Winter begins Oct 5. I am fully aware that my calendar disagrees, but I don't trust that any more than I do shopping mall decorations that tell me when the Christmas season has arrived. Winter, my winter, begins every year in October when the swoosh of skates, the crack of a hard slap shot and blaring goal sirens announce the beginning of the NHL season.

Except last year.

Last year there was no winter. Just a long, dark, cold and upsettingly boring stretch of days. The National Hockey League, unable to reach an agreement with its players, first postponed and then ultimately canceled the 2004-2005 season. My reaction was disbelief at first, and as the months wore on, disgruntlement and anger. Cross-checking tourists on Metro escalators relieved some of the frustration, but didn't abate the feelings of betrayal.

Hockey has it all: It's fast, elegant and physical. It's simple enough to be explained during the course of one of its three periods, yet has enough layers of strategy to satisfy the most scholarly fan for a lifetime. It's steeped in more than a century of tradition, and despite technological advancement and modern marketing, it stays true to its roots. And its top prize, Lord Stanley's cup, is the coolest trophy ever to be awarded for anything done anywhere by anyone. In a country that doesn't yet quite share my enthusiasm for the sport, it seemed like lunacy to take the product out of the public eye for a full year.

As the layoff grew longer, my relationship with hockey became a tormented one. I acted a bit like a rejected suitor. A wink from the league hinting at a return to play raised my heartbeat and caused my palms to sweat. I was irritated and yet remained hopeful. So when the NHL finally announced on July 13 that an agreement had been reached and that there would be a 2005-2006 season, all was forgiven. At least by me. Unlike some fans who have sworn off the sport altogether, my affections ran deep enough to survive the league's neglect.

As a kid, I was lured to the sport by the playoff prowess of the Pittsburgh Penguins of the early '90s. My love for the professional game was cemented watching the spectacle of Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis and Jaromir Jagr marching to the Cup on the back of a dazzling offense. Alas, the Pens weren't the local team. I am a Washingtonian and thus doomed to be one of hockey's most pathetic creatures: a die-hard Caps fan.

Until recently, the franchise offered perennial promise: they consistently made the playoffs, topping the Southeast division on occasion and even making it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998 (they were swept by Detroit.) This season is different. The stars are few. People say that we (yes, that's how I refer to the team) will be terrible. I've heard the term "laughingstock" bandied about. But I'm a devoted fan, able to find the silver lining, come what may.

That's why on Sept. 13, the first day of training camp, I skipped work with my buddies Patrick Hall and Andrew Glynn, fan-comrades since high school, and headed to the Caps' Piney Orchard practice facility. When you are a supporter of a team like the Caps, companionship is key. You need others who will feel your pain. I've been lucky to have a tightknit group of friends with whom to predict and lament the team's many trials and exult in their occasional triumphs. Besides, going to games with at least one other person means you only have to go and get the beer half the time.

Patrick, who landed us great season tickets for the 2001-02 season, is the most exuberant of our trio. Patrick is loud. When he roars along with arena-rock favorite "Cum on Feel the Noize," our entire section stares in disbelief. Not much of a singer, I pride myself on striking a balance between wild abandon and disheartened fandom. I'm vocal enough to cheer my favorite players and boo the other team's stars, but I'm realistic enough to put my own name on my custom jersey, never knowing how long a player will be in town. Stoic Mr. Glynn, our resident pessimist, quickly reins in any trace of optimism from Patrick or myself, and constantly frets about the team's defensive situation. As we watched the team practice, I worried about his health, considering the team's lack of experienced defensemen this year.

The Caps, it must be said, look very young. In fact, the team seems more like last year's Portland Pirates (our former minor-league affiliate) than the 2003-2004 Capitals. But with the 2004 first overall draft pick Alexander Ovechkin, promising defender Steve Eminger, solid up-and-comers like Boyd Gordon and Brian Sutherby and a number of other potential stars-in-the-making, it is going to be fun watching this team come together. The sights and sounds of real NHL hockey, even in practice, and the camaraderie of fellow devotee-masochists, was enough to bring jaded fans to tears. (Well, at least Patrick and Andrew.)

As for me, I remain philosophical. I know that we can't be worse than people think we will be, and we may even surprise a few of the snarkiest naysayers. When the puck is finally dropped on MCI Center ice on Wednesday, I will be oblivious to the score: Hockey is back in town, and with it, the winter of my content.

Justin Rude

Patrick Hall, Andrew Glynn, and Justin Rude can't wait for the puck to drop on the Caps season.