July 9, 2018 at 3:04 PM
In the weeks after the Capitals won the Stanley Cup, as Washington’s streets thinned of red-clad fans and Metro buses reprogrammed “Go Caps!!” off their signs and the city reinforced its rule of no swimming in fountains, hundreds of calls and emails poured into local hockey rinks. Some parents couldn’t wait and just walked in, where they saw reminders of what had spurred them there in the first place.
In Arlington, Kettler Capitals Iceplex has a flier for its learn to skate program taped to the entry door that reads, “Begin your journey to Stanley.” A few miles northwest, Ashburn Ice House has the playoff highlights on an endless loop. The celebration following the Capitals’ championship has diffused from the streets outside Capital One Arena and into the rinks across the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, with those highlight clips serving as an explanation for the spike in interest. Parents wanted to know how to get kids involved in the game of hockey.
“When the Caps were losing in the first couple rounds every year, we picked up a few mainstream families, but we didn’t get a real good group of them,” said Flip Collins, hockey coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Virginia, who also runs local youth camps. “This Stanley Cup brought hockey to the mainstream family’s eyeballs. Now, we’re going to see a huge uptick in participation.”
Collins embodies the hopes of local hockey experts who anticipate a wave this fall, a second coming of “The Ovechkin Effect.” Since the year before Ovechkin’s first season in 2005-06, USA Hockey data shows youth participation nationwide is up 4 percent. In the same time span for the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, it has increased 37 percent, and the former 8-and-under players who fueled the rise in Ovechkin’s first few seasons are now entering high school.
Now, they’re hoping the Stanley Cup will continue to swell their ranks.
“It’s going to take probably three years from now to see that huge explosion of hockey players,” said Brad Surdam, the hockey director at Kettler. “That [impact] is going to come from the kid who is 4 or 5 years old, whose parents took them to the parade and now is learning to skate.”
The Capitals started preparing to capitalize on this Cup win at the youth level when team then-owner Abe Pollin relocated their home arena from Landover, Md., to downtown D.C. and created middle ground for Maryland and Virginia residents by reducing their time in traffic. A culture began to develop, and it pulled in kids like Patrick Giles.
The Chevy Chase, Md., native started playing hockey a few years later, and he saw firsthand as this world, which seemed small compared with northern states, slowly grew. He watched Ovechkin’s first days as a Capital from his couch. He wore the jersey and emulated the moves. He saw the Capitals shift their practice facility in 2006 from Maryland to Northern Virginia, where the sport grew quickly with new players and rinks.
Giles bounced around elite local club teams until he ended up at Kettler at Capitals Development Camp in June. As the Boston College commit sat on a chair in the middle of the locker room he’d always dreamed of being in, he reflected on the local hockey scene.
“And with all this publicity D.C.’s getting from the Cup,” he said, “[the sport] will just continue to grow. I hope kids realize they can play hockey in Maryland and make it.”
Collins pointed out the Cup puts the DMV “on the map” and that it now has to be respected as a “traditional hockey market.”
“Hockey was good in the area,” he said. “But now we [could] be great. … This market wants to be like Pittsburgh so bad.”
Neal Henderson, the founder of Fort Dupont Ice Arena, the only public rink in D.C., hopes the playoff heroics of Devante Smith-Pelly, a black leader in a mostly white league, shows minority parents and players they can be a part of this wave as well. To defray the hundreds of dollars necessary to start a child in hockey, Fort Dupont offers season-long equipment loans. In other rinks around the area, the NHL and its players’ association help subsidize a program called “Learn to Play,” which buys full sets of equipment for players between ages 5 and 8 who want to sign up for hockey.
Local experts believe the efficiency of these programs is, now more than ever, crucial to convincing the best athletes in the area to at least try hockey. Attracting talented athletes in their early years is vital, coaches said, because learning to skate in high school is a higher barrier of entry.
“We’ve worked for years and years on the idea that hockey is for everyone,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. “I think all the work we do with scholarships, the work we do to support youth hockey, it’s exemplary.”
One problem for local hockey programs is that Cup momentum peaked in the summer, the sport’s down season. Surdam knows the initial interest is there, because he raised his eyebrows remembering walking into the building for the first time after the Cup win, when he noticed “drastically” more bodies in the building. He even noted that adult lunch-break pickup turnout doubled, to about 20 players. He wants to devise a way to turn that passion into action.
Rob Lorenzen, the general manager at Ashburn Ice House for nearly two decades, planned for the few players who want to start now by expanding the number of classes and their sizes for Learn to Skate, the entry-level program for many rinks. He’s already anticipating when the first indications of a serious bump will show.
“We’re really looking forward to September and October, when the Caps open up,” Lorenzen said.
Kendra Andrews contributed to this report.