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.”