Even the hardiest, heartiest NHL fan knows, deep down, that nationally, the league is fourth among the Big Four. There are parts of this country where most folks were unaware the NHL wasn’t playing, and wouldn’t have cared if they were aware. Sunday morning, with all the NFL coverage and previews of Monday night’s national title game between Alabama and Notre Dame, news of the lockout’s end barely got a mention on ESPN’s 26 channels.
Locally, of course, many people care deeply. The Capitals have always had a solid, longtime fan base with Landover memories that don’t involve FedEx Field. Then came Alex Ovechkin and a slow rebuilding that led to playoff appearances and the addition of a lot of new fans. The Caps became the hot ticket in town, No. 2 with a bullet (but not with the Bullets), behind only the Redskins, and old-timers could complain about the youngsters taking up all the seats on the bandwagon.
That was before Natitude, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Robert Griffin III, Alfred Morris . . . it’s a long list. Now the Caps return as No. 3 among casual fans, even if Nos. 1 and 2 are not playing by the time fans are Rocking the Red at Verizon Center. Among die-hard Caps fans, of course, they return as No. 1, with a caveat: A lot of season ticket holders weren’t happy about prices before the lockout. Will they return? We’ll find out soon.
When teams have the success of the Nats and Redskins, the offseason becomes as interesting as the season. (The Redskins’ offseason has been the most interesting section of their calendar for years, so they’re ahead of the game.) When a team loses more than half its season while two highly paid entities argue with each other, that seeming lethargy may come with a price.
What do the Caps have going for them? First, and sadly, the dreadfulness of the Wizards, the worst team in the NBA. After the Redskins’ season ends, and before the Nats’ begins, the Caps will be center stage in Washington. Yes, the Terps, Hoyas, Patriots and other local college teams have their own followings, but it’s hard to grow those, at least until March. For all the talk of D.C. being a basketball town, empty seats tell a different story.
The Nats will report to Florida in mid-February; if the NHL season resumes on Jan. 15, which seems to be the earliest possible date, that gives the Caps a month on center stage. (Had the Redskins still been alive in the playoffs, that would not only have overshadowed other local teams but also wiped out forests, crashed the interweb and blotted out the sun.)
But for Sunday, at least, it’s time for Caps fans to thank Beckenbaugh, pull their Braden Holtby jerseys out of mothballs and decide whether to hop back on board the Caps train.
“Hopefully within a very few days, the fans can get back to watching people who are skating, not the two of us,” NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr said after the agreement was reached.
True, people will be skating. How many fans will get back to watching them remains to be seen.
For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.