they make Verizon Center one of the loudest rinks in the league.
But that is just the surface. There are those fans that plan summer vacations around development camp in July or postpone their vacations so they can attend training camp in September. There are the ones who for almost 15 years have been combining their love of hockey and the open road to plan road trip charters. There are fans who take the time to build, nurture, and maintain message forums to talk about the Caps.
There are the Caps fans that blow their horn and lend a full-throated roar in support of the boys, night in and night out. You’ll go to a lot of arenas and never hear any horn sounded so clearly and used with such impeccable timing, or hear a voice that could drown out most public-address systems. How could one not “unleash the fury” with that fusillade of sound?
Then there are the folks who write about the Caps because they’re fans. The do it without compensation because they’re fans. You’ll see a lot of them over there in the margin on the right – our “fellow wizards,” we call them – and we are probably missing a lot of them in that list because, well, the Caps have a lot of fans and they have a lot of things to say. You will not find better reporting anywhere than you will see over at Japers’ Rink, or Russian Machine Never Breaks, or Capitals Outsider, or…well, you get the point. The Caps have the best damn blogging community around. Period.
And even though he is part of the production, there is the voice of the Capitals, Wes Johnson, who seems at least as much a fan as announcer. No one revs up the faithful of your WASH-ING-TONNNN CAP-I-TALLLLLLLS like Wes. Ditto for John Walton, Ken Sabourin, Joe Beninati, Craig Laughlin, and Mike Vogel doing television, radio, and video production. They are the best at what they do in large part because they’re fans.
Folks talk about “bandwagon” fans and do so too often in a derogatory way. Sure, the Caps have had a lot of folks jump on the bandwagon over the last few years. But hey, the more the merrier. But those folks who have had a seat on that bandwagon over the last ten, twenty, thirty or more years...those folks are the true fanatics. You have to be a fan to have your heart broken so many times in so many ways – blowing three-games-to-one leads, hearing shots in overtime hit a post to end a Game 7 in the playoffs, bad ice that makes you fumble the puck that leads to a series clinching breakaway, the Islanders, then the Penguins, and now for you “bandwagon fans,” the Rangers.
In 2013 Caps fans suffered the loss of almost half of a hockey season, and then, just when the team seemed to be clicking under the hand of new head coach Adam Oates, suffered yet another early playoff exit. Only once have the Caps played hockey in June. If you’re a Caps fan, you know that. But you’re a Caps fan because you want to be there when they do it a second time.
Maybe Washington is not a “hockey town” in the same way Detroit is, or Toronto, or Montreal, or those cities in the Northeast. That says nothing about the devotion of those who do call themselves “Caps fans.” They have had to be to sustain themselves through long winters and too-early springs over the years. In 2013, their devotion and fanaticism was put to the test. They passed with flying colors (mostly “red”).
Photo: Greg Fiume: Getty Images