Checks and Balances

How America’s capital came to embrace Canada’s game

By JJ Regan

On any normal day, the streets of Washington can look like any other city. The suit-clad lawyers and lobbyists zip through the crowds as they race from meeting to meeting, tourists meander from one attraction to the next taking delight in the sites that have become ordinary to the locals. Take away the backdrop of the nation’s capital and there is nothing to distinguish the streets of Washington from anywhere else.

Unless of course it’s a hockey night.

The fans come in force, trading in their suits for jerseys, packing every corner of the Verizon Center in downtown D.C. to see the Washington Capitals. The area all around the arena buzzes with excitement as the crowds spill over onto the streets, a red swarm that envelops Chinatown prior to puck drop.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Just a few years ago this football-crazed city failed to embrace the Capitals even at the peak of their success. A resurgence of the sport, sparked by the Capitals’ Russian superstar, created the opportunity to build a hockey market within this football town. A previously insignificant fan base made up only of fringe die-hards began to swell while local teams and clubs sprouted up all over the area bringing greater access and awareness to the game. Hockey’s popularity grew to a point in which even the NHL deemed the city worthy of hosting the league’s marquee event.

Unlike when the Capitals were playing for a Stanley Cup, now there is a sincere love for the sport within the city that has made Washington a genuine hockey town.

A newfound love of hockey

Chuck Gormley, Capitals reporter for Comcast SportsNet, remembers the desolate days of the region’s meager fan base.

Prior to working for CSN, Gormley covered the Philadelphia Flyers for the Courier-Post in Camden, N.J. He traveled with the team to games including those against the Capitals in their old arena, the Capital Centre.

“What I noticed when I first started covering those two teams was that, I would say it was almost 60–30 Caps fans,” Gormley said. “So there was at least 30 percent at the old Caps Centre that were Flyers fans, and you could hear it when there were goals.”

The Capitals’ lone conference championship banner hangs in the rafters at Verizon Center. The 1997–98 season remains the team’s most successful, but not in terms of attendance.

To understand just how far hockey has come in Washington, one need only revisit the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals.

The Capitals reached the finals that spring for the first and only time in franchise history against the Detroit Red Wings. When the series shifted from Detroit to Washington, there was no home ice advantage to speak of.

“When they had the ’98 Stanley Cup here, it was the first year at MCI Center,” said Ben Raby, pre- and postgame host for the Capitals Radio Network. “If you look this up, the Capitals hosting the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals was all Red Wings fans…Red Wings fans took over the building.”

That season, when the team came within four wins of the Stanley Cup, the Capitals ranked 19th out of 26 NHL teams in average attendance. And yet, in the 2014–15 season, just one year removed from failing to qualify for the playoffs at all, they ranked sixth out of 30.

Somehow, the city came to embrace the team even after a championship push failed to generate much interest. This seems counter to basic economic theories.

In a 1988 article published in the Journal of Industrial Economics, researchers posit that team success is a major factor in determining attendance. They also state that “the major elements in creating locational market power and so increasing the chances of franchise survival, are population and location in Canada.”

Economic success of an NHL franchise is based on attendance and attendance is based on team success, the size of a city’s population — more people equals higher attendance — and whether the team is located in Canada because of the sport’s popularity there.

Attendance was still low even as the Capitals reached the Stanley Cup Finals which makes their current success hard to explain. Given that the team has not been back to the finals since 1998 and that Washington is still not located within Canada, why is the team now becoming more popular?

The answer is simple. While the researchers correctly acknowledge that the popularity of hockey skews their formula when it comes to analyzing Canadian cities, they fail to acknowledge the impact of the sport’s popularity anywhere else. Fans are not just embracing the Capitals — they are embracing the sport.

“It’s a big deal now, but obviously that’s mostly on No. 8,” Raby said, “because prior to that it wasn’t much of anything.”

By No. 8, of course, Raby is referring to Alex Ovechkin, the No. 1 draft pick turned superstar who is the cornerstone of the team.

The Russian winger has truly inspired the fan base with his incredible play and enthusiasm for the game. Not only is he one of the best players in the world, he also has established himself as perhaps the best player in Capitals franchise history.

In his career, Ovechkin has been named league MVP three times, has led the NHL in goals five times, has been named to the NHL First All-Star Team six times and holds the Capitals franchise record in points, goals, power play goals and game-winning goals.

He can also do things like this:

As great as he may be, however, it would be a mistake to believe one player is enough to turn a city into a ‘hockey town.’

In 2001, the Capitals pulled off a blockbuster trade to acquire Jaromir Jagr, a player widely considered to be the best in the NHL. In the three seasons Jagr spent in Washington, the Capitals ranked 13th, 18th and25th in attendance, hardly the boost you would expect.

Having a player like Jagr or Ovechkin certainly helps generate interest in a team, but that can only go so far. The difference between the fan base now and back in the days of Jagr is about more than just the team or the players. It’s about the game of hockey.

Fans don’t pack the Verizon Center strictly for Ovechkin. Nor do they come out of a sense of civic pride. Today a genuine love for the game itself permeates through the city in a way it never did prior to Ovechkin’s arrival.

Cheering for the Capitals is not just about the team — it’s an expression of Washington’s new-found love of hockey.

Die-hards and the team’s resurgence

Every sports team has its super fans. If you have been to a Capitals game in the last 20 years, chances are you have heard theirs even if you have not heard of them.

Sam Wolk, better known as “Horn Guy,” attends every home game with his plastic horn whose distinctive blast can be heard throughout the arena.

“I started to bring the horn just to kind of get some noise out there during goal celebrations,” Wolk said. “It was silly, it was stupid. You know, just getting into it.”

The origin of the horn dates back to the inauguration of President George H.W. Bush. While in the city, a young Wolk bought a plastic horn from a street vendor. Once he began to attend games regularly, he started taking the horn with him.

“People were quiet,” Wolk said. “Even people who were really excited when goals were scored were just kind of sitting on their hands, not making a lot of noise. I was like, ‘Well, we’ve got to do something because the visiting fans show up and you can hear them when they’re cheering their team on.

“We’re at home — let’s have some pride about this.”

Over the years, Wolk developed a collection of his beloved horns and his regular appearance at each game made him recognizable and popular among the fan base.

While Wolk may need a horn to be heard throughout Verizon Center, there is one fan, affectionately referred to as Goat, who needs no such assistance.

William ‘Goat’ Stilwell watches intently during the Capitals April 8, 2015 game against the Boston Bruins. Stilwell’s loud, distinctive voice can be heard all throughout the Verizon Center.

“It’s insane. Nobody should be able to yell that loud,” Wolk said with perhaps a hint of jealousy.

William Stilwell sits behind the net at every home game with a Capitals jersey customized to say “Goat” on the back. The nickname has stuck with him since childhood. Throughout each game he leads the fans in chants of “Let’s go Caps” with his amazingly loud voice which can carry through the entire arena.

Stilwell first became interested in hockey from watching games on TV when he was a child, but he did not fall in love with the game until he saw it live.

“It was a Saturday afternoon against the [New York] Rangers and if I recall correctly [the Capitals] ended up winning 6 to 4 and it was the most exciting thing that little 8-year-old, 9-year-old me had ever seen,” Stilwell said. “That was what really locked it in for me.”

Wolk did not see his first hockey game until he was an adult, but, like Stilwell, it was seeing the game live that hooked him.

“Going to my first live hockey game, I was just floored by the non-stop action and the excitement of it,” Wolk said. “Just how fast they moved, how skilled they were, how they could control this little black rubber disk with a wooden stick. I mean, it was just mind-blowing to me.”

Their experience is not unique. To combat declining attendance, many sports are struggling to improve the in-game experience. This is not a problem for the NHL which in 2014 averaged more sellouts than the NBA. Even the at-home experience is continually enhanced by television, it still does not surpass the live experience of a hockey game.

“I think it’s the best sport to watch live only because there’s so much going on and it happens so fast,” Wolk said. “Every other sport has so many stoppages, and it seems like it takes so long. Like baseball,” he said, pausing to consider the game considered to be the nation’s pastime, “I’d rather pick out socks.”

In the many years Wolk and Stilwell have been fans of the Capitals, there have been several seasons in which the city did not share in their enthusiasm for the game and attendance suffered.

The Verizon Center sits directly in Chinatown, offering a more convenient venue for fans across the D.C. metropolitan area.

“There were nights when you were wondering why they even bothered putting on the game,” Stilwell said.

Less than 10 years after the team was founded, fans had to launch a “Save the Caps” campaign just to keep the franchise in Washington.

An important step for the team was its move from the Capital Centre in Landover, Md. to the MCI Center (now called the Verizon Center) in downtown D.C. Located in the heart of Washington, Verizon Center is easily accessible to fans from D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Capitals Centre was not.

Even with the new venue, however, the playoff run in 1998 brought only mild gains that were completely erased by a roster overhaul and the cancellation of the entire 2004–05 season.

“After the lockout obviously it was like doomsday in there,” Wolk said. “It was like after a zombie apocalypse.”

Then something happened. In 2004, the Capitals won the NHL draft lottery and selected a young Russian named Alex Ovechkin. Three seasons later the Capitals were a playoff team.

