A confidential National Hockey League report reveals that the Washington Capitals, despite an average attendance this season of 11,306, have generated only $2,000 per game in gross receipts more than the Colorado Rockies, who are close to bankruptcy with an average crowd figure of 8,040.
Nevertheless, Abe Pollin, the owner of the Capitals and Capital Centre, remains optimistic about the future of the sport here despite the team's financial losses this year, perhaps the greatest in its eight-year history.
"From a financial standpoint this has been a very bad season, but I don't know whether it's been any worse than the last three," Pollin said. "I am continuing to pour money into the team. We have had considerable losses, many millions of dollars, but I just kick myself and keep going."
Pollin is expected to realize a profit if the Bullets make the National Basketball Association playoffs. His greatest profits come from other events at Capital Centre, such as rock concerts and ice shows, offsetting his losses from the Capitals. These losses reportedly were as high as $2 million last year.
The Capitals' last two home games have been particularly disappointing for Pollin, whose team ranks 18th among the 21 NHL teams at the gate. On Friday, March 5, the Capitals drew only 9,810 against Calgary, despite having won four of their five previous games and with a family night promotion in which all persons accompanying a full-price ticket holder got in for half fare.
On Wednesday, only 12,144, many with free tickets from the Jan. 13 Edmonton snow exchange night, came to see a game against Pittsburgh that had playoff significance. This despite a TV blitz of player appearances and a radio talk show visit by Pollin, who urged fans to attend.
The average crowd in the NHL this year is 13,437.
"I was disappointed in both crowds, but particularly with the Pittsburgh game," Pollin said. "It was our most important game of the year and I just don't understand why it wasn't close to a sellout.
"I've always felt that once the team was competitive, the town would respond and we would find ourselves in a sellout situation. I still think so and everyone in the league thinks so. We've just never provided the opportunity for the town to prove its interest in a winning team, because we haven't had one.
"We dug ourselves a hole this year (1-14 at the start) and we never came out of it. I thought we would be reasonably competitive with the other teams in the Patrick Division, but that start was too much of a handicap. It's not over yet, of course, but it certainly doesn't look good."
Some longtime fans departed after Wednesday's 7-2 loss to Pittsburgh insisting they would not renew season tickets, but Pollin said other fans continue to encourage him.
"I guess there are some of both," Pollin said. "The economy is certainly a factor and I can't really say what the future will bring. I've had a lot of fans say, 'Don't give up, we're still with you.' But I can understand people's disappointment, because I've been disappointed, too.
"I think the problem (on the ice) the other night resulted from the importance of the game and the young guys not being used to the pressure. They just froze. They were afraid to make a mistake and they couldn't get moving."
Pollin said he felt Coach Bryan Murray has done "a good job." Of Roger Crozier's status as acting general manager, Pollin said, "I think he's done a good job, too. We will wait until the end of the year and evaluate everything."
As for the Capitals' marketing effort, which includes numerous discount ticket arrangements, souvenir giveaways and in some cases, complimentary tickets, Pollin said, "We will review the whole thing, the successes and the failures. But I think the time is coming close when we should be bringing people into the building on the basis of the hockey, and not the gimmicks."
Pollin denied a report that Maclean Hunter Cable TV of Canada, his corporate partner in a bid for the Montgomery County cable franchise, was investing in the team. Maclean Hunter had sought unsuccessfully to buy the Rockies and move the team to Seattle.
"I have no relationship with them in any other way than the cable franchise bid," Pollin said. "I have turned down some of the propositions that have been made concerning the Capitals. If a legitimate proposition comes through, I will accept it, but so far I haven't considered anything that has come through."
Should the team be sold, it must remain in Washington, as a condition of the financing arrangement for Capital Centre. Pollin previously said the team would be here at least until the year 2000.
The poor turnouts for the Calgary and Pittsburgh games left some questions in the minds of other members of the Capitals' organization. When defenseman Rick Green skated out for the warmup before playing the Flames, he said that he "thought a lot of people were late in coming. I was expecting a big crowd, because we usually do best on Friday night."
Nevertheless, Green, in his sixth Washington season, thinks that hockey eventually will be successful here.
Assistant Coach Yvon Labre, the original Capital, called the Calgary crowd "my first real disappointment. I didn't understand that at all. People say they're tired of listening to what we're going to do and maybe we have to convince them first."
"I see a real future here from a hockey team point of view," Murray said. "We've played offensively like one of the best 10 teams in the league. Players like (Bobby) Carpenter, (Mike) Gartner and (Dennis) Maruk make us as exciting as any team in the league other than (Wayne) Gretzky.
"We've played pretty entertaining hockey, we've scored a lot of goals and with a few exceptions like the other night we've been aggressive. These have to be the ingredients the fans want."
"The potential is here to draw as well as 90 percent of the teams in the league," Crozier said. "The average good hockey city like Buffalo, Toronto or Quebec draws about 15 to 16,000 and we can, too. That's not a sellout here, but we should be able to hit 15 or 16 on a regular basis. The thing that's been proven here, and it's amazing considering the club's record, is that we have a lot of pretty loyal hockey fans."