Caps, Hockey Return to MCI

Capitals' Chris Bourque attempts to control the puck despite the hits of Sabres' Derek Roy, left, and Jay McKee, right.
Capitals' Chris Bourque attempts to control the puck despite the hits of Sabres' Derek Roy, left, and Jay McKee, right. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 22, 2005

At 7:08 last night, referee Don Koharski skated to center ice at MCI Center, then dropped the puck.

Referees will repeat that action thousands of times this winter, but this opening faceoff was significant because it marked the return of the Capitals, a team Washington hadn't seen in more than 17 months.

They suffered their third defeat in three preseason games, 4-0, against the Buffalo Sabres. But many fans said before the contest that the result didn't matter.

What mattered, they said, was watching the Capitals again after being forced to live without the NHL for a year and a half. A labor dispute wiped out the 2004-05 season.

Patric Neese arrived about two hours before the game wearing his black Olaf Kolzig jersey.

"I'm looking forward to seeing Kolzig again," said the 37-year-old student from Manassas, a season ticket holder for four years. "I was coming back no matter what. I love hockey too much."

Apparently not many fans in Washington shared his sentiment.

The team announced a crowd of 10,129, but the actual attendance was likely less than half that. Even by preseason standards, the crowd was sparse, with some seating sections entirely barren. (The team averaged 14,720 fans during the 2003-04 regular season.)

"It's up to management right now to help sell the game," veteran center Jeff Halpern said after the game. "It's a joint effort. Fans will come if we win. If we don't win, if we continue to not put up much of a fight, you don't expect a lot of fans to show up."

The ones who came, however, were vocal.

"It's a new beginning," said Connie Schneider, a resident of Maryland City and president of the Washington Capitals Fan Club. "We're essentially starting over. It's exciting."

"Tonight really signifies that the NHL is back," she said, standing about two dozen rows above the ice. "Now it's real."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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