The most I knew about hockey then was that the big guys could hit each other as hard as they did in the NFL, except they did it on ice. I had been on skates myself only on school trips or at birthday parties.
As my dad explained the details of the game to me, I zoned out when he mentioned one thing: Periods are not quarters. When the horn sounded after three, I thought the team had a chance to climb back from being down 5-3. But it was over, and I cried all the way home.
I’ve been a Caps fan ever since.
This past week, at Tuesday night’s fantastic comeback win, I sat in Section 404. I was the only black person in the section, as far as I could tell. When I yelled, “Do us a favor, Toronto!” while an Islanders goal was under review (the NHL has an official replay center there for disputed goals), the woman in front of me turned around and laughed. When she saw me, she did a double take.
Being a black hockey fan in D.C. is not easy. There aren’t that many of us. But we’re not unicorns. Go to a Caps game or a hockey bar, and you might find a couple. All in all, hockey is not a big part of the black sports community, and that’s unfortunate. It’s also something the Capitals could change if they tried. I’m not a marketing expert, but the Washington area has plenty of people with disposable income looking to back a winning team. And many of them are not white.
At a Wizards game, you feel like you’re at a party and everyone is welcome. Capitals games are more like partisan rallies. I’m sure the people who schlep in from the suburbs love the atmosphere, but for people of my ilk, there is a huge chasm in the game-day experience.
It’s awkward and embarrassing to walk through an arena and enjoy a game when 90 percent of the people in the building who look like me are working inside serving customers, or outside offering a different kind of customer service for last-minute ticket buyers.
To be a pro sports fan, you need a reason to stay with the team. The regional allegiances aren’t the same as in college athletics, where many just root for the jersey. In the pros, you want to feel like you can understand and appreciate the athletes and their personalities. For many Americans, nevermind black people, it’s tough to invest in a team when all the athletes seem to be Canadians, Russians and Swedes.
As a black person, it’s even more difficult to embrace hockey when so few of the athletes are black. At this point, Joel Ward, a winger, is the only black player on the Caps. The team has had other players before him, including Mike Grier and Donald Brashear, but, as in the rest of the NHL, the roster is relatively light on players of color. So, in some ways, it’s understandable that African Americans aren’t hugely into hockey. Very few of us play it as kids because of the expensive equipment and the dearth of rinks in many majority black neighborhoods.