As Capitals players stream back to Washington this week, they’ve expressed their giddy enthusiasm to get back to NHL games, their anticipation of full-speed action and the joy they feel to be reunited with their teammates.
“I’m honestly really embarrassed by the lockout, like personally embarrassed,” forward Brooks Laich said. “I feel terrible about it. I feel like we just punched our sport in the face. And I feel bad for everybody that was affected by it, directly or indirectly.”
Laich said players hope to make themselves accessible to die-hards and casual fans alike and help re-energize supporters jaded by the NHL’s third lockout in 18 years. He believes the Capitals’ fan base has grown to the point that it’s no longer occupied largely by those who jump on a bandwagon, but people who are truly invested in hockey. Laich hopes they will return to Verizon Center when the Capitals do.
“I hope they haven’t lost the interest and lost the excitement for how fun the game really is, and how exciting the game is, how much fun it is to come to the Verizon Center and how loud that building gets,” Laich said. “We want to get that feeling that when it’s a game day, they wake up and they got to go to work or whatever, but they’re waking up saying, ‘It’s a game tonight, I can’t wait to go.’ Same as a player. The easiest way to do it is get back in the building as soon as we can and get playing. But our heart goes out to them. I hope they come.”
After the NHL’s Board of Governors ratified the new collective bargaining agreement Wednesday, Commissioner Gary Bettman offered his own apology and spoke of an effort to “earn back your trust and support.” The league has yet to share details of what it has planned to help foster post-lockout goodwill from fans.
Some individual teams have already announced promotions, though, including Tampa Bay, which offered 200 season tickets for $200 each; Dallas will give out free tickets to children ages 12 and under in January and February; Pittsburgh is giving out vouchers for select concessions and having a half-off sale of merchandise for the first four home games.
The Capitals are waiting for the NHL schedule to be released — which will not happen before the players’ ratification process concludes Saturday at 8 a.m. — before announcing their plans, according to a team spokesman.
“We know we have fences to mend, and we must work hard to rebuild trust and continue to grow our great hockey community,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis wrote on his personal blog. “I promise personally to lead this effort and to show contrition; this entire experience has been extremely humbling.”
Players hope that an adrenaline-fueled 48-game season, in which each contest holds playoff implications, and their hard work on the ice will entice fans to return to the game. Defenseman Karl Alzner said he believes making an impact in the Washington region at large is also a key part.
“For us in the city here, I think it’d probably be a good thing for us to get out there as much as we can,” Alzner said. “The schedule will be tough, but when you have an opportunity to do it you definitely need to do it.”
While the 2004-05 lockout delayed the start of his rookie season, this is the first work stoppage star left wing Alex Ovechkin sat through as a full-fledged NHL player. When he spoke to reporters earlier this week, he expressed his gratitude to Capitals fans for sticking by him and the team.
“This is my first time and I can tell you right now, it’s not that good feelings when you sit at home watching TV, watching different sports, if you’re hockey fan,” Ovechkin said. Monday “night at the airport, people like just recognize me and say, ‘Hey, thanks very much for coming back. We can’t wait to see you play.’ It means a lot. It means the fans love Caps, love hockey.”
Capitals note: Junior prospect Tom Wilson, 18, the 16th overall pick in the 2012 draft, will attend training camp, TSN reported. The right wing has recorded 12 goals and 22 assists in 30 games with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers this season.