If lockout drags on, will fans return?

If lockout drags on, will fans return?
September 22, 2012, 2:06 pm
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A few days ago, Aurena Raines, Carter Chewning, Mike Wardand Chris Newman climbed into a car and made their weekly 60-mile pilgrimagefrom Spottsylvania to the Capitals practice facility in Arlington.Thinking the Capitals would hit the ice for an informal practicearound 11 a.m., when they arrived at Kettler Capitals Iceplex at 10:20 a.m.,they saw Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks tossing pucks into a bucket and skatingoff the ice. Aside from a few workers inside the Capitals retail storeand the Front Page snack stand, Raines, Chewning, Ward and Newman representedonly a handful of people in a quiet building that is usually bustling withfans.My buddies and I come up here all the time, said Raines, a60-year-old retiree from Spottsylvania who has owned season tickets for theCapitals the past four seasons. Were so upset about maybe not seeing this.Its going to be so depressing.The NHL lockout entered Day 7 on Saturday and with no formalnegotiations scheduled, fewer and fewer Capitals have hit the ice at Kettler. Asof Saturday, 57 NHL players had signed contracts to play in Europe,including Caps captain Alex Ovechkin and goaltender Michal Neuvirth.Its a no-win situation for fans, players, owners,everybody, said Mike Ward, a 65-year-old Caps season ticket holder from Stafford. But I think the fans miss it the most. For the owners, its a business. For the players its theirlivelihood, but they have options. For fans, unless you have a dish servicewhere you can pick up the KHL games or the Junior A games up in Canada, yourereduced to DVDs from a bygone era.Ward admits he is a rarity in this region. He grew up in Arlington and rememberslistening to the NHL Game of the Week on his radio in the 1950s. Back then nobody down here followed hockey, he said. The WashingtonColiseum at 3rd and M was the only place you could skate.Ward said he was thrilled when the NHL awarded a franchiseto Washingtonin 1974 and was a season ticket holder at the old Cap Centre in Landover. Hesaw hockey slowly take root in the D.C. region and witnessed the explosion offans that followed the arrival of Ovechkin in 2005.Hockey has caught on in the States, markedly I think, inthe last three or four years, Ward said. In the D.C. area Capitals owner TedLeonsis and the whole organization worked hard to get the fans here. Now, some of the fans I talk to are still bristling overwhat happened with the NHL lockout in 05 and I think its definitely goingto take a hit, particularly with teams that are really struggling like Phoenix. Teams that arehurting to get 8,000 to 10,000 fans, people are going to stay away. You know,out of sight, out of mind.Before the last lockout of 2004-05, the Capitals drew603,528 fans to their 41 regular season home games and ranked 25th inthe NHL with an average attendance of 14,720.Last season they drew 758,746 fans to their regular season homegames and ranked 12th in the NHL with an average attendance of18,506 or 101.3 percent to capacity.The big question is this: If the 2012-13 NHL lockout wipesout another full season, will fans in D.C. return?The diehards like me, we may have a bad taste in ourmouths, but we will come back as soon as its settled, Ward said. But thosewho are fringe or who are just picking up the sport -- out of sight, out ofmind.
Ward also holds the unfortunate opinion that the NHL isgoing to be forced to find out just how strong its fan base is.I think the lockout will be a long, drawn-out process, hesaid, because theyre so far apart.