It’s A Wrap

The last hockey game of the North American pro season was played Thursday night in Hamilton, Ont. For the second straight season, the Hershey Bears took part in that game. This one did not turn out as well as last season’s.

When the Bears won the Calder Cup championship last June 15 in Milwaukee, it was also a Thursday night. From the moment they hoisted the Cup that night, the Bears dedicated themselves to winning it again in 2007. Hershey had a fabulous season, a season to be proud of. It won 64 games in 2006-07 (and 124 games over the past two seasons), but it fell three games short of its goal. I could wax on for quite a while about the individual and team achievements of the Bears over the last two seasons, but my friend Tim Leone has seen them more than I have, and he has already done his usual terrific job of wrapping things up.

As Leone mentions, many of the Bears took the loss hard afterwards, but this team has nothing whatsoever to hang its head about.

The rest of us can hang our heads if we want to. There won’t be any more hockey games to watch for the next three months. A big thanks to the Bears for making spring so enjoyable for so many of us these last two years. A three-month offseason is far preferable to one lasting five months.

I got to thinking about all that has transpired over the last 12 months, all of the hockey I’ve seen and all the traveling I’ve done since I flew home from Milwaukee at an ungodly hour of a much happier Friday morning last June.

A few days after getting home from Milwaukee where we celebrated the Bears’ ninth Calder Cup championship, some of us headed out to Vancouver for the NHL Awards Show and the NHL Draft. Tom Cochrane and band were playing the commercial breaks during the awards show, and I can still remember getting serious goose bumps when they broke into “Big Leagues,” quite possibly the best hockey song ever. It’s criminally underrated for sure.

Later that night, we hit the streets of Vancouver in our rented finery to celebrate Alex Ovechkin winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year and Olie Kolzig earning the King Clancy Award. Somewhere around 3 a.m. I decided to walk the two or three miles back to the hotel even though I didn’t know where the hotel was from where I was. Strange city, strange clothes, no idea where I was going. But I felt great. The Caps’ two best players had just won major awards, the team’s top affiliate had just won a championship, Washington had the fourth overall pick in a draft that was mere hours away, it was a beautiful night in a beautiful city. As I walked, I wondered what lay ahead for the Caps in 2006-07.

Before we left town, Roberto Luongo became a Canuck and the Caps drafted Nicklas Backstrom and a couple of promising young goaltenders.

Shortly after we got back to D.C., the Caps announced the signings of defenseman Brian Pothier and left wing Donald Brashear. The addition of those two immediately added some class and character to a room already brimming with both qualities.

During the week of the Brashear signing, I was up in Hershey for the Caps’ annual summer development camp. Development camp is a great oasis of hockey in the middle of the summer, and a terrific chance to get a look at Washington’s young hopefuls on the ice. This summer, Caps fans will be afforded a great chance to see development camp for themselves when Kettler Capitals Iceplex hosts the first of many summer development camps from July 9-14.

With Kettler still under construction at the time, the Capitals held their 2006 NHL training camp out in Ashburn. Several players showed up early to skate and work out on their own, which helped shorten the summer by a few more days. The Caps named Chris Clark as the team’s captain shortly before camp officially started, a terrific choice.

The first day of camp is always the best. The fans are out in full force, it’s a chance to renew acquaintances with fellow media types, and to check in with the players and coaches on how they spent their summers. It’s a day of clean slates and high hopes, with the promise of a new season stretched out ahead like a hundred miles worth of newly paved blacktop highway. This year’s camp should be even better, again because it will be the first at the KCI.

Last season didn’t end up as well as I had hoped; many of you will remember that I’m the guy who predicted a playoff berth for the Capitals just hours before their first preseason game. Although the team fell short of that prediction, I will remember many great moments from the season that just ended.

Alexander Semin’s hat trick at the home opener. The Caps beating Colorado on the strength of a superb Olie Kolzig effort in goal, and then getting out of Denver just ahead of a big snowstorm. Driving from Edmonton to Calgary in a blinding snowstorm with Tarik El-Bashir on a Sunday morning. Stopping at Tim Horton’s in Red Deer, and marveling at the lack of guardrails on the exit ramp (there was a huge retention pond down below). Driving past the Calgary skyline because we couldn’t see it, and having to turn around and go back because we overshot the city.

Kolzig surpassing Ken Dryden on the all-time wins list with a victory over the Flames in Calgary. A postgame conversation with Ross Mahoney at the hotel bar in Calgary.

A come-from-behind win over Ottawa at Verizon in November. One last road trip with Corey Masse, as good a road running mate as there is. We missed the team bus to the morning skate because we were getting coffee, but our cabbie was a frustrated NASCAR guy and we got to the rink first anyway.

Clark’s gritty effort in the waning seconds of regulation against the Bruins on Nov. 15, playing through a key shift in a tie game, even though a puck had just crushed his palette and taken a few of his teeth. The Thanksgiving Eve melee with the Thrashers. A 7-1-1 stretch – the best run of the season – starting with a 5-2 win over the Lightning on Nov. 28. Beating both Buffalo and Ottawa handily in the midst of that streak. Ovechkin capping off his second career hat trick with an overtime game-winner six seconds into the extra session in Atlanta. Seeing Lawrence Nycholat score his first NHL goal in a losing effort at New Jersey.

The Great One signing my ticket stub from his first NHL game in 1979. Steve Eminger setting up Semin for as pretty a goal as you’d ever want to see in overtime against Atlanta. Even better, it prevented another life-sucking shootout.

