Tonight's regular season matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins is a big deal. The players and coaches know how important it is to them in the standings, and as a preview for the Winter Classic and hopefully the Stanley Cup playoffs, but only have a vague idea what the rivalry means to their fans.
A professional sports team means very little without a passionate and knowledgeable fan base. The owners and executives are businessmen, the coaches (especially in hockey) are little more than temporary employees; the players mercenaries, most more concerned about keeping their roster spot than how they fit into a 40-year history.
They all say the proper things about the rivalry and its importance to the fans, but you can feel the disconnect. They think -- and from their perspective, probably rightly so -- it's all about them, this version of the Washington Capitals.
None are from the area they represent. They have very little idea of the history behind the franchise -- what makes this "organization" a team.
Sure, they play for themselves and each other in that sense of team, but it's on a very micro level. That's their team: the players they see every day in the locker room, the brother-in-arms that they have to answer to -- or for -- when effort lacks, and the guys they celebrate their successes with.
But for the fans, the team is an extension of civic pride. They were part of that team long before the current regime, and will still be when this one finally exhausts it's useful purpose.
Caps fans have a reputation for being bandwagoneers and Johnny-come-latelys, and some of that is earned. This franchise was in a lot of trouble for a long time, as hard to root for as some of the other franchises this city has to offer right now. And the Capitals didn't have the benefit of playing a sport that came second nature to the geographic region.
With all the other entertainment options available, the Capitals -- and hockey in general -- had to go a long way to get to the top of the pecking order in this city.
Some of us have been at this since 1974, but in the grand scheme of things, whether you remember Greg Joly or Gaetan Duschene or not, the important thing is that you're rockin' the red for The Great 8 and John Carlson now. All Caps fans wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Penguins fans are no less passionate about their team, but the popular opinion out of Steel City is that the Caps just aren't much of a rival, and that Caps fans dwell too much on the Penguins. Maybe that's the case. Rivals rip your heart out, and most of it has been one-sided in this relationship.
They have what we want: The Stanley Cup. League-wide respect. To be taken seriously as a hockey town.
And we also know that we have to go through them to get it.
But it seems to me Pens fans spend a lot of time and effort talking about how little time and effort they spend on the Caps.
So Caps fans, don't let ANYBODY tell you how to feel or how to cheer for your team. This is your team, whether you've been there from the beginning or just got your first Ovi t-shirt jersey last week.
It's just two points. But it's also so much more.