Note to NHL: I miss hockey, so end the lockout and save the season


(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

I miss the Capitals. I want them back, selfishly, because they are fun to be around, fun to cover as a writer and fun to watch. If you’d told me 30 years ago I’d miss hockey, I’d have laughed myself silly. Living on the mean streets of Detroit and Washington changes a woman.

I want the Capitals back for the sake of their fans, who were Rocking the Red when every other team in town was in the dumps, when many couldn’t have picked the Nats’ colors out of a palette, when the Wizards wore (shudder) teal, when the Redskins coach thought his team wore maroon and black.

I want the Capitals back for Washington, which needs all its teams to be a big sports town. D.C. doesn’t have the fanaticism of New York or Chicago or Boston, but the Caps have been the ones who’ve put the nation’s capital on the sports map until very recently. Now the Nationals are a playoff team, Robert Griffin III is leading the league in jersey sales, D.C. United returned to the playoffs and the Wizards — hey, they beat the Heat! The Caps need to elbow their way back into the mix.

Of course, now we hear that the gulf between the two sides is widening after talks broke off again on Thursday.

One worry for many teams, including the Caps, is that there may be fewer fans once this is over. Caps season ticket holders were already angry over price increases before the lockout entered its 82nd day Thursday. We won’t really know the extent of their pique unless the season can be salvaged and then not until Game 2 of the shortened season. Everyone will want to be at Game 1.

The NHL is in a strange position among sports leagues in that it has almost no bargaining leverage. Many players can leave the country and play hockey at a high level and get paid for it, though perhaps not as much as they make here. Still, NFL and MLB players don’t have the luxury of optional employment.

What hurts the players is the impact on their career contributions. Even if the lockout ends this month, Alex Ovechkin will have lost nearly one and a half seasons and those earnings to labor issues. All the money in the world won’t buy back young legs.

The NHL also doesn’t have a TV contract that holds a candle to those of the NFL, MLB and NBA. The NHL has a core group of fans who will never, ever give up hockey, but it stands to lose the casual fan, and it has more need of the casual fan than most. It’s a niche sport that’s becoming niche-ier by the minute.

Like season ticket holders, the casual Caps fan is also tested by ticket prices. The last time I purchased single game tickets, I nearly fainted at the cost. The seats weren’t in the last row of Verizon Center, behind a goal. They were in the second-to-last row of Verizon Center, behind a goal. Thank goodness; it would be awful to be in that last row.

Games have been canceled through Dec. 14. If the season picked up shortly after that, it would be roughly 52 games. The shortest was 48 games, in 1994-95. It seems unlikely this season could be shorter than that and still be taken seriously.

We are rapidly approaching the point at which that asterisk becomes so large it blots out everything around it. Like our holiday gifts, it’s time to wrap it up.

For previous Tracee Hamilton columns, go to washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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