October 24, 2020

Washington Capitals face challenges on and off-ice in critical short 2013 season

Dick Patrick, Ted Leonsis, Head Coach Adam Oates and George McPhee at the Washington Capitals Press Conference, June 27, 2012. (Dave Nichols/District Sports Page)

Dick Patrick, Ted Leonsis, Head Coach Adam Oates and George McPhee at the Washington Capitals Press Conference, June 27, 2012. (Dave Nichols/District Sports Page)

The last time the NHL reopened its doors after a lockout, the Washington Capitals didn’t have to worry a whole lot about retaining its popularity or potential damage from the labor dispute. Although the team did have 2004’s top draft pick in Alex Ovechkin, there wasn’t a whole lot yet to build around, and the team languished in the pecking order well behind the Redskins, Wizards and the newly established Nationals for the entertainment dollar of metro area sports fans.

“I was in no rush to get back last time,” Capitals General Manager George McPhee joked on Tuesday. It wasn’t going to be a whole lot of fun the last time around, having to build a team. As I’ve said many times, when we came out of that, we were trying to fill boots. We had a certain number of players and had to have a lot, and we were trying to avoid long-term commitments and that sort of things to guys who we thought wouldn’t be around very long.”

Of course, a lot changed in between 2005 and 2012. Reflecting the rag-tag teams wearing the old blue-and-bronze sweaters, Washington was 28th in attendance in 2005-06 with an average of 13,905 per game. Now, the Capitals are coming off a season where they ranked 12th in the league, selling out every game at Verizon Center since 2008-09 with an 18,506 average last season, and the team even has a waiting list for season tickets — something that would be deemed unheard of during the last lockout.

The 2012-13 lockout will take a still undetermined toll on the league — and the Capitals organization may face more scrutiny than others. Capitals’ owner Ted Leonsis sat on the league’s negotiating committee and took more public criticism than most during the stoppage. The new, shortened 48-game schedule poses a challenge for the Caps to turn around any loss of momentum quickly.

Simply put, the markets that will overcome the negative impact of the lockout best are the ones that are very competitive in 2012-13. Success on the ice will make the bitterness over the loss of hockey for four months fade away faster, and as significantly, entice back some of those fans that drifted away from the sport.

Teams that struggle this season could get hit with a double-whammy at season-ticket renewal time, as the lockout and poor on-ice performance could pose a threat to fragile ticket bases. A discontentment with the product paired with lingering resentment for the lockout could be a troubling combination for some organizations.

Additionally, teams that are perceived to have been part of the league’s lockout strategy also could face more backlash than moderate clubs.

For the Capitals themselves, the compressed schedule certainly will add an element of additional pressure compared to a typical regular season, simply because every game is more valuable and a long losing streak could spell doom for a team’s playoff hopes. The thought of coasting to a division title — or a playoff spot, for that matter — should be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

“For sure, when you look at it that way, absolutely,” new Capitals coach Adam Oates said Tuesday. You can’t get behind the 8-ball, or lose too many in a row.”

Oates added that sentiment isn’t atypical, as losing streaks have been magnified in recent seasons. “Over the last couple of years, one point mattered. Even at the beginning of the year last year, team were worried about that. Team’s first opening night, you never wanted that losing stretch all year-long, the parity is so great in the league.”

The last time the NHL held a 48-game schedule, the Capitals started off a dismal 3-10-5, which created some grumbling amongst the fans who returned, and attendance sagged quickly. Just 10,761 attended a Capitals-Devils game at Capital Centre on Feb. 20, 1995, and 12,391 attended a 1-1 tie at the Capital Centre between Washington and Tampa Bay six days later, the depth of the team’s losing streak that year.

However, a mid-season call up helped the Capitals regain their footing, as goaltender Jim Carey was  recalled from the AHL’s Portland Pirates and helped the Capitals qualify for the post-season. Still, attendance dropped overall from 14,527 to 14,158 that season in large part to weak attendance early in the year that likely would have continued had Washington not turn their campaign around.

Now, while the Capitals enjoy a consecutive-game sellout streak, the bigger question is the long-term picture and how the renewals for 2013-14 will look, which will certainly be impacted by how the club performs.

While teams around the league are trying to pick the right way to tackle a short season, it’s a challenge.

“There are going to be a lot of unknowns here,” McPhee said. “No one knows what this is going to look like, who’s in shape, who’s not, who gets off the fast start. It’s going to be like 48 playoff games, really unpredictable. We don’t know how people are going to play, but that’s what makes it exciting.”

“I think the playoffs starts the first game, it’s going to be playoffs,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of good team you are on paper, you have to show up on the ice and play hard as you can.”

When asked if he thought the lockout could damage the Caps’ newfound standing in Washington sports, McPhee was hopeful the support the team has seen since the last lockout would continue.

