NHL lockout: Frustrated Capitals fans try to fill their hockey void

Katherine Frey/The Washington Post - Die-hard Capitals fans give a shout out to their team before boarding a van to watch the franchise’s AHL affiliate in Hershey, Pa.

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“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the ice Youuuuurrrrrrrrrrr WASHINGTON CAPITALS!!!!!” Caps public address announcer Wes Johnson bellowed Saturday night, as the home team emerged from its Verizon Center dressing room and the fans in red applauded.

These Caps, sadly, were of the virtual variety, part of a video-game simulation broadcast on more than a dozen monitors at the Front Page bar in Arlington. And the fans — clad in Caps jerseys, T-shirts and hats — willingly suspended their belief, chanting and cheering for simulated pixels while the National Hockey League slogs through its second lockout in eight years, which has already wiped out a quarter of the season.

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“If we can’t have the real game,” said Meghan Donohue, 26, of Centreville, “this is the next best thing.”

The central issue in the labor standoff is how to divide the league’s revenue. Both sides have submitted proposals that would reduce the players’ 57 percent share to a 50-50 split, but they differ on how to get there. The latest bargaining effort ended Sunday with union boss Donald Fehr telling reporters he didn’t “see a path to an agreement.”

It’s an odd time for Caps fans, many of whom developed an intense allegiance to the franchise in the eight years since the league’s last work stoppage. While the city’s other winter sports franchise have foundered, the Caps have been a beacon of hope, providing a sense of community, a justification for ticket splurges and a late-night TV destination for thousands of Washingtonians.

And with the NHL lockout dragging on and no end in sight, many of these fans have faced a void, searching for other outlets for their passion and other receptacles for their entertainment dollars.

“I have money now, but I don’t have anything to do anymore,” said Josie Goggin, a junior at the University of Maryland who has spent the lockout trying to watch basketball. “I’m not really that interested in it, but I thought I would try, because I need something to take up my time.”

‘Beyond irritated’

It’s a refrain echoed by Caps fans across all ages and demographics. While the season-long 2004-05 lockout was telegraphed for months, the length of the current stalemate — and its Byzantine justifications — has disoriented many fans.

Some have turned to other sports, like NASCAR, mixed martial arts, the National Football League or Major League Soccer. Some have sought a hockey fix from the minor league AHL or the high-powered Russian KHL. Some have found solace in scripted television shows, while others have embraced participatory sports or books.

And some have resolved to take advantage of this rare respite from their favorite sport. Victoria Neal, a 43-year-old from Fairfax, maintains a separate checking account dedicated to hockey purchases. She regularly attends Caps practices in Ballston and games at Verizon Center, and she devotes much of her free time to the game.

Now her “hockey” account has been transformed into a “European Vacation” account. She and another Caps fan decided to sink their newfound money into a three-week European tour. Neal is spending one night a week in German language classes, and has pledged not to attend a single Caps game this season, even if the league comes back.

“I’m just beyond irritated with the owners,” Neal said. “I’m not buying any merchandise, I’m not buying any tickets. Even if someone gave me free tickets, I don’t know if I’d use them. I just don’t feel like [owner Ted Leonsis] deserves any of my money this season.”

The team has already sold every season ticket for the season and maintains a waiting list of several thousand names. (Ticket holders for any games canceled because of the lockout are entitled to refunds.) It has sponsored monthly skating parties for fans, happy hours and movie nights, and is planning a holiday photo night and a “chalk talk” with General Manager George McPhee.

Still, many fans have turned elsewhere. Carson Evans of Alexandria dedicated himself to more intensive coaching of his daughter’s youth hockey teams. “I’m not really missing [the NHL] as much as I thought I would, because I’m still getting hockey,” he said.

Paul Frampton of Rockville took his family to “Beauty and the Beast” at the National Theater and a NASCAR race at Dover; they also plan to attend an upcoming performance of “Les Miserables” and a Taylor Swift concert.

Sherry Lewis of Richmond started going to more rock shows and is training for a half-marathon in Virginia Beach. Her running schedule, she said, is easier without the late nights devoted to Caps broadcasts. “I’ve got to say, I’m finding things to spend my time on,” she said.

Giving up the sport isn’t quite as easy for all Caps fans, and some have pursued hockey wherever they can find it. Sarah Gerst, 27, of Harford County, bought a partial season-ticket plan to the Hershey Bears, Washington’s minor league affiliate in Pennsylvania. She figures she’ll attend 16 or 17 games in Hershey this season, enjoying better seats for significantly less money.

“I find that I’m having a lot of fun going up there, and I’m kind of putting the Caps in the back of my mind now since the lockout,” she said.

Others are immersing themselves in Russia’s KHL, Europe’s top professional league. With Capitals Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom starring as teammates on Dynamo Moscow, some fans have tuned into online streams of KHL games.

The lockout is perhaps more difficult for children, who aren’t much interested in the proportional split of hockey-related revenue or the intricacies of escrow accounts. George and Connor Kassel, 3- and 5-year-old brothers, came to the Front Page in their Caps gear on Saturday night, wondering if they would see a real hockey game. Instead they played air hockey and posed for photos with the team’s mascot.

“They’ve been asking when they can go to a game, and what do you tell them?” asked their mom, Kathleen Kassel. “There just aren’t any games to go to.”

“They’re not going to understand labor disputes,” added their dad, Andy. “I don’t think we really understand labor disputes.”

Others have more openly flirted with a fantasy land, in which hockey is still being played. F.J. Corrigan of Sterling, who runs the Peerless Prognosticator blog, decided to cover this Caps season as if it were happening, writing fanciful recaps of every canceled game.

“Folks will think I’m nuts to devote any effort to that sort of thing, and they might be right,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But I’m a hockey fan; been one since long before players had to wear helmets. And since going to Hershey to see all of the Bears’ home games is not a realistic option, this will suffice for now.”

‘Really melancholy’

The Caps have the most robust online presence of any D.C. sports team, with bloggers and superfans enjoying a sort of insular celebrity. The lockout punctured that community’s bubble, turning its stars back into anonymous nine-to-fivers.

“The thing I’ve kind of realized during this lockout is that the Caps’ fan base is like a really awesome band, and right now, it’s like the band’s broken up,” said Ian Oland, one of the founders of the Russian Machine Never Breaks blog. “One guy’s doing art; one guy’s watching pro wrestling; I’ve been getting into politics. All of us have become a little bit lamer. We don’t really keep in touch that much. It’s been really melancholy, to say the least.”

Which helps explain events like Saturday’s. The Front Page – located across the street from the Caps’ practice facility – serves as the team’s unofficial home. Players and coaches eat there, bartenders wear Caps shirts and hats, and fans pack the seats during games. Owner Jorge Fernandez said his year-to-year business is down nearly 10 percent thanks to the lockout, and the simulated game was meant to offer fans that old feeling of solidarity.

Several dozen fans showed up, offering group cheers when the electronic Caps scored and group groans when Toronto polished off a 9-3 rout. It wasn’t real hockey, but it was something.

“I’m just having fun screaming at the TV again, and yelling C-A-P-S Caps Caps Caps!” explained Kat Chanthaphone, 26, of Springfield.

“I miss hockey,” said Elana Lipman, 25, of Arlington. “I needed a reason to wear my jersey and not feel ridiculous.”

“It’s bittersweet, because it’s not real,” said Penelope Hicks, 22, of Arlington. “I miss my Caps.”

 
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