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Success, sellouts make Capitals in vogue in DC

NHL.com @NHL

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) -Laura Pormann isn't much of a sports fan, so she was a little puzzled a while back when a co-worker announced he had named his dog "Ovie."

"I was like, 'What does that mean?"' Pormann said. "Then he starts talking about Ovechkin."

One thing led to another, and so it was that on a recent Friday at 11:30 a.m. the 39-year-old from Burke, Va., was standing at the edge of an indoor rink atop a parking garage in the Washington suburbs. She and another hockey-mad co-worker were sneaking a few minutes on the way to a meeting to watch reigning MVP Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals go through a practice.

Next on her itinerary: getting to a game.

"Before the season's over," she said with a smile.

She might want to buy her ticket now.

It's suddenly in vogue to be a hockey fan in the nation's capital, where the sport has struggled for 35 years to rise above niche status. The only team in Washington that is proving to be both slump-proof in the standings and recession-proof at the gate, the Southeast Division-leading Capitals are 22-4-1 at the Verizon Center and on pace to break franchise attendance records.

"When you get the support that we're getting, which is probably unprecedented in this area, you get a defiance and a determination every time you step on the ice at home," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It's a pretty cool feeling to have."

The Capitals have sold out 12 of their last 13 home games and are averaging 18,018 fans, up 27 percent from this time last year and the highest average through 27 home games in franchise history. They had only eight sellouts all of last season, but Boudreau noted recently that it now feels odd - and that it affects his players' performance - when they play before small, tranquil crowds on some road trips.

Last month, for the first time in recent memory, Capitals red overwhelmed Flyers orange in the Verizon Center stands during a game against Philadelphia, prompting Flyers center Jeff Carter to say: "They're starting to get some fans now, I guess. We can't buy all the tickets."

A midweek game against a Western Conference foe used to guarantee a dead building, but even the recent Thursday night affair against Los Angeles drew a full house, the first Capitals sellout against the Kings since 1995. The fans keep coming up with new ways to put their stamp on the game: It's now customary to shout "red" during the line about the "rockets' red glare" during the singing of the national anthem.

"Two years ago, if you had tickets for the Penguins, you almost didn't want to go to the game," said Doug Benskin of Ashburn, Va., the co-worker who brought Pormann to the practice. "No. 1, you knew you were going to be beat, and there were always more of their fans in the house than ours.

"It's not that way now. We drown them out."

In one of his recent online posts, team owner Ted Leonsis proclaimed Washington as "a Caps hockey town." That might be a bit premature, but a city that has always been Redskins first, last and always is definitely paying more attention. In fact, Ovechkin has clearly become Washington's No. 1 sports star - ahead of the Redskins' Clinton Portis (who seemed to spend all of last season grumbling about one thing or another) and the Wizards' Gilbert Arenas (who hasn't played all season because of a knee injury).

For years, the prevalent theory held that there were about 15,000 die-hard hockey fans in the area, and that no one else would give the sport the time of day. The Capitals are finally bursting through that ice ceiling.

"When I moved here, I was surprised how relaxed the atmosphere was," said 2008 trade deadline acquisition Sergei Fedorov, a veteran of the real Hockeytown as a longtime member of the Detroit Red Wings. "But then we started winning, then we got recognized everywhere we went. It was exciting. I ask the guys who played here a few years, and they were like, 'Wow.' Amazed. Everywhere we go it was good to see people paying attention to hockey and talking to us. It's phenomenal, to be honest with you."

Good players, good marketing and fortunate timing have all worked in the Capitals' favor. The strategy to rebuild with young players through the draft paid off with a playoff berth last year after several last-place seasons, and this year the team is even better. The centerpiece of the plan - Ovechkin - is sociable and fan-friendly, playing role of superstar with just enough goofiness to make him look human.

The Capitals are also enjoying their second full season practicing in a state-of-the-art facility atop the garage in close-in Arlington, having moved from their old home in the outer suburbs.

The more convenient location has given the team greater exposure. Practices are easier for fans to watch - it's not uncommon to see 100 or more people at a weekday morning session and perhaps 1,000 on a weekend - and for the media to cover. Players also have a shorter commute, giving them more rest time on game days.

It also helps that the Capitals are the only team in town that's really good. The Wizards are by far the worst team in the NBA's Eastern Conference this season. The Nationals lost more than 100 games and had baseball's worst record last season. The Redskins went 8-8 and missed the playoffs, while college basketball pillars Georgetown and Maryland look like NIT candidates.

The Capitals score plenty of goals - that always helps attract the hockey novices - and they simply look better on the ice after the decision last season to switch back to their old traditional uniforms with red as the dominant color. Leonsis has also used his marketing savvy, honed from his years as an AOL executive, to make the arena experience more lively, with fun promotions and videos.

It's a long way from the embarrassing days of 1998, when the Capitals played in front of thousands of empty seats during the playoffs on the way to the franchise's only appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.

"It's a fascinating thing to experience," said general manager George McPhee, who has been with the team for 12 years. "It seemed like a lot of things came together all at once.

"We got back to our original colors, which was important, and we have this fabulous facility where people can watch our players, and we have some really entertaining players, their style of play is fun to watch. And the team is winning. And I think one of the other things that's important is we're a much better organization business-wise, we have far better infrastructure to be able to market the team and capture momentum."

Leonsis sees the difference in the comments he gets from fans. He shared one recent e-mail that reads: "I am a current Nationals season-ticket holder and your product far surpasses anything I have seen from the new (baseball) stadium."

The owner has a goal of starting next season with 14,000 season-ticket holders, up from 10,000 or so at the start of this season.

"Everything's worked," Leonsis said. "Now we have to win a championship. We only have this one major hurdle in front of us now, and we can have a singularity in our purpose - which is nothing else matters now but success as a Stanley Cup team."

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