By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Less than four years ago, when Alex Ovechkin arrived in the capital of the United States from his native Russia, he was a teenager who could move around his new town without creating a stir. On his occasional attempts to play the fame card -- offering, he said, perhaps an "I am left wing for Washington Capitals, you know?" -- the responses indicated his place in the Washington sports landscape, which seemed relatively negligible.
"Rookie year, nobody know," he said. " 'Where you from? Capitals? Who? Capitals?' "
Now, he is 23 and headed tomorrow to his third all-star game. His English is more fluent, his understanding of Washington's traffic comprehensive. He has scored more goals than any NHL player in the last three seasons, won an MVP trophy and been granted the key to the city. He has crashed into the glass in the corners of the Verizon Center ice, a signature celebration unrivaled in these parts since the "Fun Bunch" leapt in the end zone at RFK Stadium during the Redskins' glory years. In all of this, Ovechkin has helped lift the Capitals to a perch in a crowded Washington sports market that hockey players have rarely enjoyed.
"When you have a superstar to build around," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said, "you make magic."
By every measurable index -- attendance, television ratings, merchandise sales, Web site traffic, position in the standings -- the Capitals have moved past those times when their star player could glide unnoticed through restaurants and bars, when their slumps and winning streaks would be charted only by a core group of ardent fans. But inside the team's sparkling training complex in Arlington -- where the Kettler Capitals Iceplex houses the team offices atop a mall parking garage -- there is a sense that the development of Washington as a hockey market is just beginning.
"We're the hot team in D.C.; we're the hot ticket in D.C.," said Tim McDermott, the team's chief marketing officer. "I say that humbly, because things can always change. But I think we're the 'other' team, if you will, besides the Redskins. There's something special that's happening here. . . . But to use a hockey term, we're just in the first period."
For instance, Ovechkin is the Capitals' lone representative in the All-Star Game. That is partly because of fans in other cities -- notably, Pittsburgh and Montreal -- voting in record numbers for their hometown heroes, taking roster slots that might have been filled by others. Thus, the Eastern Conference starters selected by fans were to be two Pittsburgh Penguins, stars Sidney Crosby (before he was injured) and Evgeni Malkin, and four Montreal Canadiens, even though Ovechkin has nearly as many goals (a league-high 31) as Montreal veteran Alexei Kovalev has points (33). Kovalev was voted in as a starting forward along with Malkin and Crosby, who shattered the previous record by garnering more than 1.7 million votes.
Ovechkin somehow received just more than a quarter of the votes Crosby did. After signing a 13-year, $124 million contract with the team just more than a year ago, Ovechkin will almost certainly be wearing a Capitals jersey as a generation of hockey fans grows up around him -- and he wants those fans to stuff the ballot box, too.
"I'm hoping, for sure, next year's going to be different," Ovechkin said. "Different crowd. Different level on our team. I think people are going to want to watch us more -- not just me."
Leonsis saw the voting results and quickly tossed them aside.
"I have the entire organization right now focused on one thing: build a Stanley Cup championship franchise," he said. "Any other issues that have nothing to do with that march, that accomplishment of a goal, we shouldn't care about. And so any effort that I put in to get our guys voted as all-stars would only take away from something we could do that would be substantive."
The substantive developments, Leonsis believes, involve growing the fan base as the team pursues not just a berth in the postseason but its first victory in a playoff series in 11 years. The Capitals are drawing 17,973 fans per home game, an average that ranks 13th in the NHL and an increase of precisely 2,500 over last year; team officials say the NHL's private "paid attendance" numbers put them fifth among U.S. franchises, behind only Detroit, Minnesota, Buffalo and Philadelphia. Their 12 sellouts to date have already eclipsed the eight from last season. In 2005-06 -- Ovechkin's rookie year and the season following the NHL's lockout -- the Capitals' average of 13,905 fans ranked 28th in the league.
"The first season, we'd have sold out probably one game, the beginning of the year, opening-night game," Ovechkin said. "This town has changed a lot."
The team's broadcasts on Comcast SportsNet have drawn an average rating of 1.2 locally, tied for 10th among U.S.-based NHL teams. The average of roughly 27,600 households is more than triple what baseball's Washington Nationals drew last summer on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, and no NHL team has increased its local viewership more from last season to this. In 2006-07, the Capitals' average rating was a paltry .40.
But there are still holes. Two of the Capitals' 82 games are not broadcast to the Washington market at all. And places such as Pittsburgh -- where the Penguins reached the Stanley Cup finals last year but are struggling to remain in the playoff race this season -- draw television numbers that are the envy of franchises such as Washington. Among U.S. teams, Nielsen ratings in December ranked the Buffalo Sabres first (8.9) and the Penguins second (5.7).
Leonsis believes there are roughly 25,000 hard-core Capitals fans throughout the region. That, he believes, is not good enough.
"If you ask what the audacious business goal is, it's 41 home sellouts and double the TV ratings," he said. "That would mean you'd have 50,000 hard-core fans."
So he has looked at other markets in an attempt to learn. Pittsburgh, right now, is one that may apply. During the week leading up to the AFC championship game, in which the Steelers hosted the Baltimore Ravens for the right to go to the Super Bowl, the sports-talk airwaves in Pittsburgh were filled with analysis of the game. But not an insignificant amount of time was spent discussing the Penguins, particularly Ovechkin's celebrations of his two goals in the Capitals' 6-3 victory at Mellon Arena and Crosby's apparent knee injury, suffered that night. Hockey was enough of a topic that, in the midst of a crucial NFL week, talk show hosts Stan Savran and Guy Junker asked listeners what opposing player from any sport at any time they hated most, wondering whether Ovechkin now merited consideration.
"This is a great hockey town," said Mario Lemieux, the three-time NHL MVP who played his entire career with the Penguins and now owns the team. "They embraced me from the start. That's why I wanted to play my whole career here and not move around. And for us, to have young stars like that, it's pretty easy to market to these fans."
Lemieux's term -- "hockey town" -- is frequently used to describe the old-school burgs that made up the NHL's "Original Six," from Detroit to Boston, New York to Chicago, Montreal to Toronto. It has, in the last 30 years, applied to places such as Philadelphia and even Dallas. Those are places Leonsis has spent time studying.
"There are cities that you say, 'Well, how did they become hockey towns and do so great?' " Leonsis said. "They won championships. That's the answer. That's why, to me, everything else is noise."
The noise, too, is what is filling Verizon Center on a nearly nightly basis. When the Capitals begin post-all-star play Tuesday in Boston, they will do so as the top team in the Southeast Division, second only to the Bruins in the Eastern Conference. And when Ovechkin and the team return to the District after that, the team's most recognizable player may choose to grab something to eat at the most crowded joint in town. The response is almost certain to be something akin to, "Right this way, Mr. Ovechkin."
"If you want to go somewhere like a restaurant or bar, the hostess just says, 'Hey, come on in,' " Ovechkin said. "They always give us good table. What a change."