“I’m just hopeful we get going real soon and everybody is as happy as we are to be back,” he said. “We’ve all missed this. Nobody wanted this. We’re here, ready to go, expect our fans to be too. We have phenomenal fans.”

Capitals’ camp ramps up on second day

With the standing-room only crowd and newness of Sunday’s beginning of training camp behind them, the Capitals Monday began to work on installing Adam Oates’ new system and also a bit testing the team’s conditioning.

In front of a decent-sized crowd for a workday Monday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the Caps worked on puck control drills as well as doing some laps that left most players hunched over or resting on their knee after the drill was completed.

One of the few players who didn’t appear to be winded during the drill was Karl Alzner. But the defenseman said afterwards looks can be deceiving.

“I’ve been working out a lot this extended off-season,” he said. “I feel pretty good out there. The thing is, even if I’m tired out there, I don’t like to show it. It’s one of those things my trainer told me. But I’m sure all the guys will be just fine.”

With just six days for training camp and no preseason games, Alzner said he expected it might take some time for players to fully get back into game shape.

“It’ll take at least a few games to get back there,” he said. “[There’s] nothing you can do off the ice that’s the same as on the ice. It’s impossible.

“We’re at the point right now where we can’t afford to bang ourselves up. You got to wait, get more ice time.”

As for Oates’ new system, Alzner said it was more like the early days of Bruce Boudreau’s wide-open style than last year’s tight defensive style utilized under first Boudreau and then Dale Hunter.

“It’s really learning the system, being more aggressive, but doing it in a smart way, being in the right spot,” he said when asked to describe it.

“It’s just more closing gaps quicker, not letting other team skate through the neutral zone – at all. It’ll be more like the Capitals of three or four years ago than the Capitals of the last 1 1/2 years. Probably pretty entertaining game to watch.”

Oates himself described his new system as “very similar” to the one his head coach Pete DeBoer used in New Jersey, and emphasized how important it was in the system to keep the blueliners healthy.

“The system is based on keeping the defense from taking as much contact as possible,” he said. “They’re the lifeblood of the team, I really believe that. They obviously help us in our own end, they got to help the forwards score. The way teams backcheck now, the defense is vital to us.”

One other topic emerging in the first days of camp is the team’s goaltending situation, as it is expected after his run in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, Braden Holtby will be the team’s No. 1 starter out of camp.

“I would say I think the guys expect Holts to be in the net based on last year.”

However, he did expect both goaltenders to get a lot of use with the compact schedule.

“48 games, I think both guys are going to play a lot,” Oates said, adding “when a guy’s playing well, he should play.”

Oates also added it was a good problem for a team to have.

“I got two young kids, they’re very good goalies,” Oates said. “I was just in New Jersey with Marty Brodeur where [who the No. 1 is] wasn’t a question, so we all know it. Circumstances are different.”

Neuvirth was asked about the goaltending situation in Washington and his expectations.

“It’s hard to say, he played last year in the playoffs and he deserves to start this season and if he will, I’ll cheer for him,” Neuvirth said.

He did say he’d try to make his mark whenever he got a chance to start.

“Play good, bring myself, whenever I get a chance, I want to play good,” he said.

“Even you’ve got 48 games, that’s still a lot of games, ups and downs, anything can happen.”

Roster-wise, with Brooks Laich not taking part in the main group and Tom Poti rehabbing in Hershey, the team has 24 players in camp with 23 allowed once the opening-night roster is set. Should Laich and Poti not be ready to start the year, the team could opt to return Tom Wilson to Plymouth of the OHL or Cameron Schilling to Hershey to get to the 23-man limit, or both should one of the two be ready for the regular season.

Sunday night, Poti scored a goal pinching in from the point in his first game in the AHL, and hopes he will get a chance to play in his hometown of Worcester, Mass. on Wednesday for Hershey.

“Then after that,” Poti told the Patriot-News’ Tim Leone, “we’ll kind of make a decision and see what’s going to happen.”

While the NHL lockout thaws, Verizon Center freezes

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Verizon Center, 1/9/2012 (Ted Starkey/District Sports Page)

While the NHL’s Board of Governors approved the Memorandum of Understanding with the NHLPA to begin the end of the lockout Wednesday afternoon, 226 miles to the southwest, the crew at Verizon Center was busy putting down the ice surface the Capitals will use this year for the shortened season.

With the boards standing in a nearly empty arena, the crew was walking across the newly-frozen surface to paint and add logos to the playing surface, which was a thin layer of ice with a white water-soluble paint on top of the building’s concrete floor.

“About 5:00 in the morning, they started bringing the floor below like 36 degrees,” Jamie Gibson, Assistant Director of Operations of Verizon Center explained. “And then about 8:30, [we] started putting down coat of water on the concrete to seal the concrete. After we do that a few times, we paint the white, which is a water soluble dump it in the water and it freezes when you put water. And you seal it again with water, and then paint the lines and logos and stuff.”

