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Capitals fans, willing to pay the price to cheer on their team, hit the road as arenas reopen

The Capitals played in front of fans for the first time earlier this month. (Matt Slocum/AP)

PHILADELPHIA — Laura Licata got to her seat at Wells Fargo Center, looked down at the ice and started to cry. There were the Washington Capitals, going through warmups ahead of their game against the Philadelphia Flyers. And there was Licata, at her first sporting event in more than a year.

Many things had changed since she was last in an arena — masks were mandatory, the building was filled to 15 percent capacity, lines to the bathroom were no more, and there was the static-like hum of fake crowd noise being pumped in.

But so much was still the same: the excitement, joy, anxiety and stress that came with a typical Capitals game. And there were Licata, 32, and her best friend in Washington jerseys, yelling at goaltender Ilya Samsonov to get back in the crease.

“I was screaming at Sammy because he likes to wander and scare all of us half to death,” she recalled. “I was just like, ‘Get in your house!’ ”

On March 7 in Wells Fargo Center, Licata was among the first Capitals fans to see their team in person in more than a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

For the handful of Capitals fans who were lucky enough — and willing to shell out money for tickets on the resale market — their experience was capped with a 3-1 win. About 3,000 people were in attendance.

“I waited a whole year for this,” said 20-year-old Joseph Muller, a Capitals fan who attended the game. “I’m as die-hard of a fan as they come. … I wanted to see them like crazy, and to be able to go there knowing that I was one of the first Caps fans to go see the Caps play this whole year, it meant a lot.”

A limited number of fans are now in about 40 percent of NHL arenas, but they have not returned in Washington. Monumental Sports & Entertainment — which owns the Capitals, Wizards and Mystics — has submitted an official request and plan for fans to local officials, according to a statement from Monica Dixon, a Monumental executive. As of Friday, it was still waiting on a decision.

Washington is the lone team in the East Division without a set date for fans to return. Four East teams — Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey and the New York Rangers — allow a small percentage of fans in their arenas. The other three — Boston, Buffalo and the New York Islanders — have plans to welcome fans by the end of March.

Thirteen NHL teams have fans at a limited capacity, and four more have plans for fans to come back in the near future, according to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

As the Capitals continue to wait for the green light, their fans will have to travel to watch the team in person.

Tommy Gibbons, 18, went to his first Capitals game Thursday — a 5-3 win at the Flyers. The Frederick, Md., native went with his mother, who is a Flyers fan.

“I think it was worth it, and I would definitely go again,” Gibbons said. “I feel like I’ve been spoiled now, seeing [captain Alex Ovechkin] score live.”

In most cities, priority for the limited number of tickets has been given to season ticket holders. In Philadelphia, access went to season ticket holders first, then other fans could be placed on a waiting list in case tickets became available.

Tickets snatched up by season ticket holders were quickly put on the resale market. Muller refreshed StubHub multiple times on the Saturday night before the game and finally purchased a pair of tickets at 3 a.m. for $190 each. He also purchased tickets to Thursday’s game for $150 apiece.

Aidan Riordon, a 21-year-old from Bel Air, Md., also went with a friend to the March 7 game and spent $170 each for tickets in Section 115 — in the first row that wasn’t blocked off by the tarp that creates space between the players and fans.

“Probably wasn’t worth the price, but I haven’t seen them in a year, so in that sense it was worth it because I probably won’t be able to see much more games,” Riordon said. “I was just like, ‘Okay, I’ll go for it and spend the money.’ ”

Licata bought tickets a bit earlier and snagged a pair for $212 each. She went to about 30 regular season games last season and is thinking about becoming a season ticket holder.

Licata and Riordon said they felt comfortable and safe in the arena. Fans were required to wear masks at all times, unless they were eating or drinking.

There were some changes for fans, though. The parking lots at Wells Fargo Center, as well as the arena itself, opened an hour before each game. Fans would go to an assigned door and answer health questions before they were allowed in.

Gibbons said the only time he didn’t feel safe was when he was outside the arena, waiting in line to get in. But everyone was wearing masks, reducing the risk.

“You didn’t have to interact with anybody; you could have avoided it,” Riordon said. “You really could have avoided anyone if you needed to.”

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