Last Thursday the Capitals opened their season with more fanfare than ever before and Saturday they returned not only to a raucously loud crowd in a completely packed building, but to a city that's embracing them more fully than at any other time since the franchise started play in 1974. Remember, Caps fans, that just a few years ago this team was the butt of every joke penned penned by a lazy sportswriter, a local sports anchor was announcing on the air that he was giving up his season tickets, and the Verizon Center regularly saw fewer than 12,000 fans and was so dead quiet you could hear another spectator's cell phone go off....three sections away. Now the Capitals are the toast of the town (or Washington sports fans, anyway) and media, both local and national, are taking notice of Washington's new-found "hockey town" status.
Is Washington a "hockey town"? I don't really know because I don't really know what a "hockey town" is. Mostly it seems like an intentionally vague, amorphous concept designed to be used as a trump card in any debate over the relative merits of different NHL cities, franchises, or fan bases. But regardless of where this city's "hockey town" status lies I do know one thing: there's never been this much attention from casual fans, this much attention from local press, and this much optimism from diehards all at one time.
Unsurprisingly, given how drastic the change has been and quickly it has occurred, much of the focus has been on how exactly this happened. The long answer, of course, is that there have been a number of factors ranging from the team's 2007 re-branding effort, the poor performance of other area sports teams, willingness to take criticism from the masses on the parts of Ted Leonsis and George McPhee, and, of course, the on-ice product. Take out any one of those and this team's not where it is today in terms of recognition or buzz. However, even while acknowledging the fact that a number of complex factors came together just right to get the team to where it is today, there's still one moment you can look at as the dawn of the new era of Washington hockey.
January 10th, 2008. The day Alex Ovechkin signed his 13 year, $124 million extension.
Ovechkin's new contract wasn't the greatest personnel decision the team ever made (that would be drafting him in 2004, even if it was a slam dunk). Nor was the extension the decision that got the team over the hump and into the playoffs that season (late season acquisitions Sergei Fedorov and Cristobal Huet get the nod here). And while it's hard to imagine Ovechkin doing much better than his back-to-back Hart Trophy and Lester B. Pearson Award winning seasons, the reality is that final judgment on the contract is still very much up in the air - after all, we are in year two of a thirteen year extension. But we're not talking personnel moves at this point, we're talking about generating not only fan interest, but fan loyalty, and nothing did more to help that cause than Ovechkin's new contract.
As the Capitals undertook their long and painful rebuilding process, Leonsis was under constant criticism from pundits both inside and outside the mainstream media and was being accused by Capitals fans of just about everything with the exception being a competent owner. Conspiracy theories ran rampant; depending on who you asked Leonsis was solely interested in money, indifferent or contemptuous of the fan base, or merely biding his time until he could take control of the Verizon Center and the Wizards and become the second coming of Abe Pollin, the fact that he'd already shelled out - and lost - millions of dollars on the team notwithstanding. On-ice success would have garnered some measure of media attention and some additional tickets sold, but it wouldn't erase the sting of the fire sale, the prolonged frustration of the rebuilding process, or, more importantly, the wariness-bordering-on-distrust that permeated the fan base.
In one bold gesture the Capitals eliminated the vast majority of criticism about the way they ran the organization. After all how could anyone say Leonsis was cheap when he had just shelled out the biggest contract in NHL history? How could anyone say Leonsis wasn't committed to winning when he'd given his superstar a deal that screamed commitment both in years and monetary value? How could anyone say Washington could fail to keep or attracted top-tier talent when the game's most exciting player had just agreed to play in the city for well over a decade? Some naysayers - either eternal pessimists or long-time Leonsis or McPhee critics who couldn't stand to be proven wrong - certainly must have existed, and probably still do, but they are few and far between. For the vast majority of Washington sports fans the message was loud and clear.
The result was that it became, well, safe to root for the Capitals. In a town where the baseball team seemed to muddle along with no clear direction for several years, the basketball team had encountered hard times, and the football team had been seized by an owner who seemed more interested in making personnel decisions based on his PlayStation and willing to milk fans for every cent they had, the Caps offered a clear alternative. Ovechkin's extension meant Washington sports fans could embrace the Capitals while resting assured that the franchise would do everything in it's power to be as successful as possible and reward that support.
For casual fans this was a welcome respite from other Washington sports teams. For the diehards it was a return to the team they loved, the wounds of the 2004 fire sale having all been healed. For anyone with even a passing interest in the Capitals it was a chance to loudly, proudly, and completely declare their allegiance to a team without having to worry that internal politics or greed would leave them hurt or frustrated. In short, it was a chance to trust, something that's all too infrequent in professional sports. The Capitals gave their fans a reason to believe in them and that, more than the the division championship, the individual accolades, or the most exciting player in the world, is the reason the fans are now out in full force at Verizon Center every night as many others sit on a season-ticket waiting list.
After all, isn't easier to love something when you know it's not going to break your heart? Well, at least not for a lack of trying...