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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.


By Box Seats blogger  | October 5, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  | Tags:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  
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While you make good arguments, the number of conversations overheard about the Caps on the metro and on the streets skyrocketed last season. People who have never been to a game were anxiously awaiting the results. Even the homeless folks outside Verizon Center wanted to know. Not a hockey town, sure, but chants of 'Let's Go Caps' at a Redskins game is certainly a huge change from five years ago.

Posted by: benjaminsumner | October 5, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

I agree that this is not yet a hockey town, but its getting there. The Caps game day experience is the best in DC. They have a team which is fun to watch and with its international roster, it is attractive to those in the diplomatic corps (a previously untapped market). Russians, Czechs, Swedes, Canadians, and of course some Americans. The Caps are apparently already the most popular team in Russia. Go Caps.

Posted by: genericrepub | October 5, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

When the Caps can go 18 years with 1 division title, and no serious championship runs -- like the Redskins have done -- and still sell-out games and jam local sports-talk radio, then we will know that this is a Caps town.

Come on! The next time the Caps miss the playoffs, this town will drop them like Ralph Friedgen.

Posted by: noslok | October 5, 2010 8:31 PM | Report abuse

I actually hear people talking Caps hockey on the Baltimore Metro which is mindboggling. Each point you make is absolutely correct, the Caps will never be #1 in DC and people will never play the game in mass amounts. But they are about to have their 3rd straight sell out season and ratings are way up. The amount and quality of Caps blogs is stunning. This has clearly become a town where the Caps are #2 until the Wiz get good again.

Posted by: bukaki23 | October 5, 2010 9:53 PM | Report abuse

Who cares? Tired subject. Poor writing.

Posted by: capscapscaps2 | October 5, 2010 10:22 PM | Report abuse

I've got to ask...what is the point of this article? The Caps have become big in the area, and as the story says, hockey in the U.S. will never be what it is in Canada, and our cilmate will keep it from being what it is in Minnesota, Boston, etc. So, the Caps are popular here, and let's just enjoy them. End of story.

Posted by: dp3328 | October 5, 2010 10:59 PM | Report abuse

I have to disagree about your take on Pittsburgh. First off, a lot of the reason the Pens had attendance issues was money. Look at Detroit which every game has many empty seats the last few years because of the auto industry. The same is true with a different industry for Pittsburgh. Almost every high school in that area has high-school hockey that is varsity level. Also while there is only one school, where I happened to go for four years, that is NCAA there are many that are club level. Pitt has several club teams including several that are on the non-main campus. Last year two teams from the area (RMU and Cal U) made Nationals for D-III club and Cal U won the National Championship three years ago.

Part of the reason why many of the colleges in that area don't have NCAA teams is because there is nowhere for them to play. Look at how much it took for Penn State to go to NCAA ($88 million for arena and scholarships for both teams). Pitt has been able to use Heinz Field because they only use the field on Saturday (most times) and the Steelers play Sunday or Monday. It would be much more difficult to schedule hockey in the same arena as the Pens because of having games on all days and because many times colleges schedule games long in advance and would have to work around the NHL schedule that is only fixed for one year.

Pitt is also the only D-1 football school in the area so there is 1 D-1 football team and 1 D-1 hockey team. The media may not cover it as much as they do in Toronto but part of that is because Toronto doesn’t have any NFL team which tends to take away from any hockey coverage in city even ones like Detroit. There are hour long radio shows in Pittsburgh that are nothing but Pens talk and there are happy hours at bars around Pens games.

You are right about here not being a hockey town because of the high schools and colleges. There are some college teams around here but knowing players on many of them, including a brother, I know they are no where near as serious about the game as the teams in the Pittsburgh area.

Posted by: icehammer97 | October 6, 2010 3:41 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the basic point of this article. While it is definitely true that the climate of this area can't really support the outdoor experience, I do believe that high school and amateur hockey is growing and can continue to do so. The real litmus test, I believe, as to whether DC is a "hockey town" will come once the Caps fall from their current status as one of the best teams in the NHL. It's easy to root for teams that win, it happens everywhere. What's not easy is to continue to root for the teams that have fallen on hard times. It doesn't matter whether the Redskins come in last place or win the Superbowl, folks here are going to care about what's going on with the team and follow them regularly. Would this be the case with the Caps, or would a fall from grace mean that many of the fans just stop caring all together? Would missing the playoffs mean that local sports news outlets stop covering them altogether, similar to the amount of media coverage they were getting 4 or 5 years ago? If DC is truly a hockey town, then the answers to these questions would be "no"...and to have that level of passion among fans requires a team such as the Caps to be relevant long enough to capture the hearts and interests of entire generations of sports fans--something I do believe the Caps are beginning to achieve, but haven't fully reached yet. Only time will tell, but I don't think until the point where we are able to still see a full Verizon Center for a Tuesday night game while the Caps aren't sitting atop the conference or even their conference, or playing the most exciting brand of hockey in North America, can we truly call DC a "hockey town"

Posted by: PaintDrinkingPete | October 6, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

Care to write anything fans don't already know? Or offer original analysis for that matter?

Posted by: GFisher1 | October 6, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

thanks for pointing out that DC is first a basketball town. i've explained this to several new bandwagon caps fans i know, to their surprise. any parade for a championship Wizards team would be 4x larger than a parade for a championship Caps team. it wouldn't even be close.

Posted by: destewar | October 6, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

There is no point in reading beyond the second paragraph. What a waste of a WaPo salary cap. lol

Posted by: LloydChristmas | October 6, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

It may be a basketball town, but it sure as hell isn't an NBA town. Never was, never will be. College B-ball is where its at.

Posted by: poguesmahone | October 6, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

pogueshome... have you ever read about the championship parade for the bullets in 1978? it was as big as any Redskins superbowl parade.

Posted by: destewar | October 6, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Kareem is right: DC is not a hockey town. DC is too transient for any team to replace the Redskins.

Kareem is wrong: Minneapolis is not a hockey town; St. Paul is.

The Caps will own the sports scene in DC for months when it is cold and little to do but stay inside. The Caps will be the ticket in town from late November until their 2011 playoff run ends.

If the Redskins begin to falter, DC will only have the Caps to keep them entertained this winter. The Wizards are years away from being a contender in the East. With the likely departure of Dunn and the rehabilitation of Strasburg (sp), the Nats leave a lot to be desired.

Posted by: amoore64 | October 7, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

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