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Lighting the Lamp Sure Is Fun

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, January 8, 2009

For the holidays, I gave my family the Capitals -- tickets to the Flyers game in an Alex Ovechkin bobble-head box.

My friends, who know I've covered the Caps 100 times, but often after I lost a coin flip to Kornheiser or Wilbon, can mock me freely now. Sure, I'm climbing on the Zamboni a little late. Okay, a third-of-a-century late. But why not? Like this whole town that has awakened in the last 10 months to its sizzling young hockey team with a sudden and unexpected explosion of puck passion, I've gotten Capped.

First, a confession: Since my editor sent a kid reporter to interview Yvon Labre in '74, I've begged generations of Caps for an elementary hockey education and they've bent backwards to help. But trick questions can still stump me.

For example, as the Caps beat Philly, 2-1, on Tuesday, for 12 wins in 13 games and an 18-1-1 home mark this year, my wife asked, "Who won the Stanley Cup last season?"

"I'll Google it when we get home," I said.

"New Jersey?" said my son, otherwise a sports nut.

Yes, we're just a family of hockey fanatics.

But that's the point. All over Washington, just when few thought it would ever happen, Caps craziness, Rock-the-Red fever, a region-wide Great Eight debate, has exploded.

Just one year ago, the Caps had only one sellout crowd halfway through their season and wouldn't get their second full house until Feb. 24. The sport was still dormant, kept viable by the adoration of a devoted fan base but a whisper to casual fans. Now the Capitals are storming the city.

So far this season, Verizon Center has been 98 percent sold out, an increase of 31.5 percent in attendance. The sellout (18,277) for Philadelphia was the 10th in 20 games. The Caps may sell every ticket for the rest of the season, though 15 to 18 sellouts in the last 21 games is the safe bet. In the past year, season ticket sales have doubled.

Apparently, even in a deep recession, Washington will pay for -- what is that elusive word -- oh, a winner.

At an economic moment when competition for the entertainment dollar has never been more intense, the Caps picked the ideal time to (finally) be both excellent and exciting. For total event experience, they now crush the too-often tacky Redskins. With the fourth-best record in the NHL, the Caps lap the Wizards, who have the NBA's second-worst record. As for the Nationals, please note, a better team draws much bigger crowds.

Attendance is only one reward for the Caps' stunning turnaround since Coach Bruce Boudreau arrived 14 months ago and, helped by waves of young stars arriving from Hershey, turned a tail-ender into a Cup contender.

The Caps' TV ratings are up 130 percent. Merchandise, which leapt last season with new jerseys and logos, has jumped another 40 percent. The average time-per-viewer at the Caps Web site is the highest in the NHL. In part that may be because of Web-centric owner Ted Leonsis. But new Caps fans may also need more time online to learn all the exotic stuff they want to know. (Like that the Red Wings beat the Penguins in the Stanley Cup finals last year.)

At rare moments, everything seems to come together in a rush for a franchise. That's where the Caps are now. It's not just that the multiyear building plan of General Manager George McPhee and Leonsis bore fruit last year and that more youngsters have arrived or improved this season, including Karl Alzner (20), Nicklas Backstrom (21), Mike Green (23) and Alexander Semin (24) along with Ovechkin (23).

Simultaneously, the whole experience of Capitals hockey has improved. The District, after urging by Wizards owner Abe Pollin, upgraded the main HD video board and sound system as well as the ribbon boards at Verizon Center. So Caps games are now a red-pulsing light and rock show. A new director of game entertainment (Scott Brooks) arrived in November 2007, just as the Caps hit coach-firing bottom. With the franchise inaugurating those new red-to-the-max uniforms, he got to revamp the look, sound and feel of the Caps just as a new winning team was identifying itself.

You cringe at the Nats' pregame schlock, right? Or cover your face when too-much-is-never-enough FedEx Field perpetrates some new offense to the memory of classy RFK? The Caps have it right, down to clips of Al Pacino and Gene Hackman in movie pep talks or a deranged Christopher Walken demanding "more cowbell!" on SNL.

"This is cool," my wife said. "It feels like a sports event that's not in Washington." Okay, that hurts.

But it's about time somebody clicked. The Wizards haven't raised the roof since they were Bullets. The Nats get a free park, then fuss about the rent. So turns out, it's Caps fans who get to be proud, get to tell us what we've been missing. The restaurants around Verizon Center are full of them, most in Caps jerseys.

Who thought the District would have "red-out" crowds worthy of Nebraska football? Or fans who are delighted to mug for Verizon Center cameras as they try in vain to pronounce "how do I get to the airport" in Swedish.

"Where are the vendors?" my wife asked a fan.

"No vendors at a hockey game, lady," he said. "If you block these people's view of the puck, they'd go off on ya."

"Good," said my wife. "I've always hated vendors."

When the Caps arrived long ago, the town assumed that, given a few years, we'd love 'em. Learn the sport, so foreign to Washington at the time, then adopt our new homegrown stars and get hooked. But it never happened.

The team stayed awful too long, lost its novelty, then turned inward to core hockey lovers for viability. Sound a bit too much like the Nats trajectory, so far? When the Caps finally got good, they were usually a bit boring. Even Ron Wilson's Stanley Cup finals club never lit the fuse like this bunch.

Sometimes, over the years, the Caps have been sportswriter spinach and fan repellent. And sometimes, they've been fun. But they've never been a thrill, never been the best show in town, never been the team whose tickets you gave to your family for Christmas. Until now.

It's a strange new place we find ourselves, to be sure. But we can probably learn to enjoy it.

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