The bleachers were packed and spectators ringed the clamorous rink, including eight girls perched on lockers and banging their heels on the metal cages. Washington Capitals mascot Slapshot waddled past. The Caps’ Red Rockers cheerleading squad worked the crowd. The public address announcer was the dramatic voice from the Caps’ games at Verizon Center, rousingly intoning the names of Zienty and his buddies.
“It was unbelievable,” Zienty would say later, after saving a whopping 70 shots in his team’s 8-0 loss to Stone Bridge. “A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The Capitals might be inactive because of an NHL lockout that is fast approaching 100 days, but the production staff is bringing a professional touch to high school hockey games in the area, watering the grass roots of the sport during a season in which the professional version is withering.
High school hockey, a growing sport but one with outsider status because for most area teams it is a self-funded club sport, is basking in this rare spotlight. The Capitals turning out at games — two so far, chosen via fan voting — brings welcome attention to the sport and attracted a standing-room-only crowd of about 900 to a Loudoun County-Stone Bridge game with a 9:20 p.m. start time Friday.
Ashburn Ice House General Manager Rob Lorenzen estimates the crowd was about double what the attendance would have been without the Caps’ involvement. The first featured game, Churchill vs. Whitman at Rockville Ice Arena, which included a ceremonial puck drop by Capitals assistant coach and former player Calle Johansson, also drew several hundred spectators.
It was not just a matter of showing up in Ashburn. It is a production. The Caps wrote a preview of the Loudoun County-Stone Bridge game for the team’s Web site; dispatched PA announcer Wes Johnson, radio play-by-play man John Walton and WashingtonCaps.com senior writer Mike Vogel, among others, to the rink; and later posted highlight and interview packages on their site as well as Monumental Sports, a sports Web site launched by Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.
Walton and Vogel discussed Stone Bridge and Loudoun County players just as they would Capitals forwards Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green.
“We want to cover it just like we would an NHL game,” said Peter Robinson, assistant manager of amateur hockey and fan development for the Capitals.
That was the effect, even for Stone Bridge players, whose team usually draws boisterous crowds even without the Capitals’ professional flourishes.
“Going to Caps games, it felt like I was actually playing in one,” said Stone Bridge player Chris Berry, who had two goals and two assists. “It’s kind of weird. It felt like I was actually in the pros.”