Two weeks ago, Mary Ann Wangemann ordered a Washington Capitals jersey for her hockey-crazed 14-year-old daughter Lorraine: Forward Brooks Laich, No. 21, whose blue-collar approach to the game has made him a fan favorite.
The same Brooks Laich who was emotionally devastated on Wednesday night, after the Capitals were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a Game 7 loss at home to the Montreal Canadiens. Washington was the NHL's best regular-season team and failed to advance after blowing a 3-1 series lead. It's been called the worst series defeat in franchise history.
Laich, so often the team's unofficial locker-room spokesman, didn't speak to reporters after the game.
The same Brooks Laich who, on the night his season ended prematurely, stopped when he saw Wangemann and her daughter stranded alone on Washington D.C.'s Roosevelt Bridge and then fixed a flat tire on their 2008 Acura while cars sped past him.
"You know how some athletes can strike you as real jerks? I think [the Capitals] are genuinely good people. He could have driven by like everyone else did, and he didn't," said Wangemann, who was headed home to Ashburn, Va. after watching the Capitals fall in Game 7.
"I was so touched by what he did. I was praying. I was that worried [about our safety]. The fact that he came up out of nowhere ... he was like an angel that night."
It was a scene reminiscent of when New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi stopped to help a motorist who crashed her car into a wall on the Cross Country Parkway in suburban Westchester County -- hours after the Yankees won the World Series in Oct. 2009.
As first reported by Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post, Wangemann and her daughter were driving back from the game when their car hit a pot hole and the tire went flat:
So Mary Ann pulled over to the side of the bridge, and called Triple A. They said they had a heavy volume of calls, and that they weren't sure how long it would take to send help. Mary Ann and Lorraine, still wearing their Caps gear, got out of the car and watched the traffic whiz by.
"We were getting a little spooked," she told me. "You feel pretty vulnerable right there."
Finally, an SUV slowed down ahead of them and pulled over. And then Brooks Laich got out and asked if he could help.
Wangemann was eager to share her story about Laich after Game 7's undeniable depression.
"I felt like there was such negative news about the Caps that I just wanted people to know what the real players were like. It was such a nice thing for him to do," she said. "Here's a player that wasn't having the best of days. He could have driven by like everyone else did, and he didn't."
Laich emerged from his car wearing an expensive-looking suit and walked over to the mother and daughter, both having donned Capitals sweatshirts on a chilly evening. Lorraine had become a Caps fan two-and-a-half years ago; her mother began following the team last year, the first time she had ever taken an interest in sports fandom.
They both recognized Laich. "The first words out of his mouth were, 'I'm sorry we lost.' And he stayed with us for an hour," said Wangemann.
Wangemann simply wanted him to stay with them until help arrived, but Laich asked if they had a spare tire. He got down on the ground and began working on the car.
The bridge carries I-66 and U.S. Highway 50 over the Potomac River to D.C. Wangemann said changing the flat there was "putting his life at risk."
He kept calling the ground "the ice," she said; as in, "We have to get this tire off the ice." Her car also had a special widget on the tire that made removing it difficult. She said Laich exclaimed at one point, "'Wow, it really protects your tire here, but it's a pain in the neck to get off.'" At another point, the car fell off the jack, and Laich placed it back on.
After about 40 minutes, the tire was changed and Laich offered some parting advice to take it slow and stop to call AAA if anything rattled.
Wangemann's last words to Laich: "Can I hug you?"
The NHL player hugged Wangemann and then hugged her daughter, who immediately updated her Facebook status with "he hugged me."
They expect they'll see Laich again at one of the many fan functions the Capitals hold during the season and into the offseason. Wangemann is considering asking for a specific autograph.
"Next time I'll bring the tire. He'll know who we are."
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