EVEN WASHINGTON Capitals fans know that Washington will never be a hockey town. It's not just about last season's NHL lockout or the fire sale of star players. Thirty years after the team first arrived at the Capital Center, seven years on from an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals and a mere four years after signing perennial scoring champion Jaromir Jagr, Washingtonians still find it hard to take the Caps into their hearts.
Washington may never be mentioned in the same breath as Detroit or Montreal, but that doesn't mean there are no hockey fans here. A steady supply of tech- and government-related jobs and a concentration of universities draw folks from Chicago, Buffalo, Minneapolis -- people who'd have no problem explaining icing or the two-line pass. And when they want to catch up on the world's fastest team sport, they head to Bugsy's (111 King St., Alexandria; 703-683-0313), a two-level pizzeria and sports bar.
Owned by former Washington Capitals defenseman Bryan "Bugsy" Watson, this is an old-school, attic-level sports bar with exposed bricks and beams and few modern touches beyond flat-screen televisions. The walls are covered with a curious mix of photos and memorabilia -- a large picture of former Redskin John Riggins in a tuxedo, an "Eight Men Out" movie poster, Wheaties boxes with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, a snapshot of Watson stitched up after a fight on the ice. But the most eye-catching pieces of memorabilia are framed, mounted jerseys worn by some of hockey's greatest players: Wayne Gretzky's All-Star Game uniform; Mario Lemieux's famous 66; Bobby Orr's Bruins sweater. Mark Messier, Joe Sakic and, for the locals, Dale Hunter are also represented. Gretzky's sticks are mounted over the bar, where draft Molson lager pours from a tap topped with a goalie's mask.
Despite the hockey-centric decor, Bugsy's tries to strike a balance between balls and pucks. There are a large number of regulars who come to hang out, not watch hockey. Last Saturday night found alumni sitting at the bar, roaring as Penn State took control of Ohio State; couples sharing a deep-dish pizza and cheering as USC mounted yet another comeback; and guys chatting about Atlanta's chances of winning Game 5, or whether the White Sox can go all the way.
Of course, there was also the guy wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey and sipping a bottle of Labatt Blue, clapping as his team put pressure on the Montreal Canadiens. Of the 16 televisions in the room, half were showing the Washington Capitals visiting the Atlanta Thrashers, the Buffalo Sabres playing the Ottawa Senators, or the Canadiens in Toronto. Coming up next, says the announcer on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s long-running "Hockey Night in Canada" telecast, the undefeated Vancouver Canucks take on the Edmonton Oilers.
When it's "Hockey Night in Canada," it's Hockey Night at Bugsy's.
"Having grown up in Canada and being drafted by the Canadiens, 'Hockey Night in Canada' wasn't just a game -- it was an event," Watson explains.
(It's also a chance for us Yankees to watch some Canadian television, which includes a number of commercials for Mars bars, promos for Canadian films and random public service announcements, such as Newfoundland and Labrador's catchy "Compost: It's Time to Pitch In" campaign.)
"A lot of bars have everything on," Watson says. "I'm sure other bars have hockey on, but that I'm an ex-player legitimizes that this is a hockey bar. We've had people coming in for years."
Born in Bancroft, Ontario, in 1942, Watson spent years playing hockey in minor leagues and junior teams before being drafted in 1962, beginning a 17-year career that took him to Montreal, Detroit, Oakland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and finally Washington. Never renowned for his speed or stickhandling, Watson made his name as a no-nonsense defender who could frustrate opponents to no end but also as a guy who could take (or give) a punch for the team. By the time Watson hung up his skates in 1979, he was the NHL's all-time leader in penalty minutes, spending 2,212 minutes in the box over 878 games. (By contrast, he scored just 17 goals.) When his NHL career ended, Watson turned to scouting and coaching and lasted all of 18 games as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers in 1980, where one of his charges was a 19-year-old named Wayne Gretzky. After being dismissed -- "it didn't work out," he says matter-of-factly -- Watson, his wife, Lindy, and their children moved back to Washington, where he decided to open a restaurant. They found an empty space in Old Town Alexandria, and Watson called Armand's Pizza to see if the company would be interested in letting him open a franchise, "because they had the best pizza."
An upstairs sports bar, dubbed the Penalty Box after the stretch of bench where he spent so much of his career, soon followed. Watson and his staff even created a section of benches opposite the bar with waist-high partitions, designed to look like a penalty box. It quickly became a popular spot for professional athletes. "At that time, the Capitals were practicing in Mount Vernon, and they used to come in here all the time," he says. "We had benefits [for the Make-A-Wish Foundation], and they were involved. The Redskins players, John Riggins, would come in, too."
As one of the more laid-back bars on King Street, the Penalty Box quickly developed a following of Alexandria residents who came to hang out after work and on weekends. The staff and folks at the bar all liken it to "Cheers," from the bartender who knows your name to the way that the person sitting next to you is happy to share his paper or talk about why the Capitals are giving away so many power-play goals.
The Watsons and Armand's parted ways in 1998, and although the restaurant keeps turning out mouth-watering deep-dish pizzas, they had to give up the Penalty Box name. "Bugsy's Pizza Restaurant and Bugsy's Upstairs" doesn't have quite the same ring, but it's a far more personal touch.
Originally dubbed "Bugsy" by Detroit Red Wings greats Gordie Howe and Andy Bathgate because "I was driving them crazy," Watson laughs, the name stuck throughout his career. "My grandson calls me Bugsy, and he's 7 years old. I love it." (When he shut down Bobby Hull in the 1965-66 playoffs, Hull bestowed his own nickname for Watson: Super Pest.) Watson is a fabulous host, wandering around the room, chiding regulars, chatting with people wearing jerseys. You might miss him if you're not careful. Standing about 5 foot 10 with a slight build, Watson doesn't look like a modern hockey player, but his flattened nose and warm, crinkly smile give him away.
Outside of MCI Center and the Piney Orchard Ice Arena, Bugsy's crew may be the people most excited about hockey's return after the cancellation of the 2004-05 season. "Our business suffered from it, as everybody's did," Watson says. "You have the World Series, then you have football and the Super Bowl. Then hockey really takes off after the All-Star break -- and that wasn't there at all.
"All of a sudden, we're selling a lot of Labatt and Molson."
Some customers are grumbling about the number of penalties in the NHL so far this season, but Watson thinks the new rule changes, including the two-line pass, will be a boon for the league. "You're seeing the talented players and the skill players get more than they usually would," he says. Want to argue? Bugsy's almost always around, and he's willing to talk about his favorite sport.
Though he's proud of the dedication of hockey fans, Watson tries to make sure everyone who wanders into his bar stays happy. "In one night, you'll see 'Monday Night Football,' you'll see the [baseball] playoffs and we'll get the hockey game on, too," he says. "What I love is having the choice of putting hockey on again."