- - Tuesday, June 12, 2018

They began lining up in front of the stage on the National Mall in the dark, around 4 a.m., seven hours before the parade and celebration were scheduled to begin on Constitution Avenue.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, says as much as anything about why the Washington Capitals have had so much fun sharing and showing off the Stanley Cup with fans from Arlington to Georgetown since returning last week from Las Vegas with the franchise’s first NHL championship.

The crowd was as deep as the eye could see on this beautiful June day, along the Mall and around Constitution Avenue, by the time the buses carrying Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby and the victors made their way down the historic street, lined with banners on lampposts with pictures of Capitals players and the words, “All Caps. All Ours.”

Some players got off the buses carrying them and high-fived fans. Ovechkin held the Cup up high for all to see, as cheers of “Let’s Go Caps” could be heard.

On the stage, Ovechkin led the crowd in what has become their celebratory theme song, “We Are The Champions.”

Owner Ted Leonsis surveyed the mass of Capitals humanity and declared, “We all agree on one thing: We have the greatest fans in the world and now we have the greatest hockey team in the world.

AUDIO: Former Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes with Thom Loverro

“Now we have something that united us — a Stanley Cup championship,” he said.

This was the first championship celebration in the city since the Redskins won their third Super Bowl in January 1992 and had a rally that drew just 75,000 — a stark difference to the 1988 parade for the second Super Bowl title, which attracted an estimated 500,000 people downtown (One difference — the federal government didn’t give workers time off for the third Super Bowl celebration. The government allowed the option of two hours of administrative leave for Tuesday’s Capitals parade).

The last time, celebrating championships was old hat. Nobody knew it would take 26 years — a generation — for another such moment to embrace and enjoy. And this time — in the year of 2018, with the power of social media — the relationship seems stronger than ever to these champions.

These Capitals players — particularly the ones like Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and others who have been here for a while — are connecting with their fans over the joy of finally breaking through and winning the Stanley Cup because they connected with fans with the pain of the postseason failures, year after year.

This is, in part, why you saw the Capitals everywhere celebrating around town this weekend, with videos and photos along with fans, singing, “We Are The Champions,” diving and dancing in water fountains. They could have celebrated privately among themselves — sharing those moments with the people they are closest to, their teammates.

Instead, they brought the Cup to the people, because these players know what that Cup meant to those fans, what the release of emotions meant to those people who, year in and year out, supported this team with sellout crowds at the now Capital One Arena.

“I’m very happy for Caps fans … now we can celebrate all together and remember this moment for all our lives. Time to party Caps fans,” Ovechkin posted on his Instagram account.

Typically, athletes react angrily from the criticism from a fan base about playoff failures. They look at their accomplishments and often resent fans for hounding them for falling short of delivering a title.

But not these Capitals. Not players like Backstrom, who was empathetic to the fans when they would lose a second-round playoff series to the Penguins or the Rangers and never get close to the coveted Stanley Cup.

“I expect the same questions over and over again when we lose,” Backstrom said after they lost in seven games yet again to Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in 2017.

He didn’t say it in frustration or anger. He understood. His pain was the Capitals fan’s pain. And I would make the case that the pain expressed by those fans — the frustration of one playoff failure after another — only served to create this connection we have seen between players and fans since the team brought the Cup home.

Coach Barry Trotz never quite got this. He would bristle at this team’s history of disappointment and foolishly suggested after the 2017 loss to Pittsburgh that it was some sort of media creation, ignored by the players. “I think they’re all past that,” he told reporters. “I think it is so overworked by you guys and everybody else that it’s actually becoming a joke to the guys.”

There was nothing funny about it, though. The players who had lived through that same history as the fans understood they were connected by the suffering. Nobody was “past” it.

Certainly not Backstrom, who told reporters after a second-round exit in six games to the Penguins in 2016, “I love Washington fans. They’re absolutely the best fans in the world. Even if we disappointment them, hopefully, they have faith in us. We’re going to do it. We’re going to do it one day. I promise them.”

That promise wasn’t fulfilled until Backstrom and his teammates brought the Cup home and celebrated with fans like they did along Tuesday’s parade route and National Mall stage.

Thom Loverro’s weekly “Cigars & Curveballs” is available Wednesdays on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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