An apathetic fan base, uninterested in the sport and bored with the last-place Capitals, suddenly began to take notice of this thing called hockey.

“The buzz about Ovechkin and his incredible talent and his drive and just how much fun he was having, it was infectious,” Wolk said.

But Ovechkin alone wasn’t enough. In fact, in his first two seasons with the team attendance hit its lowest point since the 1983–84 season. It was not until the team made the playoffs in 2008 that the city really began to take notice.

“That was the tipping point…there were a lot of people at a Capitals game that had never been to a Capitals game before,” Stilwell said. “It became what D.C. sports loves. It became an event.”

Cheering for the Capitals was not just about the team — it became an expression of Washington’s newfound love of hockey.

Growing the game

Alex Ovechkin answers reporters’ questions following the Capitals 2–1 win over the Islanders on April 27, 2015. While Ovechkin undeniably revived hockey in Washington, the presence of a superstar player by itself is not enough to sustain a fan base.

Though exciting, the Capitals’ resurgence remains only part of the equation for hockey’s popularity within the area. The 2008 season was not the first time the team had made the playoffs nor was Ovechkin the team’s first superstar.

In fact, superstars alone frequently fail to bring fans to games. In the 2014–15 season, the New York Islanders ranked 25th in attendance out of 30 NHL teams despite havingJohn Tavares, a player just beginning to reach is potential as the top overall draft pick in 2009.

The problem with the Capitals was not finding success, but making sure that success continued to generate interest. The team’s continued popularity is not just due to its on-ice exploits, but is also the product of a fan base more receptive to the sport.

For some, just watching a player like Ovechkin hooked them. For others, they needed an outlet to play in order to really get invested.

“Hockey is just one of those sports that it seems like it just doesn’t have that same kind of mass appeal that other sports do,” Stilwell said, “and I think part of that’s because it’s one of the hardest sports to pick up and play. Especially ice hockey.”

Today, however, that seems to be changing. Just ask Courtney Laughlin.

Laughlin, daughter of former Capitals player and current CSN Capitals color analyst Craig Laughlin, was born into the game. Though her father retired as a player when she was very young, hockey was always a major part of their family’s life. There was never any question what sport Laughlin would play as a child.

Options, however, were limited especially for girls.

“I actually started with the boys in a House League at Piney Orchard,” Laughlin said. “I was in eighth grade at the time, when I first began ‘organized’ hockey and there were no house league teams for girls to play on, so I played with the boys.”

Laughlin played ice hockey from youth to high school to college. In high school, she commuted over two hours to play for a select team in New Jersey.

With only a handful of rinks in the area, boys and girls teams struggled to find ice time for practice and games. The large costs just to rent the ice made playing prohibitive even before buying equipment.

Today, things have changed dramatically.

There are now multiple ice rinks in D.C., Maryland and Virginia and several youth hockey clubs for both boys and girls, many of which are affiliated with the Capitals. In addition, the Capitals also have several game-day programs for local amateur teams meant to showcase them to the fans as well as expose them to the game experience. One fan favorite is the “Mites on Ice” in which young players play during intermission at a Capitals game.

Those efforts are already starting to pay noticeable dividends, even to the fans. Said Wolk: “I think you’re seeing a lot of young people around here now that there’s a proliferation of rinks to play on and there seems to be a lot more youth hockey…it just became easier to get involved in a youth hockey situation. That spawns interest in the professional game.”

Promoting ice hockey in the region is not limited just to youth hockey programs. The Capitals’ practice facility, Kettler Capitals Iceplex, hosts numerous hockey programs throughout the week including sled teams.

But not everyone needs a sheet of ice to play hockey.

Philip Karash, program manager for DC Social Sports’ street hockey league, is a recent hockey convert himself. A native of Connecticut, Karash took no real notice of hockey before he moved to the D.C. area and was surprised to learn that Washington even had a professional team.

“When I did think of hockey it was Canada, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, New England,” Karash said. “The only reason I knew there was any team this far south is because the [Hartford] Whalers moved to Carolina.”

Once he moved to Washington, Karash’s girlfriend got him hooked on hockey, and he decided he wanted to learn how to play. Having never played organized hockey before, he signed up for the newly formed recreational street hockey league from DC Social Sports. After playing for a year he offered to run the league and has been managing it ever since.

Leagues like DC Social Sports’ help make the game more accessible to people by taking the ice, equipment and large costs out of the equation. People can simply show up and play. Creating greater access to the sport has been critical for growing it in the city.

Even with more ways to play, hockey remains an intimidating game for some because of its fast pace and complex rules. That’s why people like Laughlin attempt to educate new fans to help spread the game.

