The first time I saw the Capitals play live, I was 8 years old. My dad had scored seats a few rows behind the glass at the Capital Centre in Landover, where the team used to play. The New Jersey Devils were the opponent. I got a pretzel with mustard, my favorite. I’d grown fond of them at the Georgetown basketball games that my father, a season ticket holder, would take me to.
The place I knew only as a hoops mecca had been transformed into a cage of skates and mayhem. I’d watched the team on TV, but this was different. I’d never seen the old decibel meter in the arena hit 100 so many times in one game.
The most I knew about hockey then was that the big guys could hit each other as hard as they did in the NFL, except they did it on ice. I had been on skates myself only on school trips or at birthday parties.
As my dad explained the details of the game to me, I zoned out when he mentioned one thing: Periods are not quarters. When the horn sounded after three, I thought the team had a chance to climb back from being down 5-3. But it was over, and I cried all the way home.
I’ve been a Caps fan ever since.
This past week, at Tuesday night’s fantastic comeback win, I sat in Section 404. I was the only black person in the section, as far as I could tell. When I yelled, “Do us a favor, Toronto!” while an Islanders goal was under review (the NHL has an official replay center there for disputed goals), the woman in front of me turned around and laughed. When she saw me, she did a double take.
Being a black hockey fan in D.C. is not easy. There aren’t that many of us. But we’re not unicorns. Go to a Caps game or a hockey bar, and you might find a couple. All in all, hockey is not a big part of the black sports community, and that’s unfortunate. It’s also something the Capitals could change if they tried. I’m not a marketing expert, but the Washington area has plenty of people with disposable income looking to back a winning team. And many of them are not white.
At a Wizards game, you feel like you’re at a party and everyone is welcome. Capitals games are more like partisan rallies. I’m sure the people who schlep in from the suburbs love the atmosphere, but for people of my ilk, there is a huge chasm in the game-day experience.
It’s awkward and embarrassing to walk through an arena and enjoy a game when 90 percent of the people in the building who look like me are working inside serving customers, or outside offering a different kind of customer service for last-minute ticket buyers.
To be a pro sports fan, you need a reason to stay with the team. The regional allegiances aren’t the same as in college athletics, where many just root for the jersey. In the pros, you want to feel like you can understand and appreciate the athletes and their personalities. For many Americans, nevermind black people, it’s tough to invest in a team when all the athletes seem to be Canadians, Russians and Swedes.
As a black person, it’s even more difficult to embrace hockey when so few of the athletes are black. At this point, Joel Ward, a winger, is the only black player on the Caps. The team has had other players before him, including Mike Grier and Donald Brashear, but, as in the rest of the NHL, the roster is relatively light on players of color. So, in some ways, it’s understandable that African Americans aren’t hugely into hockey. Very few of us play it as kids because of the expensive equipment and the dearth of rinks in many majority black neighborhoods.
If, despite all that, you do wind up as a black person who enjoys pucks, there are still some obstacles to deal with. Christopher Nelson, 22, of Northeast D.C. says it’s hard to talk hockey with his friends. “If I bring up hockey, I get blank stares,” he says.
The worst part is having to defend your knowledge of the game in public settings. There’s a black man living in the White House just blocks from the Verizon Center, but it’s apparently still jarring for a black guy to walk into a bar in this area and talk about hockey. And if you’re a black woman? Forget about it.
“You know females know nothing about sports, so they say,” jokes Lizz Robbins, 37, of Montgomery County, who became a hockey fan after her cousin, also a black woman, persuaded her to go to a Caps game in 1997. “I find myself getting challenged a little more when it comes to hockey.”
And God forbid you wear a jersey. Norvell Holmes, 38, of Laurel grew up playing the game and still has to deal with doubters. “I’ve had many people walk up to me and flat-out ask me do I know who or what I am wearing?” says Holmes, a Penguins fan for more than 20 years. “It really boggles them to know that I grew up in Northeast D.C. and played on a Boys and Girls Club hockey team.”
The fact is that many black people love hockey for the same reason everyone else does: It’s a great sport. And for a franchise born in 1974, the Capitals have done pretty well for themselves. But I feel like an ambassador for every other black fan when I watch games in public.
Garrett Broady, a Caps fan who goes by the Twitter handle @NickBlackstrom, plays with the topic more than many others on the Internet. “People know that I love using the hash tag #bruvahline whenever a line that Joel Ward was on would score,” says Broady, 29, of Centreville. “It’s not always a racial thing, though. It’s more of a way to get excited about players on the team.”
I would like to see the team do more to cater to black fans. The Capitals certainly do admirable work spreading the game through youth programs, specifically ones in the black community at Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast. But as a fan, I still feel like an outsider, and I’ve been rooting for the Caps for more than 20 years.
Although the number of black players in the league has increased steadily over the years, no athlete has had a barrier-breaking Jeremy Lin or Tiger Woods effect on the NHL. Maybe that’s what it’ll take for the black community to have a major interest in the game. It’s easier to root for people who look like you.
Until then, it would be great to know that the Capitals recognize that making Washington “America’s Hockey Capital,” as they say they want to do, might not lie with just the product on the ice. I root for the team because I love my city and I love sports.
The Caps need more fans like me, and the team should work a little harder to find them. If you diversify the fan base here at home, hockey probably won’t fall off the map if the team hits a dry spell.
When Alex Ovechkin showed up in an Eastern Motors ad, long the territory of popular black athletes in the area, I was impressed. But that’s not getting it done for me. It’s bigger than that. Ted Leonsis, we’re right here; reach out to us. And Go Caps.
Clinton Yates is the local news editor for The Washington Post Express.