Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hockey Town or Not a Hockey Town

OK, we've all seen the Ted vs. Ross posts on whether the Caps should be contracted (along with a few other teams, mostly from the Southeast). That led to this post from the source of the "5 ways I'd change the NHL" idea...

The blockbuster box office for the Capitals this summer speaks to two things: The bandwagon nature of the D.C. fan (indisputable) and the reaction from the hockey community to the current incarnation of the team. The guy who works at The Pentagon and cheered for Rod Gilbert as a young Rangers fan is buying the same season ticket as the kid who grew up in Arlington, Va. cheering for Peter Bondra -- they both love the game, and luckily have the means to watch Alexander Ovechkin 41 times a season.

Capitals fans are a proud group (to which my colleague Mr. McKeon can now attest). But what makes Washington an indispensible NHL city goes beyond the fortunes of the local team on or off the ice. For years, the naysayers have been saying D.C. will never be a Capitals town.

They miss the point: It is now, and always shall be, a hockey town.

Well, no, it's not. With all due respect to my fellow wizards, this strikes me as an over-romanticized view of what is happening here. Washington has not been, is not now, and chances are never will be a "hockey town" as the term is known with respect to, say, Toronto or Montreal or Detroit (which, despite a serious economic downturn that has largely been avoided by Washington, outdrew the Caps by almost 3,500 per game last season*).

Let's not let a couple of dozen games and a playoff round dull the memory. This is a club that couldn't draw much more than flies in December, struggled mightily with attendance the past few years, and has never been a consistent draw in the three-plus decades of its existence. It is a club that has not enjoyed a lot of success on the ice, either, with one Stanley Cup final to show for its history. It has only played in two conference finals.

This is not to say that Washington is bereft of hockey fans -- of Caps or of other teams. In fact, we think Wyshynski is dead-on when he states that "Capitals fans are a proud group." That goes for the Fan in Charge, too, who rarely lets a slight to his club go unchallenged. The sight of so many visiting jerseys at Caps games attests to hockey fans from other places who call DC home. And there is certainly a significant blogging footprint in Caps Land, which is as good an indicator as any that there are folks who care, and care deeply about the club.

Washington is a town like a lot of towns in North America when it comes to sports. Fans show up when clubs win; they don't when they lose. That the baseball Nationals, in the inaugural year of their gleaming new facility, could draw barely 70 percent of capacity this season is as good an example as any of the "bandwagon" nature of the fans locally. Only the NFL's Redskins seem immune to this.

From my chair, a "hockey town" is not one that is "personality dependent" (see: Pittsburgh, which doesn't impress me as a hockey town, either). A "hockey town" doesn't watch attendance tank when the team is doing poorly, at least not to the degree it happened here the last few years, despite arguably the game's brightest young star playing here. A "hockey town" is one where the team is covered above the fold on the front page of the sports section when it isn't the last stretch run or the first round of the playoffs. A "hockey town" isn't a sometime thing, a term only to be invoked when things are going well.

I think the Caps are, and are being built for the long haul, to be competitive season-in and season-out. I think that will keep them from having to endure the lowest-of-lows that was the 2003-2004 season and the years right after the lockout. I think it will ultimately make them a top-half or top-third club in attendance, somewhere around maybe 17-17,500 in average attendance. They will probably enjoy more and better local media coverage, but never approaching that of the Redskins (even in the best times) and probably never as consistently good as what coverage the Wizards get in basketball or the Nationals in baseball.

But before one thinks that we're being too negative or contrarian, the Capitals have done wonders for hockey in the community, inspiring a lot of youngsters to take up the sport who would not have in their absence. And that has grown a whole new generation of hockey fans, a lasting contribution to the sport in this area.

There isn't anything wrong with a city that has a hockey team not being a "hockey town." Frankly, we think the whole thought of calling Washington such is part of the intoxication of last year's storybook finish. Washington is a city in which a hockey team -- and hockey -- can thrive. For that, fans and aspiring young hockey players have the Capitals to thank. It is a franchise that has struggled from time to time, and it is entirely possible it will do so again. That doesn't diminsh one iota the passion of the fans -- old and new -- who follow the club, or run it for that matter. Heaven knows, we would put ourselves in that group of passionate fans. It just doesn't convince us that Washington is a "hockey town."

* We realize this is not an entirely fair comparison, as Detroit (which had its own struggles in the 1980's) has enjoyed considerable success for some time now and has much more hockey tradition to draw on, but that serves to support the point, too -- Detroit is a "hockey town," Washington is not.