For those of us who follow the Washington Capitals, last week was an oasis in the desert that is the NHL off-season. The Caps hosted their annual summer development camp at Kettler Capitals Iceplex last week, culminating with a scrimmage and the team’s Summer FanFest in front of a packed house on Saturday. Development camp is always a fun week, but this year’s camp and the flock of folks who came out to watch was another sign in an ongoing litany of good things for this team and this franchise.
Word leaked out in the middle of last week that Washington had come to contract terms with center Sergei Fedorov on a one-year extension; that deal was made official this morning. Also during the week, new Caps goaltender Jose Theodore came into town for a visit and Brooks Laich, Boyd Gordon and Eric Fehr signed contracts for 2008-09.
Defenseman Shaone Morrisonn is the only player who is unsigned, and he has an arbitration date set for later this month. That means he Caps won’t have to worry about any contract distractions at training camp this fall.
The Caps ended last season with a great deal of momentum both on and off the ice. They’ve been able to maintain the on-ice momentum by getting players signed and returning largely the same team that finished last season, with the notable exception of Theodore.
For the Capitals at this stage of their development cycle, momentum is critical. The 2007-08 team captured the interest and the imagination of the fan base and re-ignited a passion for the game and the team that was dormant for a few years. History has shown that fans support good hockey here, but past teams have failed to keep momentum going and as a result, the attendance waned. A fun and thrilling 2008-09 season will go a long way toward keeping the big crowds in the building beyond this season.
The Caps made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, the same season in which they moved to the Verizon Center in downtown D.C. The team set an attendance record the following season, but was unable to keep that momentum going because the 1998-99 team suffered 511 man games lost to injury and finished with a dismal total of 68 points.
A few years later, the Caps created a big summer splash when they made a swap for superstar right wing Jaromir Jagr on July 11, 2001. The Capitals again set an attendance record (averaging 17,341 fans per game) in 2001-02, but they failed to make the playoffs. A coaching change followed, and the team never again consistently and routinely hit the 17,000 mark in attendance until the second half of this season.
After the announcement of the Ovechkin contract this past January, the Caps drew an average of 17,219 for their final 21 home dates of the season. They attracted crowds of 17,000 or more for each of the last 15 home regular season games, and sold out seven of the final 11 dates. As those of you who were in the house know, the place was loud, raucous, exciting and fun. And in the four home playoff games against Philly, there were few Flyer fans in sight.
The recent turnaround has been swift. It started in November when Bruce Boudreau was named head coach. It climbed when Alex Ovechkin signed a 13-year contract extension in January. It picked up a head of steam when the team got hot in February and March. And it reached a crescendo in April when the Caps finished the regular season at home and earned their first playoff berth in five years, playing to packed houses bedecked in red. I routinely ran into longtime Caps observers who said they’d never heard the building so loud, and never had as much fun at a Caps game.
Keeping the team together is important. Unlike that aging team that made the finals in 1998 and was mostly kept together for the following disappointing season, this bunch is young and on the rise. They like playing in Washington and they love playing with and for each other. And they can reasonably be expected to improve as most have yet to reach their prime years.
Keeping the fans’ interest piqued is also a key. Filling the Kettler Capitals Iceplex for a development camp scrimmage on a Saturday in July is a great sign. The atmosphere was fabulous all last week, but particularly so on Saturday.
All week plenty of folks took the time to come up and introduce themselves, which I always appreciate. I love meeting passionate hockey people, and spending a few minutes chatting. I got the chance to do a lot of that last week, and there was one recurring theme that kept surfacing in my conversations with fans, bloggers and other media types:
September can’t get here fast enough.
We’ve killed a lot of the off-season, but we’ve got two months to camp and three months till meaningful hockey. The preseason schedule will be released later today, and the regular season slate follows on Thursday.
And yeah, September can’t get here fast enough.