The blue lines, face-off circles and dots are painted directly on the ice, the center ice line – which the Capitals decorate with stars instead of stripes – and other logos and wordmarks are actually cloth placed on the ice and then covered with water and rolled flat.

Workers placed a small spike in the ice to measure the circles, using a tether to paint the face-off circles. The blue lines were marked with string, and after the two sides were added, a worker using a paint tray and a brush filled it in. After the lines were down, the center ice stripe, Capitals logo and sponsor logos were put into place based on a diagram on a notebook placed on the dasher boards.

While the crew used to paint the entire ice, the cloth logos are reusable, and make putting down the ice faster – but slows down the meltdown process.

“Probably in the last six or seven years, we started using the cloth logos,” Gibson said, “it’s easier, you don’t have as much of a mess. They’re harder to take out, but much easier to put in. … On the ice, it saves a lot of time. Taking it out, it adds a couple of hours. We reuse them. They get hung up and dried, and put them back out the next time we make ice.”

Once the paint and logos are in place, another 10,000 gallons of water are slowly used to build up the ice to an inch’s depth, a surface thick enough to protect the players from reaching the logos and paint. The entire process takes about 24 hours, meaning the ice will be ready to smooth out with the Olympia ice resurfacer.

“We’ll use that Friday to level out the ice,” Gibson said. “When you flood it, the ice is going too freeze the way the water goes, so you’ll end up with ripples on top, we’ll level it, use hot water on it, make it as good as we can. The more you resurface itself, the better it is.”

In a normal year, the crew will build and melt the ice several times in a season, but not this year.

“It depends on the year,” he said. “Some years, we’ve done as many as five. Sometimes you take it out for NCAA [regionals] or the other things, we have the horse show. We have monster trucks, whatever. … We can’t this year. This year’s kind of tight with the season.”

For those curious, Gibson was unaware of any plans to use a “Thank You Fans” logo in the ice as the NHL did following the lockout in the 2005-06 season. The reason is the ice would be down all year and tough to remove.

“There will be none this year,” he said. “They know everybody isn’t going to be taking the ice out, at the beginning of the season they take the ice out, it’s easy to pull those logos out, but with this compact season we’re going to have, they don’t want to put them in.”

Asked about some arenas that have left their ice in since September, such as Los Angeles’ Staples Center and Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, Gibson explained it would be expensive for Verizon Center to keep the surface down without any ice events.

“It would be very expensive,” he said. “The compressors would have been running since September with electric use and everything else.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time the ice has been down, as the crew put in the ice for the AHL Showcase back in December. But the rink was quickly melted after the event.

“Depressing,” Gibson recalled. “When you put it for one game, that’s a lot of work for one game. We want it to stay in.”

Gibson has been part of the ice crew since working at the Capital Centre in 1987. While the ice at Verizon Center has been a subject of some criticism by players over the years, he says the ice downtown is much better than the one in Landover.

“It’s much better,” he said. “Newer equipment, much better down here.”

So, while the NHL slowly moves back towards playing a season with the NHLPA expected to ratify their side of the agreement for camp likely starting Sunday and a season starting January 19th, Gibson is back to have hockey back in the building.

“It’s been kind of boring without it,” he said. “It’s great. Happy to have it back.”

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Verizon Center, 1/9/2012
(Ted Starkey/District Sports Page)

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Verizon Center, 1/9/2012
(Ted Starkey/District Sports Page)

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Verizon Center, 1/9/2012
(Ted Starkey/District Sports Page)

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Verizon Center, 1/9/2012
(Ted Starkey/District Sports Page)

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Verizon Center, 1/9/2012
(Ted Starkey/District Sports Page)

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Verizon Center, 1/9/2012
(Ted Starkey/District Sports Page)

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Verizon Center, 1/9/2012
(Ted Starkey/District Sports Page)

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Verizon Center, 1/9/2012
(Ted Starkey/District Sports Page)

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Verizon Center, 1/9/2012
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Verizon Center, 1/9/2012
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Verizon Center, 1/9/2012
(Ted Starkey/District Sports Page)


NHL, NHLPA reach tentative deal to end lockout

Washington Capitals fans, as well as fans across North America, awoke Sunday morning to the news that the National Hockey League will indeed have a 2012-13 season.

Around 4:45 a.m., the two sides – with the help of a federal mediator – solved the dispute with a tentative deal that will bring the game back to rinks all across North America. The session, which lasted 16 hours, produced a 10-year-deal which will allow the owners to unlock the doors and bring about a truncated season.

While a lot depends on when the deal is actually put on paper and ratified by the NHL’s Board of Governors and the players, training camp could open up as early as Wednesday.

