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Caps: Leonsis Rocks D.C. Red

A Game 7 is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Sudden death overtime in a Game 7 playoff is tension squared. And when the death happens to your team, and the waves of noise that rocked the Pollin Center for more than three hours finally give way to a grim silence of shuffling feet and muttered regrets, the sorrow is real.

Sure, the Caps lost, and sure, the guy who got onto a Red Line train tonight at Dupont Circle took one look at the carful of dour-faced fans and said, "Ugh. I hate to ask." A flurry of shaken heads confirmed it for him. But the Caps' improbable run for the Stanley Cup ended Tuesday night with a couple of much happier lessons cemented in the minds and souls of many thousands of fans:

1) Ownership and management matter. In any sport, fans love a superstar and delight in a team that somehow jells. But the Capitals' path to the playoffs this year represented both a marketing victory for owner Ted Leonsis and a management triumph that showed that, at least in some sports, the guys you have running the team really do make a difference.

From the simple decision to switch the Caps' colors and uniforms to the intense marketing of the team in an iffy hockey town, Leonsis has set out from the start of his ownership to remake the image both of the sport and of the experience of going to a game. As the Lerners are finding out about Washington area baseball fans, and as Wizards fans have known since way back into the Bullets/Cap Centre era, this can be a tough place to run a sports franchise. Fans often come late, leave early and spend as much time on their Blackberrys as they do watching the game. Even Redskins crowds, while they still make the team one of the most profitable in sports, have turned somewhat lackluster in recent years, thanks to ownership and management that seems to have a deep animus against the team's remarkably loyal fan base--once the envy of all pro sports team owners.

Ok, this was a playoff Game 7, but still, the degree to which fans were into the action is nothing short of stunning. Many stood for all three periods, plus the overtime. The place was a nearly seamless sea of red. And the crowd proved once again that if you provide a great fan experience--and a winning team helps in a big way, too--people who ordinarily loathe entering the city will happily come downtown, and happily take Metro.

Which leads to #2: In the eternal debate over whether Washington is a decent sports town, the pendulum is ever drifting one way or the other. The Caps' run over the past couple of months nudges the big ball well over toward the conclusion that Washington sports fans desperately want to believe, but just haven't been given much of a chance to do so. The Wizards/Bullets have never put together enough of a winning streak to win the hearts of fans who are only too happy to save their basketball passion for the college game. The Nats have a long way to go to teach the region's lost generations to connect to baseball as Washingtonians did all too long ago. D.C. United has yet to find a star or marketing hook that could convert many of those who love to play soccer into fans of the major league game in this country. And the Caps, struggling like so many NHL teams to save hockey's status as one of the major sports, face a similar fight to capture the attention of casual fans who enjoy a winner in any game, but really don't know much about hockey except that it's hard to follow the puck on TV.

Leonsis's high tech gimmicks are fun and appeal to all generations. Whether fans are texting messages directly to the big scoreboard over the ice, or texting their choice of songs for the organist to play at the next break in the action, the non-sports entertainment at Caps games is interactive and accessible to almost anyone.

And despite their rowdy reputation, hockey fans are more open and solicitous of newbies than fans at many other sports events. Just in the three rows around us tonight, I heard half a dozen fans patiently explaining some of the game's more arcane rules to those of us whose knowledge of the game was lacking. Everybody wants to feel part of the in crowd at such an event, and those gestures helped enormously.

So, neither one game nor one playoff run makes for a better sports town. But every bit helps, and in a city where the dominant gene seems to favor losing, a whole lot of hockey novices are eager to rock the red.

By Marc Fisher |  April 23, 2008; 12:00 AM ET
Previous: Glenn Hollis Is Back | Next: D.C. Taxis--No Zones, No Justice?

Comments

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I'd say the venom with which Caps fans threw trash and debris on the ice and at the Flyers' players after the game certainly cements the town's reputation as a passionate hockey town! Stay classy, DC!

Posted by: sjf | April 23, 2008 8:56 AM

Although I hope the late-season success carries over to next year and Washington becomes a true hockey town, throwing trash on the ice was atrocious. I'm glad my children weren't up to see that display. As for Leonsis and the Caps...ROCK THE RED!

Posted by: sg | April 23, 2008 9:18 AM

Ted is a fan's owner. He always has been. Back in the early days of his ownership I remember him walking the concourse after the games, talking to fans and listening to their suggestions about not just the team, but their whole game experience. He is a technology nut and he is always looking for was to bring the fans into game. When he left AOL to concentrate on the Caps full time you could email him directly and he would respond in person. He admits his mistakes and communicates his intentions to the fans. There is a trust between him and the fans. How many owners do you know who gets cheered almost as much as the players. Ted bought the team, not for the prestige of being a sports franchise owner, but becuase he is fan of the game. He is in a class all by himself.

Posted by: akmzrazor | April 23, 2008 9:33 AM

Ted is a fan's owner. He always has been. Back in the early days of his ownership I remember him walking the concourse after the games, talking to fans and listening to their suggestions about not just the team, but their whole game experience. He is a technology nut and he is always looking for ways to bring the fans into the game. When he left AOL to concentrate on the Caps full time, you could email him directly, and he would respond in person. He admits his mistakes and communicates his intentions to the fans. There is a trust between him and the fans. How many owners do you know who gets cheered almost as much as the players. Ted bought the team, not for the prestige of being a sports franchise owner, but becuase he is fan of the game. He is in a class all by himself.