Meeting up with Kris Wagner and all of our scouts in Tampa Bay during a mid-January road trip. Having dinner outdoors on a Friday night in Hollywood, Fla. with Paul Rovnak. The boys landing a shark on an off day in Florida. The homemade potato chips at the hotel bar in Ottawa, and stopping for Tim Horton’s coffee on a blustery cold day up there on our way to the rink.

Seeing Eric Fehr score his first NHL goal in a rout of Carolina, and then getting this quote from him afterwards: “I stole the puck from Semin. I really wanted to put that one in so he wouldn’t be mad at me.”

Dainius Zubrus’s overtime goal that beat the Kings in early February. Tomas Fleischmann’s first NHL goal in New Jersey, the same day the Devils’ Cam Janssen scored his first. Sitting in the war room on trade deadline day, and then sitting in on the ECHL trade deadline activities a week later in Charleston, SC. The power going out in the arena during the first period of my first ECHL game. Doing color commentary of a South Carolina-Charlotte game with Stingrays’ play-by-play man Mike Kelly, a consummate pro. The great warmth and hospitality shown to me during my stay in Charleston.

Twin trouncings of Toronto and Tampa Bay in mid-March, with Tomas Flesichmann erupting for four points and Semin notching another hat trick in the second of those. Kolzig blanking the Panthers for his first shutout in quite some time, and Brent Johnson tweaking the Thrashers in the last road game of the season.

Heading up to Hershey with a great sense of anticipation as the Bears opened the playoffs against the Albany River Rats. Postgame fun with John Walton and Tim Leone in Glens Falls, NY, and an off-day pilgrimage to Lake Placid with Leone. A road trip with my son, one of his hockey buddies and his brother and dad to New Jersey, where we witnessed the Devils’ lone win of the second round, a thrilling double-overtime triumph over the Senators. Turned out to be the Devils’ last-ever win at the Continental Airlines Arena, too.

Setting off for Russia (and all the great hockey and great players we saw there) with John Keeley, Spike Parker and Mike Rucki. That entire trip is worthy of its own essay of memories. Picking up the Bears’ trail again for the Eastern Conference finals, and watching them systematically dismantle the Manchester Monarchs. Dave Fay getting the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award. Getting my first look at the NHL’s draft combine, and getting a chance to meet some of the players who will be members of the Capitals organization by this time next month.

Watching Semin shoot the puck from anywhere. Watching Ovechkin skate up the wing with a burst of speed and feeling the crowd buzz with anticipation. Hanging out with any combination of Tarik, Dave, Corey, Steve Kolbe, Joe B. and/or Locker before and after practices and morning skates at home and on the road.

This year’s Friday-morning-after was much more subdued, and a little bit emotional. I woke up early to drive from Hamilton to Buffalo, and then flew home from Buffalo to Baltimore. When I landed at BWI, it was 96 degrees and most certainly not hockey season any longer. I plugged in the iPod for the drive home, and a couple songs later, there was Cochrane’s “Big Leagues.” That brought everything full circle, at least for me.

I know I left some out, but they’ll come to me eventually. Even better, the next new season ahead will be filled with many more. They’ll start next week at the draft, and they’ll flow for months and months afterwards. And for the luckiest of us, they’ll go for 12 months.

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11 Comments on “It’s A Wrap”

  1. Brian Says:

    Hope to see you at the draft to start the next set of memories.

  2. Terry Says:

    Another excellent essay. I have enjoyed your blog immensely all season. Thanks!

  3. […] It’s A Wrap The last hockey game of the North American pro season was played Thursday night in Hamilton, Ont. For the second […] […]

  4. Gustafsson Says:

    Great recap. Love the stuff you put on the blog…. my favourite is still the post you had about your dad and hockey.

    Thanks, too, for all your support.

    We’ll see you soon.


  5. Doug Says:

    I’m a brand new hockey fan and you have immensely added to my enjoyment and knowledge of the game. Keep up the good work.

  6. idil Says:

    This is as good a chance as any to thank you for all of your passion for and dedication to the game of hockey. It’s clearly evident in the quality and depth of your coverage and us Caps fans are lucky to have you.

    Here’s hoping this coming season gets kick-started in a very optimistic and promising way in the next few weeks with some quality additions to the organization.

  7. dumpnchase Says:

    Hey everyone,
    Thanks so very much for taking the time to write such kind things. What I do is a labor of love, and I’m lucky to be able to do it. But I truly appreciate meeting and hearing from all of you out there who share the passion for the great game, so thank you.

    And may all all your summers be short one.

  8. GoBucks9 Says:

    Vogs, great stuff as always.

    I cant listen live much anymore but Caps Report has found a home as my dinner time entertainment.

    Hope to meet up with the Caps crew in a few days.

  9. Andy Says:

    Mike – you have an absolutely awesome job, and I am completely jealous. Thanks for posting all these thoughts and recaps – it gives the average fan a little closer glimpse into the goings-on of the organization. Keep up all the great work, and here’s to a productive off-season and outstanding performance on the ice next season!

  10. pucksandbooks Says:

    “There won’t be any more hockey games to watch for the next three months”?? I beg to differ. I plan on being seated near you for the culminating Rookie Camp scrimmage at Kettler in a few weeks. Maybe order up a post-scrimmage peeva, too, at Bailey’s.

  11. timbers Says:

    good stuff, i hope u got some good coverage of the draft

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