It’s expected teams will play a 48 to 50 game season, with a heavy dose of divisional play. The exact start of the season is still to be determined, and while a new schedule will use some of the same dates as the old 82-game version, the opponents will change.

The Capitals could play seven games against Southeast Divisional foes, and two against the 10 teams from the Atlantic and Northeast Division teams in a 48-game schedule. If two more are added, it’s expected they could be “rivalry” games, which could mean an extra matchup against Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or New York.

But, after an ugly labor dispute that cancelled at least 32 games and took nearly four months to solve, hockey fans across Washington and the world got what they wanted: the game to return within two weeks.

Time Running Short for NHL to Get Back on Ice

Will the Capitals finally get to use all these game pucks in 2013? (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

The grand plan for the NHL is two weeks from Saturday to return from a seven-month hiatus, with nearly every team in action against a rival as the league tries to start to undo the damage from a long and rancor-filled lockout.

Of course, there’s the whole matter of getting the CBA done first.

With the protracted labor talks entering their final stages to try and salvage the 2012-13 season, it’s critical for the league and its players union to try and find common ground – and not miscalculate the others’ intentions – to get the league back on track to playing on-ice games instead of off-ice ones.

Both sides wheeled out their nuclear options in recent days to pressure the other side into a settlement.

For its part, the NHL indicating the “drop-dead date” when the deal had to be done (or near done) by next Thursday or Friday to avoid the league’s second cancellation in eight years. The NHLPA is responding to the NHL’s threat with a second round of disclaimer of interest voting, which could send the whole mess into the abyss of the U.S. court system, which would throw the season and outcome of the labor dispute in serious doubt.

So, in order to avoid the league’s version of mutually-assured destruction, the two sides have been talking for the past few days in New York, and with the aid of a federal mediator, trying to bridge the last gap to a deal.

But in the final stages as the two sides jockey for final concessions, the process is very delicate, as a bad mistake or miscalculation on either side and time running short could mean a disaster for the league, with billions lost and the league’s already tattering reputation getting further stained.

Quite simply, neither side can afford to make a big mistake and let the opportunity to salvage its season slip through its fingers.

The league has achieved an almost-guaranteed win in reducing the players’ share of revenue from 57 to 50 percent, but is now running the risk of costing itself more money in lost revenues to get the concession than not changing the system at all. For the players, while they are getting some late concessions from the league as the days to the deadline dwindle, they also are losing games – and millions in salaries – to get them, with an estimated $800 million lost even if the players settle on a 48-game schedule.

Back in 2004-05, while the owners were willing to cancel a season for a salary cap, the players eventually blinked, but erred badly in not leaving themselves enough time to save the year, as last-ditch talks in February collapsed. That failure ended up costing players over a billion in lost salaries they would never recover. Veterans from that labor dispute lament the money that vaporized in that dispute, and when the NHLPA stumbled badly at the finish line, it cost then-NHLPA head Bob Goodenow his job once the new CBA was finalized.

As a result of their defeat at the table, the players called in Major League Baseball’s former union head, Don Fehr, who they felt wouldn’t make the same error. And while Fehr has the support of the bulk of his players, it will be quite different down the road if he can’t do what he was brought in to do – to get a deal done. Even though he was popular among baseball players in his days with MLB’s union, he never lost more than two months of his union members’ salaries at one time, coming in the 1994 strike that wiped out the World Series.

For the owners, the reputation of the product is at stake.

While fans were very forgiving after the 2004-05 dispute, the mood isn’t good towards the NHL right now. The league did a good job selling the lockout and need for a cap to limit the damage, this time, the narrative of revenue sharing has evaporated into a fight over player contract length and pensions – neither of which should put a season at risk.

Fans are angry, sponsors are upset and the league’s broadcast partners aren’t happy either with the absence of a product, and the league is taking a hit in the court of marketability. A lost year would be an absolute disaster for the industry that has its boosters suffering from labor fatigue, not unlike baseball’s ill-fated 1994 strike that capped off a string of disputes dating back to the 1970s.

Baseball in 1995 took years to recover the damage it did to itself, and hockey is at risk of that potential damage with a lost season.

So, to get those rivalry games on ice in two weeks, the pressure is on both sides to deliver a deal, and both sides have been running down the clock to hope they could get a better deal.

But the path is narrow, and both sides will have to finally close on a deal despite circling the final CBA for months in a slow circle. Because if they don’t, the consequences will be dire for the league and its players.

Ted Starkey is a Contributor to District Sports Page. Ted is a veteran sportswriter who works for SB Nation Washington, and has written for The Washington Times, Tampa Tribune, AOL Sports, USAHockey.com and BuffaloBills.com, along with a pair of books on the Capitals, Red Rising and Transition Game. He has covered the NHL, NFL and MLB, along with the 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics and several Stanley Cup and Calder Cup playoffs. You can follow him at @TedStarkey.

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