By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010; A01
Back when their bandwagon was still in the concept design phase, the Washington Capitals rarely played in front of a full house on their home ice. Just a few years ago, they were among the worst teams in the National Hockey League, selling out just a handful of games at Verizon Center and averaging 13,918 fans -- many of those wearing the visiting team's colors -- in an arena that seats more than 18,000 around the ice.
"We had lots of room to walk around the concourse, which was nice," said Tadd Newman, who started buying season tickets with her father during the team's lean years. "We'd do laps during the intermission and then go back to our seats in the nosebleeds and scream our hearts out, even though the Caps were pretty much at the bottom of the barrel and could be so frustrating to watch."
But then the Caps started winning -- a lot, including division titles in 2007-08 and 2008-09. This year, they appear to have forgotten how to lose: Captained by the electrifying Alex Ovechkin, the Caps have reeled off 13 consecutive wins, a franchise record. They've lost just twice in 18 games since the new year.
The streak has vaulted the team to the top of the NHL points standings. Add a zesty marketing campaign from franchise owner Ted Leonsis and a loud, thrill-a-minute fan experience inside the downtown arena and, suddenly, in a region starving for something -- anything -- resembling pro sports success, the Capitals are Washington's most buzzworthy team, to the point that people are daring to wonder if this might someday become a true hockey town.
The result is wild success -- and a certain sense of resentment among die-hard fans who see the newcomers in the crowd as Ovie-come-latelys.
"It's a fine line, but it's almost like you feel a little threatened," says Newman, who can no longer roam freely on the crowded concourse during intermission. "You've been cheering this team on and watched them from their infancy, and now all these other folks are coming in and getting on the bandwagon and basking in that reflective glory."
Upside: Raucous home ice, sharp increase in people with whom to talk about Knuble and No. 52. Downside: Newbies who don't know their hockey etiquette (hey, don't roam the aisles when the puck's in play!) and pretend to know everything, when they probably don't even know the head coach (Bruce Boudreau), let alone the definition of head-manning (passing the puck forward to an attacking teammate).
Plus: She was here first, when the Caps were in last place. "This is such a bandwagon town, anyway," Newman says. "But you watch how much new people who've never seen hockey before enjoy the game, and it tempers how you look at the bandwagon. I just hope they become die-hard fans, cheering for the team come hell or high water, like the Redskins fans."
Although the Capitals' TV ratings are nowhere near Redskins levels -- no other Washington sports team comes close, even in an extended era of football mediocrity -- the team's fans are setting Comcast SportsNet ratings records for hockey this season, up more than 150 percent since the 2007-08 season. And the franchise is selling tickets like mad: Every home game this season has been -- or will be -- sold out.
"Going to a Caps game is the 'in' thing to do now," says Jeff Greenberg, owner of ASCTicket.com, a Gaithersburg ticket brokerage. "This town hasn't had a winner in 20 years, and now the Caps are good and they have a true superstar, the best player on Earth, Ovechkin. We're seeing a lot of demand from people who two, three years ago didn't care about hockey."
Interest in amateur and youth hockey is also rising as Caps fever spreads: Capital Beltway Hockey League Commissioner Mike Bancroft reports a membership spike since the Caps started winning and doing more to promote the sport. "Quite frankly, a few years ago, we were pretty concerned with the state of hockey in the area," he says. "We weren't getting growth at all. But we're really starting to see those numbers pick up again. It's been a drastic change."
The view from the owner's suite is, as you'd expect, more expansive than some of the get-off-my-lawn-style screeds that have been popping up on myriad Caps blogs: All fans welcome, Leonsis says, no matter when they jumped on the bandwagon.
"I love everyone equally," he says. "But I empathize with and understand the long-term Caps fans. It's kind of like U2 used to play in campus bars and small clubs, and then they played in arenas and stadiums and were on the cover of Time magazine. When you blow up, there's a tension between the die-hards and everyone else. I'm very cognizant that it's that first group that supported us through thick and thin. I try to love those people extra, because while it's easy to love us now, they loved us in the bad times. At the same time, it's my job to build the biggest audience under the biggest tent possible."
Backlash against the bandwagon occasionally bubbles up on Caps-centric Web sites such as Japers' Rink, but it's much ado about nothing, says Jon Press, the blog's founding editor.
"I don't really see much of a downside" to the broadening of the fan base, he says. "Maybe it's harder to get tickets, but it's fantastic to have that arena filling up with red every night. It's just unreal. It's so loud and raucous, and I think everybody just gets swept up in it, the real die-hards and the next generation of fans. And no one is born with original fanhood; everyone has to become a fan at some point. Hopefully some of the new fans will really learn the game and stay with the Caps even if things aren't going as well as they are now."
So you out there on Twitter, take this back: "All you new 'fans' jumping on the Caps' bandwagon: #killyourself."
The bandwagon phenomenon is hardly exclusive to Washington, says Greg Wyshynski, editor of the NHL blog Puck Daddy. "What's happening with the Caps' fan base isn't as simple as front-runneritis. What Leonsis and the team have done is cultivate this collegiate following. When you go to the game, it's a total experience the way it isn't in a lot of other cities. People are wearing the same colors; they're doing chants. They've been able to cultivate a sense of belonging."
Still, the Caps are winning when the other franchises in town have been losing. And losing. And losing some more.
Score one for the Caps, Leonsis says. "It's a share game, and we're taking some of that from the other teams -- and bluntly, deservedly so. We have an exciting and fun team, and we still act like the hungry outsider begging for business and loving the fans. . . . I hope that the success will never go to our heads."