A New Ice Age for D.C.?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

IS WASHINGTON ready to challenge Detroit for the title of Hockey Town USA? Well, to be honest, not quite yet. The Washington Capitals are still fourth in line, behind the Redskins, Nationals and Wizards, in the affections of the city's sports fans. But the Capitals' longtime followers can match those of any team for loyalty, intensity and knowledge of the game. The problem has been that there usually haven't been enough of these fans year in and year out. That may be about to change.

A young team with perhaps the best player in hockey -- Alex Ovechkin -- got the Verizon Center back to where Capitals' owner Ted Leonsis likes to see (and hear) it: packed full and threatening to bust the decibel-measuring machine. The Caps' extraordinary comeback this season after Bruce Boudreau took over as head coach in late November and led them from last place to first in their division made legions of new fans every day. Under Mr. Boudreau, who had toiled 15 years in the minor leagues, the Caps won game after game down the stretch, none of which they could afford to lose. By the time they gained first place and a playoff berth on the last day of the regular season, they'd become arguably the most popular hockey team not only in North America but in Russia as well, where Mr. Ovechkin and three Russian teammates competed with the national team for attention.

Mr. Leonsis thinks the Caps have something going here, and he's willing to bet on it. He has signed the brilliant Mr. Ovechkin to a high-priced, long-term contract, a big risk in a financially challenged sport. Yet who could bet against a player who led the league in scoring and who gets so fired up that he tries to throw himself into the crowd after scoring a game-winning goal (no easy thing in hockey, since there's a Plexiglas screen in the way)?

The Caps have also signed up Coach Boudreau for awhile. He is a true find, one of the most likable, unassuming and (on the outside, at least) calm people ever to stand reassuringly behind a bench full of hypercharged skaters. He couldn't quite get this team through the first round of the playoffs, but most of his players had never been in the playoffs before. Perhaps in the next year or two they can deliver an authoritative answer to those who say the Potomac will freeze over before Washington wins the Stanley Cup.

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