Alex Ovechkin celebrates after scoring his first goal of the season Tuesday. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

During the Capitals’ second-round playoff series against the Penguins last May, there were nearly 400 messages sent to the Capitals’ Facebook account, a significant increase from the 10 to 15 the team received each day on average during most of the regular season. That made it difficult for Capitals director of digital media James Heuser and his staff, who are tasked with replying to those messages, to keep up. It also prompted Heuser to begin looking into ways to use artificial intelligence to improve the Facebook user experience for Capitals fans.

This season, the Capitals became the first NHL team to launch a Facebook Messenger bot.

“It’s just another way for fans to interact with our channel and then hopefully for us to interact back with them,” Heuser said.

Now, when fans first send the Capitals a message on Facebook or with the Messenger app, it no longer “goes into a black hole,” as Heuser described it, where a human would eventually see it and, ideally, respond in a timely manner. Instead, users are greeted with the following message:

“Hi I’m Capsbot! The hockey loving messenger bot, here to answer all of your questions about the Washington Capitals. Ask me a question or just type “trivia,” “FAQ,” or “help at anytime. #RocktheRed!”

Capsbot was developed in partnership with iStrategyLabs (ISL), a D.C.-based agency that has created “digital and physical experiences” for brands such as NBC Universal, MillerCoors, Kroger and Facebook. ISL CMO and managing director DJ Saul said creating something with Messenger had been on his radar since he attended Facebook’s annual developer conference in the spring, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the social network would enable third parties to build chatbots into its popular Messenger service, which has 1 billion users.

Capsbot uses artificial intelligence to provide tailored responses to a variety of frequently asked questions. Ask Capsbot when the Capitals play next, and a link to the team’s schedule will instantly appear. Ask Capsbot who the best team in the NHL is, and a link to the league standings will pop up. There’s also a Capitals trivia game, which Heuser said has been the most popular use of the bot thus far.

Screenshots of Capsbot in action.

“It’s got kinks in it, and we have trolls who love to go in there and try to break the thing’s brain,” Heuser said.

Capsbot is still in its infancy, and its “brain” is still developing. ISL engineer Taylor Guidon monitors interactions with Capsbot on a daily basis using a service called and tags incoming messages with proper responses. Guidon said each new user helps train the bot further, even the trolls.

“We definitely get a lot of people on the East Coast saying the Penguins are better or the Rangers are better, but we trained it to recognize the intent of messages,” Guidon said. “So when we see that people are trying to be slightly funny, or making fun of the team, it detects that and then gives them a canned message back.”

Capsbot doesn’t mess around.

The Capitals beta-tested Capsbot during the preseason and began promoting it at the home opener Saturday. While Capsbot will continue to be useful for FAQs, Heuser hopes fans will enjoy interacting with it as more features, such as GIFs, in-game polls and giveaway contests, are integrated over the course of the season.

“We’re trying to figure out what fans want to message and what they want out of it,” said Heuser, who continues to monitor the team’s Facebook messages in the event that Capsbot fails to produce a satisfactory answer to a question.

The Wizards are expected to unveil their own Messenger bot, also developed by ISL, in time for the season. The Capitals and Wizards join the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings, the NFL’s Denver Broncos and the English Premier League’s Manchester City among the first professional sports teams to launch a bot. Saul estimated that more than half of U.S. pro sports teams will have done so by this time next year.

“Hopefully we’re able to stay ahead of the curve, because this first version was sort of intentionally simple to test and see how people actually use it,” he said. “Then there’s all sorts of fun, e-commerce implications, in-game experiences and augmentation that we could potentially build in.”

Yeah, there are still some kinks to work out …

(Courtesy of the Capitals)