By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Two years after it was mocked by national media outlets and made the butt of local jokes for its lack of fan support, Washington's once-dormant hockey team is enjoying a surge of interest that rivals anything the franchise has experienced in its 35 years.
Tonight, the Capitals will tie a nearly 20-year-old franchise record with their 10th consecutive sellout. By the end of the season, they will have established new marks for total sellouts and total attendance. When 2009-10 season tickets went on sale last week, the ticket staff -- which has doubled in size over the past year -- sold 1,000 new plans in a day and 2,000 in a week, despite a modest increase in ticket prices and gloomy economic forecasts. Team officials said they could deplete their ticket inventory before next season begins.
Those numbers have translated into a raucous environment downtown at Verizon Center, where visiting coaches say they have trouble communicating with players because of the clamor and audio engineers have been forced to adjust the ambient noise levels in their broadcasts. National media outlets routinely mocked the Capitals' attendance as recently as two years ago; now, they're comparing the District's fans to those from traditional hockey hotbeds like Montreal and Philadelphia.
"Washington's right in the elite in terms of the atmosphere in the building," NBC hockey commentator Pierre McGuire said after a recent game. "It's spectacular. I'm telling you, it's spectacular. . . . This place is going off."
Team officials point to a confluence of factors in explaining this sudden turnaround, starting with the team's success on the ice. The Capitals had the National Hockey League's worst record when they changed coaches on Thanksgiving day in 2007; since then, they have won a division title, are poised to win a second and have the second-best record in the NHL's Eastern Conference. Alex Ovechkin, the team's 23-year old Russian star and the NHL's reigning most valuable player, is widely considered the game's most exciting player. Video of Ovechkin's latest highlight-reel goal was YouTube's most-viewed clip last Friday, and a film director recently called Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis to discuss making an IMAX movie featuring Ovechkin.
And as the Capitals have taken off, the city's other pro franchises have struggled. The Nationals had the worst record in Major League Baseball last season. The Wizards are contending for that distinction in the National Basketball Association this season. The Redskins, who recently laid off employees in their ticket office, lost six of their final eight games last season and failed to make the playoffs for the 13th time since last winning the Super Bowl in 1992. Many of the Capitals' new ticket buyers explicitly point to those failures.
"I have season tickets for the Redskins, but it's not comparable," 26-year-old Russell Rifkin of Bethesda said. "When I got my Redskins season ticket invoice, I said, 'Damn, I guess I've got to renew so I don't lose my seats.' When I got my Caps invoice, I called them up and added two more seats. The Redskins I paid because I had to; the Caps I added two tickets because I wanted to."
As Ovechkin and his young teammates became the team's backbone, front-office officials decided to target the 25- to 34-year-old demographic, trying to position their brand of entertainment as younger and edgier. Instead of playing the hokey "Hockey Song" on a nightly basis during stoppages in play, game operation staffers blare alternative rock and heavy metal over the arena's speakers. The team's introductory video, which recently won an industry award across all professional sports leagues, features Ovechkin and several teammates jamming to the music of hard-rock band Rev Theory. Players' head shots were done in the same spirit, with staffers bringing designer T-shirts and jackets to the shoot.
"They look bad-ass," said Scott Brooks, the team's director of game production and entertainment for the past 15 months. "You try to create small, subtle buzzes, where [fans] want to be a part of the in-crowd."
To some extent, many fans said, this has succeeded. One season ticket holder, Tracy Morrow, bought two more tickets this season to accommodate her friends; their constant requests, she said, "were driving me nuts." Adam Janowitz bought his first full-season plan last week; the 27-year-old said he grew up rooting for the team, lost interest following the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 NHL season and then got captivated during last year's playoff run. The fledgling Caps Kids Club has seen membership nearly triple since last spring's playoffs.
"There's this generation that's ready to be grabbed," Leonsis said. "Right now we've kind of captured something, and it's kind of ethereal, [the] buzz or the good vibe that we have."
Whether that enthusiasm will outlast the team's success, though, is an open question. The Wizards had a similar buzz just two years ago, before injuries to star guard Gilbert Arenas limited the team's chances over the past two seasons and led to drowsy crowds and thousands of empty seats. The George Mason men's basketball team had a surge of interest the year after making the Final Four in 2006, but has seen attendance decline for two straight years. The Capitals themselves have had previous bursts of passion, setting attendance records in 1998-99 after appearing in their first Stanley Cup finals and in 2001-02 after signing star winger Jaromir Jagr, and some fans aren't shy about admitting their hockey interest could once again be fleeting.
"I'm a bandwagon fan," admitted Jared Rosen, who bought season tickets for the first time this year to guarantee access during the playoffs. "Redskins, thick and thin. Caps, who knows?"
Just two years ago, when the team was mired at the bottom of the standings, the Capitals ranked 27th out of 30 teams in attendance, and visiting players "knew it'd be a boring game," forward Donald Brashear said. For years, there were stories of fans from Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Philadelphia dominating the arena.
"There's not too many places that sell out when the team's not winning," said Philadelphia Flyers assistant coach Craig Berube, who played in Washington for much of the '90s but said crowds were never as intense as now. "Philly, Toronto, Montreal, places like that, you can not win and the place will sell out. Places like this one -- and there's a bunch of them -- you've got to have a good team."
In the meantime, even the team's little-known grinders are experiencing a different world. Defenseman John Erskine heard good-luck wishes while strolling through a Whole Foods on Tuesday. Workmanlike forward Matt Bradley was in a Chipotle with his father last week when a fan said hello. Coach Bruce Boudreau said he now gets recognized "wherever I go."
And the team's appeal extends beyond the inner suburbs. Tuesday's game received a 1.6 rating in the Baltimore television market, the highest of the season. Two fans at yesterday's practice drove 14 hours from Montreal to see Ovechkin. A husband and wife flew from Scotland last week to see three Caps games.
"You had to beat the bushes to get the fans out two years ago," said Carl Ramsey of Springfield, another first-time season ticket holder. "Now that they're a winning team, they're coming out of the woodwork. This is the hottest sports ticket in D.C."