At approximately 10:30 pm on Saturday night, the NHLPA signed a Memorandum of Understanding that brought an end to four-month-long the NHL lockout.
At exactly 10:30 am on Sunday morning, a standing room-only crowd welcomed the Washington Capitals with rousing applause as the team, led by netminder Braden Holtby, stepped on the ice for an abbreviated training camp starting less than a week before the start of the shortened regular season.
Other than an on-ice warmup introduction by public address announcer Wes Johnson, Sunday morning’s session was no different than a normal team practice. Because of injuries and the organization’s desire to only bring players with legitimate shots at making the opening day roster to camp, there were just 26 players on the training camp roster and only 24 on the ice Sunday, with Brooks Laich (lower body injury) and Tom Poti (conditioning assignment) both in street clothes.
For fans, the hour-long practice was the first opportunity to see free agent signees Joey Crabb, Jack Hillen, Cameron Schilling, and Wojtek Wolski, 2012 draftee Tom Wilson, and trade acquisition Mike Ribeiro in Capitals uniforms. While those players had technically been members of the Capitals organization for months, former winger Eric Fehr was a surprise attendee. News broke of Fehr’s return late Saturday night, and the 27-year-old winger didn’t technically sign his one-year, $600,000 contract until after the on-ice session ended.
“I’m really excited to be back, [Washington] feels like a second home to me,” said Fehr, who skated in Finland’s SM-Liiga during the lockout.
During the on-ice session Fehr was one of four players wearing the white jerseys of the third line, along with Mathieu Perreault, Matt Hendricks, and Crabb, who signed a one-year, $950,000 contract on the first day of free agency this past offseason. Crabb spent the last two seasons in Toronto, a hotbed of hockey fandom, and was impressed by Sunday’s turnout by Caps fans.
“I didn’t know much about Washington before I came here and the fans seem great…[Kettler Capitals Iceplex] is not the smallest practice rink, so to have a packed house on your first day, it’s great.”
Although Crabb didn’t say it outright, several players gave the impression that they weren’t sure how they and the organization would be received by fans after the lengthy lockout. Schilling, who has played 32 games for the Hershey Bears this season and expects to return there at the end of camp, said he was “surprised” by the size of the crowd, adding that he thought “the packed house…was awesome.”
One of the fans who returned was Suzanne Kang, who made the trip to Kettler on a foggy morning for the first chance to see the Caps in action since last May. Although some of her friends were ambivalent about following the NHL after the lockout, Kang “didn’t consider not coming back for one second.”
“It looked like everyone was happy to officially have Caps hockey back,” said Kang, who added that she “saw a lot of hugging, a lot of smiles, and fans were cheering pretty loudly when the guys hit the ice.”
Training camp continues through Friday, with the team hosting a special open practice on Thursday night in the Verizon Center as part of a Fan Appreciation Week. Washington opens their regular season schedule Saturday night in Tampa, with the home opener on Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets.