April 19, 2014

OPINION: Verizon Center will be full of Washington Capitals fans tonight — Will you be there?

Fans during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Fans during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

There’s nothing like the opening game of a new season at home. The anticipation, the excitement, the pageantry. It’s like the first day back to school, when you get to see your old friends again and pick back up after a long summer of fighting with your little brothers. For the Washington Capitals and their legion of red rockers, it’s no different. It’s just this year, we’ve had to wait an extra four months or so.

The lockout turned some fans off from the NHL product though, and that’s a damn shame. There are those that have self-imposed an exile from the best hockey there is to offer in protest for the way the owners shut the game down until a new CBA could be hammered out.

To them, I ask, to what end?

I understand a certain level of frustration on the part of the die-hard fan. This is someone who invests a lot of time and/or money and may feel — on some level — that they are “partners” in this relationship with the organization, to use a word Ted Leonsis, majority owner of the Capitals, likes to use to describe the team/fan dynamic.

You missed the game. You felt left out — betrayed even. You missed a part of your social fabric that has become so ingrained into your winter routine that it felt like second nature and that was ripped away from you by spoiled millionaires and billionaires while they bickered on how to divide up your hard-earned money.

But here’s the bottom line, and I’m sorry if it comes as a shock to your system: They don’t care if you don’t come back on an individual level. Most fans couldn’t come back fast enough. And if you don’t, you’re only hurting yourself. If you’re one of the few that will be conducting your own personal boycott of the NHL for whatever reason and whatever length of time, good for you. Your sense of moral conviction is strong. If you feel that strongly about making yourself suffer over a situation you had no control over, that’s your decision to make alone. But I’ve got news for you, they won’t miss you.

What’s the old expression? Cut off your nose to spite your face? I just don’t understand the reaction to having the NHL taken away from you is to not return when it comes back.

Ted Leonsis apologized on his blog last Thursday. Taken at face value, the opening paragraph would seem to indicate that Mr. Leonsis, who has taken quite a beating by the media and a segment of Washington Capitals fans for his role in the lockout and CBA negotiation, acknowledged the role that he played and is contrite about not being able to bring the dispute to a quicker resolution.

“I know Capitals fans – and hockey fans around the world – agonized the past few months; I apologize for my role in not being able to help us reach a more timely agreement. I’m sorry it took this long.”

Mr. Leonsis did not apologize for the lockout itself that cost almost half the NHL season. It’s assumed that be believes that it was a foregone conclusion, an inevitability. Rather, he apologized for the his role and the length of time it took to come to an agreement.

For some, it was a first step in soothing the bad feelings that linger for a portion of the fan base. For others, it looks like a blatant P.R. move designed to do nothing more than give the appearance of “caring” about the fans. I will choose to believe the former, though it seems like I am in the minority in that opinion.

On Mr. Leonsis’ blog, some comments indicated that some fans will be “reluctant to really invest my time or energy back into hockey,” and that they are “hoping to see more than words when it comes to making up with your fans.” A popular suggestion on social media last week suggested the league give away or discount the Center Ice package to entice fans to come back.

But the fans that product appeals to was never going to leave to begin with.

The fans that the league need to court are the casual fans, those that may come to a game or two every year, to try to get them to re-invest in the game. They need to find a way to get fans in the stands in Phoenix and Dallas and Columbus and Long Island. And Carolina and Florida and Nashville.

As for the Caps, the team announced last Friday evening a litany of discounts and giveaways designed to entice season ticket holders to come back to Verizon Center, to help smooth over bad feelings leftover from the work stoppage and Mr. Leonsis’ involvement in the proceedings. Still, many howled that the Caps were catering simply to the season ticket holders, leaving most fans still out to dry.

No, for a certain segment of the fan base, no act of contrition will seem genuine enough.

If your level of moral outrage over the lockout is something you can’t reconcile, there’s no amount of free hot dogs or half-priced t-shirts in the world to suffice, I guess. Your loss.

I was as disappointed as anyone that the league lost so many games to the lockout and labor negotiations. The NHL leadership and Board of Governors are seriously misguided in their practice that continually locking out the players to conduct labor negotiations is the best way to go about things. It’s not. It costs the league and the players a lot of money. It robs the fans of the product they so very much want to consume. It literally shortens players careers. It’s bad practice.

Unfortunately, it’s part of the business. All four major sports have gone through it. Most labor-based industries at one time or another has gone through it. Would you expect more out of your garbage collecting company once they settled with their collectors? No, you’re just happy someone is finally picking up your stinking garbage.

The actuality is that Verizon Center will be full again tonight with 19,000-plus red rockers, regardless if you’re there or not. Sadly, I will not be there in person. It’s the first home opener I’ve missed in over a decade. But you can be damn sure I’ll be watching from our new home in Idaho.

If the Caps can put Saturday night’s loss to Tampa Bay in their rear view mirror and get off to a good start and win, the fans will fill Verizon Center all season again like usual. If they advance in the playoffs, it’ll be like the lockout never happened.

But if Saturday’s rust continues and they get off to a slow start and suffer through an inconsistent — or worse — season, that’s when the ownership should get concerned. We saw some cracks in the armor last season when the team struggled. Missing the playoffs in this lockout-shortened season will be worse for business than the lockout itself, public relations efforts or no.

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief and Washington Nationals Page Editor for District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence.  You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the link to my BrooksLaichyear.com post, but I think you missed the point of my piece if you think my lack of interest is some sort of “personnel boycott against the NHL.” As I wrote there, “My current disinterest in the league has nothing to do with protesting. This is not a situation where I’m ignoring a game I enjoy, just to stick it to the NHL and the NHLPA. I’m simply feeling uninspired to watch after sitting through yet another of the league’s work stoppages…” And as I say at the end of it, “I doubt I’m gone for good.” I just don’t much feel like watching the NHL right now and have other options for live hockey after moving to Connecticut.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      Mike, I included your piece to illustrate a point of view of frustration with the league and you taking your hockey entertainment attention elsewhere. Ultimately, at least for now, you’ve decided to spend your attention elsewhere. If you’re feeling “uninspired” to watch this season, where previously you were, to me we’re just talking semantics then whether your lack of interest is a personal boycott or not. I respect your feelings — I can’t stand in your shoes — and I respect you for voicing them. I just wanted to highlihght your opinion as someone who isn’t returning to the NHL game, at least presently.

      All the best,
      Dave

      • Thanks for the response, Dave. I respect your feelings on this as well. I’ve always thought of boycotts as something people do out of protest or to make a company suffer because of something they did. But my not following the NHL with my usual intensity right now isn’t my way of punishing them. I’m just not feeling it at the moment. From a business standpoint though, I’m very interested in seeing how consumers behave this season after the lockout. I’d bet that my interest in the NHL as a hockey fan will slowly return. But I’m more pumped for spring training to get started right now.

  2. Dark Stranger says:

    I attended the game. Most fans were wearing their normal red and their normal Caps jerseys. While wearing a red,white, and blue outfit, I’ll admit I was not wearing a Caps jersey. In protest of the lockout, I wore a KHL jersey in “honor” of a KHL guy I had started following during lockout, one who never has played in NHL. I will probably buy another Caps jersey after season since the main one I own is for a “defunct” player. I had held on on buying Caps jersey since I decided not to buy NHL.com stuff this year.

    I figure since I paid for tickets and like hockey and the Caps, I don’t want to give up the game.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] OPINION: Verizon Center will be full of Washington Capitals fans tonight … The anticipation, the excitement, the pageantry. It's like the 1st day back to school, when you acquire to see your old friends again & pick back up after a long summer of fighting with your little brothers. For the Capitals (Washington) & their legion … Read more on District Sports Page [...]

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