Saturday, October 10, 2009

Checking in with the Capitals: Franchise Envy

Watched the first period of the Caps/Red Wings game tonight and a few other blips here and there. Caps lost the game 3-2.

Last year, while watching the Western Conference finals between Detroit and Chicago, I was pondering what the Blackhawks would need to do to beat the Red Wings. I suddenly realized that I was asking the wrong question. The more appropriate query is what Chicago, or any other team for that matter, needs to do to become the Red Wings.

I would go so far as to say that the Red Wings are the model franchise in North American sports. And I say this as someone who nearly always roots against them. It's about more than just winning, although there has been plenty of that. Over the past 15 years, they have won four Stanley Cups and six President's Trophies. Far more important is how they have managed to do it. If you are a hockey player who cares about winning championships more than you do about money or fame, playing in Detroit is at the top of your wish list. Hall of Fame-caliber players Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom have happily spent their entire NHL careers there. Others such as Chris Chelios and Dominik Hasek have delayed retirement in order to be a part of the franchise. Top players within the league engineer trades to get themselves there. Players on the team accept restructured contracts to free up money for other good players. All of this while playing for a city that absolutely adores them.

There are other teams who have managed to make it work. In the NFL, the Patriots fit the bill these days. What would be the baseball equivalent? The Angels, perhaps? (A generation ago, it was the Orioles. Sigh...) But I still place the Wings a cut above.

The Caps have an awfully good starting point to build on at the moment (for that matter, so do the Blackhawks). The young talent within the organization is an embarrassment of riches. Long-term, sustained success is a reasonable goal. The Caps have plenty of devoted fans and their numbers will increase if they keep winning as they have been. Can they become the NHL's Shangri-la? That depends on the people writing the checks and decisions made far from the ice. The model exists. Tonight, the Caps got a firsthand look.

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