After high school, Laughlin went on to play college hockey for the State University of New York at Potsdam and spent another two years with the school as an assistant coach. She later returned to the D.C. area and now coaches the DeMatha Catholic High School varsity hockey team and works as an on-air correspondent for the Capitals pregame show on CSN. Clearly, her hockey knowledge is beyond reproach.

This makes her an ideal candidate to educate one of the most ignored sports markets in America: women.

Club Scarlet, the official women’s fan club of the Capitals, reached out to Laughlin to become a blogger for the site to help introduce and teach women the sport.

The Capitals warm up prior to a playoff game on April 17, 2015. The complexities and speed of hockey can make it difficult to appeal to some fans.

“For people who don’t know hockey, it has a bad image,” Laughlin said. “People shy away if they don’t understand it. It’s a complicated game. It all happens so fast.”

Female sports fans, Laughlin understands, have no choice but to watch men’s sports due to the lack of coverage for womens’ sports leagues such as the WNBA. She is not out to make everyone suddenly into a hockey expert, but rather to make it a little less intimidating to those not as well versed in the game.

“I want women to be able to talk hockey with the guys at the bar,” Laughlin said.

In recent years hockey fans and team marketers have labored to ignite passion among Beltway residents and it seems to be working with 265 consecutive Verizon Center sellouts and counting. Gone are the days of tepid fan support.

Said Laughlin: “It goes together. You grow the fan base and you grow the sport. They go hand in hand.”

The Winter Classic

Capitals fans gather outside Nationals Park on New Year’s Day 2015 for the Winter Classic. Hockey took over the city for the day as Capitals fans came from all over the area to support their team in the NHL’s showcase event.

The true test of hockey’s resurgence in Washington came on New Year’s Day 2015.

The Winter Classic is considered a celebration of the sport of hockey. Played outdoors, it is meant to invoke memories of childhood and of playing pond hockey. Though you won’t see any pickup games on the Potomac River, in 2013 Washington was named the host of the 2015 Winter Classic.

The Capitals had participated in a Classic before, playing the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh in 2011, but Washington had never hosted the event.

The NHL showed remarkable faith in the city by scheduling the Capitals for their second appearance in the league’s marquee event. Prior to 2015, only three other teams had appeared in two Classics and the NHL saw fit to make the Capitals the fourth with the expectation that Washington fans would fill the venue at Nationals Park.

And fill it they did.

On New Year’s Day, 42,843 fans packed a sold-out Nationals Park and the game’s atmosphere was not limited to the field. Tens of thousands of fans gathered in and around the Park and excitement spread throughout the city.

“I was walking around downtown and everyone was wearing Ovi jerseys and I thought, ‘Wow, this really is a hockey town,’” Laughlin said.

In a city where football is king, where all teams vie for second place in the hearts of the fans behind the Washington Redskins, for one day there was no team but the Capitals. There was no sport but hockey.

“There were people, not me, who were surprised that there would be 40,000 people on New Year’s Day at National Park and that there would be 20,000 at 9 o’clock in the morning at the Fanfest,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said after the event.

“This has turned out to be, which we always believed it could be, a terrific hockey market.”

Can hockey remain popular in Washington?

As great as the Winter Classic was and Ovechkin continues to be, the reality is that not every game can be the Classic and not every player can be a superstar.

So what happens to hockey in D.C. without those big events and without their superstar player?

“That to me is the biggest question surrounding the Caps and their fan base,” Gormley said. “Ovi has definitely brought fans to the team, without question. He’s the biggest reason that the fans come every night, but my question is always this, ‘What if Ovi never played again?’”

Given how the team’s 1998 postseason run failed to establish a strong fan base that’s a fair question to ask, but the climate for hockey in Washington is very different in 2015 than it was in 1998.

You cannot start a fire just by lighting a match — you need fuel to light with that match. Hockey could not take root in Washington during the ’98 finals because the city had not yet embraced the sport. The emergence of Ovechkin served as another match, but only through local leagues and efforts to educate new fans has hockey finally been able to spread.

The difference between today and ’98 is that the sport itself is spreading through the city which is generating interest in the team. The Capitals fan base loves hockey, not just the Capitals.

“Ovi brought fans here, and now the fans are bringing themselves here,” Gormley said. “They are integrating into hockey, they are playing at a younger age, and now you’re having a generation of fans that grew up with Ovi and the next generation will have another player.”

Because the sport is less mainstream than others such as football its success will always be limited, but that does not mean that it cannot take root in the city. In many ways, it already has.

“Make no mistake: Hockey still was a niche sport and it still is today,” Stilwell said, “but the niche got much bigger.”

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