Is D.C. a hockey town?
By Kareem El-Alaily
There’s been a lot of talk lately that D.C. is blossoming into a “hockey town”. The game is growing by leaps and bounds locally, the Caps have experienced unprecedented success at the gate, and the media is even starting to hype preseason games. While the DMV has made giant steps to embrace hockey let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This area is not a hockey town nor is it close to becoming one.
A hockey town, to me, is a place where people routinely overhear conversations about the previous night’s game on the bus or metro. It’s where TVs in all bars and restaurants are tuned into the game without being prompted. It’s where fans call up sports radio and moan that the angle the forechecker takes to the puck-carrying defenseman isn’t correct. It’s where the media covers the sixth defenseman’s hangnail as if he was going through amputation surgery. That doesn’t happen in D.C. A hockey town is also one where the sport is ubiquitous at the youth, high school, junior/college and professional ranks. Most local high school programs aren’t even varsity-status. And D.C. has no top tier junior, NCAA or minor league teams. The demand and subsequent economics to justify such teams just isn’t there.
There are six true hockey-towns in the NHL, all up in Canada. I would consider Minneapolis, Detroit and Boston the top-tier of American hockey towns, with Buffalo straddling that tier. D.C. is not on that list and due to geographic limitations likely will never be. We’re not a cold-weather city where kids grow up playing shinny on frozen ponds. There are approximately 25 year-round sheets of ice in the D.C. Metro area, about a quarter the number that Toronto possesses – and that doesn’t even begin to count Toronto’s seasonal outdoor sheets. The limited supply of ice locally, as well as hockey’s high expenses, will restrict the sport from ever becoming as omnipresent as football or basketball in the local sports fabric.
This article isn’t meant to be a downer though. Sure, hoping that D.C. can become a hockey town probably isn’t realistic. But we can still hope for D.C. to become a Caps-town. That’s altogether different and I think it can absolutely happen. But first, let’s look at the sports dynamics of Washington, one that starts by acknowledging that this is a Redskins-first city. I challenge folks who would claim D.C. is a football town. Our city isn’t as in love with football as are cities elsewhere in the Deep South or in the Rust Belt, we’re just passionate about the Redskins. Here, local college football games don’t routinely sell out and high school games with an attendance of 4,000 are considered enormous -- small potatoes compared to high school games in Texas or Louisiana. D.C. and its suburbs, if anything, is a basketball town at its core roots. People of all demographics love basketball; they understand it and they’re passionate about it. If the Wizards ever ended their 30 years of ineptitude you’d see this city go nuts for them.
But there is room for the Capitals to make this a Caps-town. The city is starved for a winner, people are attracted to the team’s aggressive style and fans love the Caps’ charismatic players. If the Caps can play this way for the duration of the Ovechkin era while winning two or three Stanley Cups, then you’ll reach a tipping point where an entire generation gets addicted to Caps hockey. There is precedent. Despite what any Pittsburgher tells you, no one will ever mistake Western Pennsylvania for a hockey-mad region. They have no top tier junior teams, one middling NCAA team and have produced less than a handful of NHLers. After Mario retired the Penguins went bankrupt and almost moved. But thanks to Sidney Crosby and two Stanley Cup Finals appearances things changed. Western Pennsylvania is without a doubt football country, but they still go crazy for the Penguins, who now occupy the No. 2 spot in the local sports hierarchy after the Steelers. Similarly, the D.C. area may never embrace hockey as much as a Canadian city – nor will the Capitals ever topple the Redskins as the area’s most popular team – but that doesn’t mean D.C. can’t go Caps-crazy. The momentum is there, it’s now up to the Caps to keep it going. Winning should do the trick.
Box Seats blogger
| October 5, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories: Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily | Tags: Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily
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