Players’ tempers flare on the ice.
Roars erupt in arenas, bars and homes when a hard-hit puck makes a goal’s net ripple or a hard-checked player makes an ice rink’s boards shake.
Ice hockey inspires emotion. That’s one of the reasons Ian Oland was drawn to it.
It’s also one of the reasons why Russian Machine Never Breaks, the Washington Capitals blog website co-founded in 2009 by Oland and fellow Frederick High School grad Peter Hassett, has become so popular.
“Caps fans are extremely passionate about the team,” Oland said.
These days, such fans flock to the internet to follow their team, and Russian Machine Never Breaks (RMNB) has become one of their go-to sources.
Oland, Hassett and their cadre of writers serve up info, unique insights and opinions on the team.
They’ve reunited the Caps’ Mike Green with his discontinued model of stick. They’ve had fans break out President Obama masks and posters at a game to chide Boston goalie Tim Thomas, who refused to attend a Stanley Cup celebration at the White House.
They’ve even ventured into non-sports topics.
Russian Machine Never Breaks became the first English-language news organization to report on an incident that was eventually dubbed the Chelyabinsk meteor, beating the Associated Press. Thanks to the scoop, its readership numbers escalated, and they have continued to rise.
Since the site went up in December 2009, Oland said it’s accumulated nearly 45 million page views and has attracted 9 million unique visitors. The numbers typically spike when the Caps hit postseason play, and Oland said RMNB has been averaging around 55,000 a day with the Caps currently battling rival Pittsburgh in the second round.
“It never really registers to me how many people are actually reading,” Oland said.
RMNB usually has about four staff writers, including primary reporter Chris Gordon, and about six contributors.
Thanks to the success of their site, Oland and Hassett have been interviewed by local TV stations and appeared on Caps Red Line, the Monumental Sports Network program that covers the team.
Prelude to RMNB success
Oland’s experience with another successful sports-related website set the stage for RMNB.
With his UMBC college roommmate Daniel Moroz, Oland started a Matt Wieters Facts site when the catcher became a highly touted minor league prospect after getting drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 2007.
The site listed made-up, incredible “facts” to reflect Wieters’ supposed superhuman ability, much like people did for action star Chuck Norris. Oland, a graphic design major, even designed a Wieters Hall of Fame postcard.
“It got a really big following,” Oland said of the site. “I remember Keith Law of ESPN actually wore one of our shirts.”
But when Wieters reached the majors, it became apparent he wouldn’t be “Walker, Texas Ranger” in a catchers mask. The site’s popularity waned.
But the taste of internet success gave Oland confidence, so he hoped to come up with another idea. His local NHL team beckoned.
Oland got hooked on the sport while observing his older brother, Brandon, watching a game on TV.
“Mark Tinordi had this big body check, where he just crushed a guy into the glass. And I was like, ‘Woah, is that a penalty?” Oland said. “And my brother was like, ‘No, that’s just a legal hit.’ And I think that was kind of the moment that I fell in love with it.”
For a Caps blog site to work, Oland needed writers. Hassett, who graduated from Frederick one year before 2002 grad Oland, seemed like a logical choice.
Oland and Hassett knew each other when they both attended Frederick, where Oland played basketball and Hassett was a swimmer.
When Oland read Hassett’s blogs, he realized Hassett could write persuasively about numerous topics, including sports. And like Oland, Hassett liked hockey.
“I really like the sound of it,” said Hassett, who plays guitar in a band. “Just hearing the way the skate’s blades sound on a good, clean sheet of ice. It’s good. I like the banging against the boards when there’s a big hit.”
Both Frederick grads have full-time jobs. Oland, a 32-year-old Frederick County resident, is a senior email marketing design strategist. Hassett, a 33-year-old Montgomery County resident, is a software engineer. But their involvement with RMNB keeps them busy and generates some revenue.
The site’s meteoric rise
As with any venture that works, luck never hurts.
The site had a Russian correspondent, Fedor Fedin, and was following Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov while he was playing in Chelyabinsk in 2013. On Feb. 15 of that year, the Russian town made international news, and RMNB played a vital role.
“Fedor was telling me online, ‘Hey, there might’ve been a nuclear attack in Russia or something, there was this horrible explosion in Chelyabinsk,’” Oland said. “I alerted Peter. I was like, ‘Hey, we should cover this because whatever it is, it could be major.’”
