It’s the time of year for bandwagon fans, and in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Vegas Golden Knights are a particularly attractive draw.
Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller turned in his Colorado Avalanche sweater to start following Vegas. Country star Carrie Underwood offered her national anthem services to the Golden Knights after her Nashville Predators were eliminated.
It’s not just the rich and famous. Casual fans tuning into hockey for the first time all year have learned by now that the Golden Knights are an expansion team playing for a Stanley Cup — the ultimate underdog story. The Washington Capitals would play spoiler by beating them in the finals.
But while the players in Washington’s dressing room aware of Vegas’ unprecedented run, they aren’t interested in adopting a “villain” persona.
“We’re both kind of the hero of (our own) stories,” T.J. Oshie said. “That’s great if people jumping on and paying attention want to jump on their side. It feels like in years past, we kind of had the target on our back a little bit, for how well our regular seasons had gone and on paper how good we were. We’ve been kind of coming through this whole playoffs not really expected to do much and that’s completely fine with us.”
LeBron James once said in his early Miami Heat days that he had “accepted this kind of villain role that everyone has placed on me.” It is an amorphous description in pro sports, not the same as being unpopular, and James did not mind the label while in Miami.
But Capitals players like Oshie and John Carlson are focused elsewhere.
“I don’t care about any public perception on our group besides what we care about in here, and that’s winning,” Carlson said. “We care about the guys around this room. That’s pretty much it.”
When he headed up the Predators, Capitals coach Barry Trotz was in the position of coaching an expansion team like Vegas. Perhaps that is why, rather than viewing the finals in terms of heroes and villains, Trotz said the matchup with the Golden Knights is good for growing the sport.
“It’s two great storylines. Obviously, Vegas’ story, they’ve got their own story. We’ve got our own story, and ours is pretty darn good too,” Trotz said. “You see all the people that were maybe not our fans have come our way, and there’s people who are new hockey fans that are seeing what’s happening out in Vegas and they’re turning up and taking notice. I think it’s great for the NHL.”
Locally — outside of Bryce Harper, a Las Vegas native and therefore not a bandwagoner — there is no fear of hockey fans turning against the Capitals. More than 6,000 fans swarmed the team’s practice in Arlington, Virginia Saturday before the Capitals departed for Nevada.
“Yeah, I’m not worried about the support at all,” Oshie said. “You see the people that came out here, the people who were at the rink for Game 7 at Capital One. People on the streets, social media videos. We got all the fans we want. The more the merrier, but the loyal ones are here and that’s good enough for us.”