Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 6

In the inaugural 1974-1975 season, the Capitals drew an average of 10,004 fans per game. Not great shakes for a team’s brand-spanking new start in a new market in a then state-of-the-art arena. But it was better than the following year, when the Caps drew 9,835 per game. At least they had three sellouts, which bested the inaugural season by one. It was a wheel-spinning start for the new franchise that left it gasping for air by the end of the 1981-1982 season, the last in a string of eight seasons in which the Caps failed to draw an average of 12,000 fans a game. A “Save the Caps” campaign was undertaken to keep the team from leaving Washington.

Fast forward to July of 2001. The Capitals completed a shocking trade for the best pure talent in the sport – Jaromir Jagr, and the future looked rosier than it had at any point in the history of the franchise. Attendance reflected the buzz attending the deal – the Caps saw their average attendance jump by more than 1,800 a game (almost 12 percent) in the 2001-2002 season. The bloom fell from the rose, though, as Jagr failed to match his historical level of production and the team underachieved on the ice. From that high of 17,341 fans per game in 2001-2002, the Caps’ attendance fell dramatically over the next three seasons as the team’s fortunes soured on the ice. By the 2005-2006 season, the Caps had lost almost 20 percent of their average attendance (to 13,905 per game), despite having the top rookie and soon-to-be most dynamic force of personality in the sport – Alex Ovechkin. There were more than a few murmurings from the fan base concerning the Caps’ ability to survive in the Washington sports market.

But several factors converged over the next two seasons that stopped the decline. First, the Capitals moved their training facility to a new complex in Arlington, Virginia in November 2006. The Kettler Capitals Iceplex was a state-of-the-art training facility that put the Capitals footprint closer to the geographic center of its fan base than was the case with the Piney Orchard facility in suburban Maryland. KCI, with seating for 1,200 in the rink used by its primary tenant, could serve to draw fans to practices and provided an opportunity for more fans to interact with players.

Second, there was a cosmetic change that cannot be overstated. All 30 teams of the NHL changed uniforms for the 2006-2007 season, and the Capitals took this as an opportunity to go old school in a new way with a return to a red, white, and blue color scheme, emphasizing (as did the original Capitals road jerseys) a red theme. The lettering and logo schemes might have reflected a new approach, but the uniforms could appeal to older fans who remembered Rod Langway, Mike Gartner, and Dale Hunter in the red, white, and blues.

Third, the Capitals actually found that they could play hockey. There were glimpses of it in the 2006-2007 season, mostly from the indomitable Alex Ovechkin. But there were others who gave more than a hint that they’d be heard from and time marched on. Alexander Semin had a career year with 38 goals and 73 points. Brooks Laich, who was the return for the iconic Peter Bondra in a trade with Ottawa in the 2003-2004 season, chipped in eight goals, three of them of the shorthanded variety. Matt Bradley and Donald Brashear were favorites of the fans for their take-no-prisoners approach to the game.

The Caps looked primed to build on this in the 2007-2008 season, but stubbed their toe (broke their ankle, suffered a lower body injury) to start the 2007-2008 season. A 6-14-1 start suggested that perhaps the club wasn’t ready (not nearly ready, in fact) for prime time, and the attendance reflected it. In 18 home dates to close calendar year 2007, the Caps drew an average of 13,452, which (if sustained over a full season) would be the lowest average attendance since the 1983-1984 season. The only sellout was a game against Pittsburgh for which a substantial portion of the crowd were fans of the black and Vegas gold.

But as the calendar year wound down, the Caps were winning with more regularity under new coach Bruce Boudreau than they had under Glen Hanlon in the difficult start to the season. A wild 8-6 game at Ottawa to close 2007 in which Ovechkin had a four-goal, five-point game announced loudly, if from a distance, that the Caps were going to be a hell-bent-for-leather club that attacked their opponent. Three days later – on New Years Day – the Caps pounded that same Senators team early and often in a 6-3 win in front of 14,547. Not great, perhaps, but the Caps had only six crowds top it to that point in the season (including opening night, the sellout against the Penguins and a game against traditional rival Philadelphia).

What happened thereafter was nothing short of amazing. Average attendance by month climbed from that 13,452 figure at the end of December to an average of 15,386 for the month of January, an average of 17,756 for February, 17,965 in March, and every one of the 18,277 seats filled for the three home games in April to close the regular season. The Caps sold out seven of their last 12 home games and their last four in a row. It enabled Washington to end the season with more total sellouts – eight – than in any season since that 2001-2002 season following the signing of Jaromir Jagr.

The final days of the season also saw the roll out of a marketing angle that took advantage of the colors – “Rock the Red” became a phrase synonymous with Capitals hockey. The sea of red that welcomed the Caps to the ice in the closing games of the 2007-2008 season rivaled the “’C’ of Red” that was common in Calgary for the Flames. It was a spectacular sight as the Caps found themselves in a playoff series for the first time since the lockout.

It has carried over to the 2008-2009 season. “Red is Caps Hockey” has joined “Rock the Red” as a familiar sign of Capitals hockey. Fans have returned to the rink in large numbers. In 15 home dates so far this season, the Capitals have averaged 17,832 in attendance, which would shatter the single season average for the franchise if the season ended today. Given that the Caps generally draw better after the new year begins, setting a new record appears to be a certainty.

In calendar year 2008 to date, the Caps have averaged 17,361 in home 38 dates – better than 95 percent of capacity, which would itself be a season record for Capitals’ attendance. It has been accompanied by a shower of red across the region – from posters in Metro stations proclaiming “Red is Caps Hockey,” to fans who are pulling every red thread they can find out of the closet to show their support for a home-grown, hometown team.

It has made “Rock the Red” one of the top Capitals stories of 2008.


Michael Eason said...

Ironically, back in the days of the original uniforms, I didn't really like the red jerseys. But, somehow, now that the "prog-retro" jerseys are here.... I'm all about the red.

MillerofMD said...

I remeber about 30 years ago, as a kid, trying to save up money to buy an Washington Capitals sweater. Pre-internet, I could get the sweater from a Canadian based company's mail-order catalog. Because of all the stars that went up and down the sleves, the Caps sweater was the most expensive of all the NHL teams. Almsot $75 dollars more then the next one, and that was a lot of money to a 15 year old kid.
Several years later I was able to get a white, game worn #6 Darren Veitch Jersey. I love the new Caps logo, in fact. this Christmas, all my kids got Caps sweaters, purses, scarfs, earrings etc. But at every home game I still wear my old 1981 #6 sweater. I guess it is true "You never forget your first love!"