The explosion came to be known as the Chelyabinsk meteor, which was a superbolide caused by an asteroid that entered Earth’s atmosphere over Russia.
“We ended up breaking the story internationally and tripling our traffic and almost melting our servers down,” Hassett said. “It was a complete accident, and not something that we thought a hockey blog would do. But we kind of like that the site can be whatever you want it to be at any given time.”
It can even be a sponsor for a NASCAR driver.
One of RMNB’s readers was racer Ryan Ellis, and the RMNB raised about $10,000 from readers so he could compete in an Xfinity race at Dover in October.
Racing around the track at Dover, Ellis’ No. 25 Camaro had a black hood with “RMNB” and “Russian Machine Never Breaks.com” painted on it. Oland designed the hood, which now sits in his basement.
Naming the site
Granted, the site’s main focus is on the Capitals. Hassett started following the team when Ovechkin joined it in 2005, and the goal-scoring, Russian superstar inspired him to come up with RMNB’s name.
In 2006, Ovechkin had to be helped off the ice after getting nailed in the foot by a teammate’s hard shot. Caps fans worried the star would be sidelined for a considerable amount of time. Not so. The durable Russian returned to the lineup immediately and delivered an explanation.
Said Hassett: “In an interview afterwards, sort of straight-faced, he just said, ‘Russian Machine Never Breaks,’ like he was a villain in a Rocky movie.”
“We thought that that perfectly captured our personality, that we wanted to be smart and fun and kind of off-color,” Oland said.
When Ovechkin shook off what looked like a serious injury in this year’s playoffs against Toronto, Caps goalie Braden Holtby told RMNB, “I knew he’d be fine. There’s a website named after him for a reason.”
That website delves into stories and issues that might be overlooked by mainstream media.
Take RMNB’s story about reuniting Green with Easton Stealth CNT sticks, which had been discontinued years earlier. When RMNB wrote about Green’s past success with the stick, readers sent the player signed sticks he had presented them with in the past. Oland said Green then scored some goals with the returned gifts.
One of Hassett’s most memorable pieces demanded the firing of then-Caps coach Adam Oates, citing grievances he had been collecting during the team’s run of mediocrity.
“That certainly wasn’t why he was fired, but he was fired,” Hassett said. “It felt good to use the blog to make an argument in support of the team’s best interests.”
As for Thomas, the Bruins goalie who didn’t want to attend his team’s Stanley Cup celebration at the White House, Hassett wrote a piece comparing Thomas’ save percentage to Obama’s approval ratings.
RMNB also engaged in a little showmanship when Thomas and the Bruins played at the Verizon Center.
“We distributed these Barack Obama masks and posters for fans to wear and put up along the glass during warmups,” Hassett said. “Thomas got a kick out of that. He ended up winning the game. He was a much better sport about it than we were. I admire him for that.”
RMNB gets scoops about the Caps, too. For instance, Oland said the site got the Capitals’ Winter Classic jersey design before it was released by the team.
Oland is partial to human interest pieces.
After longtime Capitals center Brooks Laich was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, RMNB asked Caps fans to post photos of Laich. Submissions ran the gamut, from his rookie season to his latter days.
When Toronto played the Caps at Verizon Center afterward, renowned hockey journalist Elliotte Friedman asked Laich about the photos during a pregame interview.
“He started tearing up,” Oland said. “That was memorable to me. Just because we had such an impact on him. It was such a community thing.”
RMNB triggered another response from the community when Oland wrote a story about a 6-year-old Caps fan named Bensten, who suffered brain injuries after getting hit by a car while sledding.
At the end of the piece, Oland posted a photo of himself holding a sign that said he was thinking of B-Man, which was Bensten’s nickname.
The piece inspired a flurry of comments from readers, and many of them included photos of them holding signs with encouraging messages for Bensten, who eventually recovered. Similar photos and messages for B-Man spilled over to a Twitter feed.
Months later, Oland visited Bensten’s family, which had printed photos and words of encouragement inspired by Oland’s story and put them in a binder.
“So the sister put it on my lap and said, ‘This is what you started and this is what you did for us,’” Oland said. “And the binder was swelling, you couldn’t even close it. I went through and saw all the pictures, and I just started crying.”
Hockey isn’t the only thing that inspires strong emotions.