At first glance, nothing at Verizon Center seemed all that different from so many past December nights. Fans rocking their red jerseys streamed into the building, hugged their friends and high-fived the Washington Capitals mascot while making their way to their seats.
Scattered among the red sweaters, though, were plenty of fans waving foam bear claws. Brown T-shirts commemorated 11 Calder Cup victories and Boyd Kane jerseys were as frequent a sight as those adorned by Alex Ovechkin’s familiar No. 8. And if you listened closely, you’d hear talk not about stats or standings but forlorn remarks about how this might be the only professional hockey game to see in Washington for quite some time.
The Capitals hosted the American Hockey League showcase on Thursday night, pitting their affiliate, the Hershey Bears, against the Norfolk Admirals, the Anaheim Ducks’ farm team. While the Bears’ 2-1 victory was announced as a sellout earlier in the week, it appeared only two-thirds of a capacity crowd of 18,506 was present.
The regular season game was scheduled months in advance, long before the NHL lockout stretched into its 82nd day and made a matchup between AHL teams a refuge for hockey-starved Washington fans.
Bruce and Susan Baicar of Crownsville have been season ticket holders for 13 years. They’ve visited Hershey, Pa., multiple times to take in Bears games and would have looked forward to seeing Capitals prospects play on Thursday even if it was played in the midst of an NHL season.
But their excitement to take in a Bears game couldn’t mask their disappointment that it may be the only game they see at Verizon Center for some time.
“It makes it hurt a little bit more because this is where we want to be,” said Bruce Baicar, 68. “We love the sport, we’ve been to the Winter Classic, games back at the old Cap Centre, all these things. We’re going to miss it all this year. We just want it back.”
These days they primarily get their hockey fix from watching their grandson, Nick, play for Arundel High School. “We’re not very optimistic about having a season,” added Susan Baicar, 70. “We were for awhile but not so much anymore.”
Ingo Burghardt, 44, of Fairfax and Jen Golbeck, 35, of Silver Spring both play hockey in a recreational league at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington and, while they were glad to take in the Bears game, they acknowledged it’s tough to attend without thinking about the lockout.
“It almost makes it worse,” Burghardt said. “It’s a reminder about the lockout and I’d rather put it out of my mind. It’s hockey but it’s not Caps hockey.”
Said Golbeck: “I can’t bear the thought of a winter without hockey, so I hope that they’ll figure it out. Even half a season would be better than a bleak winter with nothing.”
Fans weren’t the only ones with a bittersweet feeling upon their return to Chinatown. Bears goaltender Braden Holtby and defenseman Dmitry Orlov will join the Capitals whenever the lockout ends but in the meantime were forced to adjust to starting another season in the AHL despite advancing past that point in their development.
Holtby’s start on Thursday night was his first at Verizon Center since Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Rangers on May 6. It’s been a long-delayed 2012-13 debut.
“It’s great to be back to see the training staff and everyone involved with the team especially. I get pretty close to those guys and it’s good to see them again,” Holtby said. “It’s definitely different without seeing the familiar faces in the locker room. That kind of makes this place what it is, the people around. It’s good to be back but it’s definitely a little weird.”
As the Bears and Admirals played, NHL and NHLPA officials announced there was a significant setback in labor negotiations during their third consecutive day of meetings in New York. There are no future bargaining sessions scheduled and with another round of cancellations likely to occur in the coming days, it appears as though the long offseason for area fans will continue.
For one winter evening, though, they had an opportunity to reunite with fellow fans and remember what it’s like to scream when their team scores.
“It’s nice to be back, even if it’s only for one night,” said Iris Salcewicz, 53, of Fairfax. “I’m hoping we see hockey sometime this season, but I don’t think so. I think it will be next year.”