Ben Zienty’s gleaming brown eyes surveyed the scene from behind his goalie mask as he rocked from side to side and soaked in the raucous atmosphere Friday night at the Ashburn Ice House. He and his Loudoun County ice hockey teammates, some nervously champing their mouthpieces, were eagerly queued up to skate onto the ice.
The game marked, in a way, their NHL debuts.
The bleachers were packed and spectators ringed the clamorous rink, including eight girls perched on lockers and banging their heels on the metal cages. Washington Capitals mascot Slapshot waddled past. The Caps’ Red Rockers cheerleading squad worked the crowd. The public address announcer was the dramatic voice from the Caps’ games at Verizon Center, rousingly intoning the names of Zienty and his buddies.
“It was unbelievable,” Zienty would say later, after saving a whopping 70 shots in his team’s 8-0 loss to Stone Bridge. “A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The Capitals might be inactive because of an NHL lockout that is fast approaching 100 days, but the production staff is bringing a professional touch to high school hockey games in the area, watering the grass roots of the sport during a season in which the professional version is withering.
High school hockey, a growing sport but one with outsider status because for most area teams it is a self-funded club sport, is basking in this rare spotlight. The Capitals turning out at games — two so far, chosen via fan voting — brings welcome attention to the sport and attracted a standing-room-only crowd of about 900 to a Loudoun County-Stone Bridge game with a 9:20 p.m. start time Friday.
Ashburn Ice House General Manager Rob Lorenzen estimates the crowd was about double what the attendance would have been without the Caps’ involvement. The first featured game, Churchill vs. Whitman at Rockville Ice Arena, which included a ceremonial puck drop by Capitals assistant coach and former player Calle Johansson, also drew several hundred spectators.
It was not just a matter of showing up in Ashburn. It is a production. The Caps wrote a preview of the Loudoun County-Stone Bridge game for the team’s Web site; dispatched PA announcer Wes Johnson, radio play-by-play man John Walton and WashingtonCaps.com senior writer Mike Vogel, among others, to the rink; and later posted highlight and interview packages on their site as well as Monumental Sports, a sports Web site launched by Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.
Walton and Vogel discussed Stone Bridge and Loudoun County players just as they would Capitals forwards Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green.
“We want to cover it just like we would an NHL game,” said Peter Robinson, assistant manager of amateur hockey and fan development for the Capitals.
That was the effect, even for Stone Bridge players, whose team usually draws boisterous crowds even without the Capitals’ professional flourishes.
“Going to Caps games, it felt like I was actually playing in one,” said Stone Bridge player Chris Berry, who had two goals and two assists. “It’s kind of weird. It felt like I was actually in the pros.”
When the Stone Bridge and Loudoun County players learned that they were one of the five games that would be voted on to be spotlighted, they joined forces via social media to stuff the ballot box, calling on friends, classmates and relatives to go to the Caps’ Web site and choose their game.
Stone Bridge Coach John Lynch said that his team rallied votes from night nurses in Boston, a University of Virginia sorority and a grandpa in North Carolina.
“We went throughout the school just telling people: Don’t stop voting,” Stone Bridge player Patrick O’Connor said.
O’Connor’s mother, Patrice, hopes the attention will raise the team’s profile at school in a way that winning the past two league championships has not. Including ice time and uniform costs, each player’s family pays about $1,000 to compete, and not earning a varsity letter for their efforts is a sore point. Some area teams cannot use their school name, colors or mascot.
“I think since they saw how many people voted and how big it was, I don’t think they could ignore it,” said the elder O’Connor, who wore tan gloves that not only kept her hands warm by the ice but also provided padding for when she pounded the glass in celebration of Stone Bridge goals.
Stone Bridge and Loudoun County play in the Northern Virginia Scholastic Hockey League, which has 24 varsity teams this season. There also are 13 junior varsity teams and 13 teams in the middle school division, which is in its first year. Interest is high. The two-rink Ashburn facility is open 20 hours a day, seven days a week; there was a high school game there Friday that was scheduled in the 10:40 p.m. to midnight slot.
But those youth hockey participation numbers could go down, at least temporarily, in the youngest, or “mite,” age group in coming seasons, because of the lockout, Loudoun County Coach John Peterson said.
“Little kids who are trying to get into the game, [the NHL] might be their only opportunity to see hockey,” said Zienty, who lived in Chicago when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010. “It’s tough for them. They can’t see these guys flying around on the ice. That’s how I first saw it, was NHL games: ‘Wow, these guys are really moving. That’s pretty cool.’
“Kids this year, they can’t get that. So it might turn them off a little bit.”