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Stadium Series 'experience of a lifetime' for Capitals, Maple Leafs

Midshipmen, pageantry add up to memorable night at U.S. Naval Academy

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- To participate in the pregame ceremony at the 2018 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series, midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy had to secure a spot by filling out an electronic form about a month ago.

The signup was at 0730 hours.

"I was up," said Jack McMahan, 20, of Orlando. "I was refreshing my email constantly, waiting for the signup to come out."


[RELATED: Capitals top Maple Leafs in Stadium Series | Complete NHL Stadium Series coverage]


The spots were gone within minutes.

These young men and women come from across the United States. They earn the opportunity to attend the USNA. They love their country so much that they commit to serve it in the Navy or Marine Corps.

Some of them love hockey too, and the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Washington Capitals were going to play at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the home of Navy's football and lacrosse teams. The rink was going to look like it was on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

"Me and a couple of my friends always love to go to the Capitals games down in D.C.," McMahan said. "Finding out there was going to be a game right in our backyard, it was really exciting."

There they were Saturday, part of the pageantry before the Capitals' 5-2 win -- really, the point of it.

Video: Fireworks light the sky at the Stadium Series

Led by the USNA Drum and Bugle Corps, more than 200 marched in uniform along the edges of the model aircraft carrier, as if manning the rails of a real ship coming in or out of port. They flanked the Maple Leafs and the Capitals as they emerged from the tunnel.

"It was a lot louder than I thought it would be," said Brody McDonald, 19, of Memphis, who stood where the Maple Leafs appeared. "I was pretty struck by how loud the stadium was. I've never seen that many people there.

"When I saw the players out of the corner of my eye in the perfect white uniforms with the blue lettering on the back, I just …"

He paused. 

"My mind just lost it," he said. "It was pretty awesome."

Video: TOR@WSH: Leafs, Caps make entrances at Stadium Series

Members of Navy's men's and women's hockey teams skated onto the ice and unfurled the Canadian and American flags for the national anthems before the crowd of 29,516, as fireworks shot into the air.

"I was standing near the front of the ship, and it was awesome just being able to face the crowd and see how excited they were and then to turn in and face the ice and see everything that was going on," said Michaela White, 21, of Charleston, South Carolina. "The fireworks, I didn't know that was happening. That was a nice touch.

"And then everyone started chanting, 'USA!' It was incredible to just feel a part of something so much bigger, which I think …"

She paused. 

"It's just special to get reminded of that."

Yes, it is. National anthems play before sporting events every day, but not every day do they play before one in an environment like this. And when you hear the earnestness in the voices of the midshipmen who stood at attention, it catches your attention.

"Honestly," McMahan said, "at the end of the national anthem, when you just hear the roar of the crowd, I always get this kind of feeling in my body …"

Video: TOR@WSH: Lael Sommer sings the Star Spangled Banner

He paused.

"Like, my body goes numb and just starts tingling," he said. "It's just, like, a really cool feeling when you know everybody's kind of there supporting you in your cause, everybody's kind of rallying together for one thing. It's a really unique opportunity."

At the end of the U.S. anthem, a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet roared over the stadium, its afterburners leaving a trail of blue-orange light against the black sky.

"Oh, man," McDonald said. "The flyover. The flyover was incredible. I couldn't see it as well as I [would have liked] to, being down on the field, but I saw the afterburners going over my head, and that was …"

Another pause.

"That was awesome."

McDonald wants to be a pilot. McMahan is thinking about it too. Remember, one day, these midshipmen will be sailors or Marines, manning the rails on real aircraft carriers, or flying in aircraft, or sailing in ships, or diving in submarines, all over the world.

This is a game. That is not.

"It means a lot to me personally," Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "They're super-talented, and they're smart people obviously, that got selected to come here. They've also got to do some dirty business on the other end of this thing. Can't thank those kids enough. They're pretty driven, brave, so pretty cool experience just to be here for this game."

How could the Maple Leafs and the Capitals not sign up for this?

"This is the experience of a lifetime for us, and it's all possible because of what our military does for us and standing on the line for us," said Capitals forward T.J. Oshie, whose grandfathers each served in the U.S. Navy. "So, you can't appreciate it enough. You can't show enough support. We thank them a lot for things like this, experiences like this."

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