Posted by: akmzrazor | April 23, 2008 9:35 AM

I didn't see the game, but as a true DC sports fan i.e., someone rooting for the home team as a matter of principle, I hope there'll be as much excitement next year.

As for throwing some thrash after a tough loss in the playoffs - that isn't pretty and shouldn't get out of hand, but really isn't a big deal.

Posted by: cpw | April 23, 2008 9:54 AM

Well, we know Raw Fisher is not a Caps fan, he can't even spell the team's name right. It's CapitAls. Not CapitOls. Maybe if you did some research you'd understand the game better. It's really not that hard to comprehend. My fiance had never been to a game until she met me, and after her first Caps game understood icing and offside. Her only questions had to do with officials signals.

Yes, TV makes the game hard to follow and understand. Yes, Ted is a fan's owner. Look at who he drafted...Ovechkin. Both are excited no matter who scores. That kind of passion is hard to find in pro sports these days.

As for the throwing of objects onto the ice, I haven't seen that in Washington at Verizon Center, ever. Though I can understand why. Most of the objects weren't intended for the Flyers, they were inteded for the officials. I was ready to not blame the officials for the outcome of this series, until the Flyers' second goal. That was a gift bestowed upon by the officials, then the penalty in overtime, should have been called a dive. It's good to see the Caps lose a goal this season and lose a game because of similar plays that they committed, however when it comes to payback, nope. There isn't any consistency among NHL officials and that needs to be fixed before next season. The worst thing that can happen is to find out one of the officials had money on the game.

Posted by: Section 112 | April 23, 2008 10:08 AM

@sjf

As one who shook the hand of a Flyers' fan after the game, I was embarrassed by the actions of our crowd, but, assuming you're a Flyers fan, I ask you what the mortgage is on your glass house?

Posted by: Olie Troll | April 23, 2008 10:17 AM

Throwing trash on the ice after the game, whether at the officials or the Flyers. Flat out wrong. No excuse and unjustifiable in any sense.

But Flyers fans are not the classy types they would have you belive. During the 2nd intermission of game 5, several Flyers fans chose to hurl profanities at Caps fans on the 4th level concourse, right next to a concession stand, which they escalated into spitting on Caps fans and eventually throwing cheap shot punches. Over what? A hockey game?

Posted by: mwf | April 23, 2008 10:38 AM

Dan Snyder needs to have a pow-wow with a real sports owner, like my man Ted. If the Redskins had half the spirit that the Caps showed during this run, we would have a Super Bowl caliber team.

As for the Flyers, they played hard and deserve our respect. As for Philly itself, well, it's a town void of class in aspects of the sporting world.

Throwing trash at them probably made them feel more at home, aka Filthodelphia.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 23, 2008 10:58 AM

I went to the game last night - excited to go, long time caps fan (38 y/o) - been to many games. The noise from the speakers was so awful that it basically ruined the game for me. The crowd noise - fantastic... no problem. But, the sounds coming out of the speakers was so loud that it made one feel ill. After the first period ended I put earplugs in (rolled up napkins) and it was somewhat better.

I know it sounds whiny and pathetic, but the decibel level was such that it basically ruined the experience for me and who knows how many others. I have never heard the speakers to loud in the Verizon Center, and it wouldn't surprise me if it could have caused people some hearing loss.

Posted by: DC | April 23, 2008 11:09 AM

the difference between Mr. Leonsis and the danny could not be more stark. Over the years to come, Leonsis' honesty with and affection for the fans will pay dividends to fans, players, management, and ownership.

I was neither proud nor surprised to see Papa John's boxes landing on the ice after last night's game. As the landlord knows, the ice already is garbage. (Briere and Koharski may rise to that level in time) I note with interest that there were no batteries thrown. It's one hell of a lot -safer- to wear a Flyers jersey here than to wear a Caps jersey there, and only an idiot thinks that's a compliment to Flyers "fans".

Leonsis, McPhee, and the Caps are in it for the long haul. Because of the way they do their thing, so are Caps fans. See you at the booth.

Posted by: redlineblue | April 23, 2008 11:26 AM

Wow, DC. I was at the same game and the only noise issues I had were the "rowdy" season ticket holders (and they were all women!). Of course I was in the cheap seats up in 405...

As for the trash, beats what they did in Canada burning things up! Anyone know if the same thing happened in Phila when the Caps won Monday?

Posted by: WDC 21113 | April 23, 2008 11:29 AM

I was there last night, and I can't blame the fans. The refs ripped the game away from the capitals and gave it to Philly. Normally I would be against such a response, but since no one was hurt, I think it was justified. The NHL should be ashamed to have its star player out of the playoffs because of a horrible noncall. There wasn't even a review, which was totally warranted. They have reviewed goaltender interference before. It was almost like they didn't want to admit they really screwed up.

Posted by: Caps fan | April 23, 2008 11:54 AM

Leonsis is a classy owner and made some good moves this season. Before 07/08 season I hadn't been to a game since the Jagr era and really enjoyed the team this year.

As a Nats season ticket holder I can only hope for similar success for the Lerners.

Posted by: Tim | April 23, 2008 11:55 AM

Sounds like it was a good game (I was watching the Nats thump Atlanta)! At least the debris was on the ice and not amongst fans in the stands. The last time I went to a Redskins game, it was awful. Fans were hostile, screaming at fans supporting the opponent throwing stuff at other fans, and - worst of all - doing so to kids. I would NEVER take my kids to a Redskins game. If I did, I would have to spend the ride home explaining what a whole bunch of expletives mean and "why that man was so angry during the game." Security at FedEx does nothing to control the drunks.

Posted by: Nats Fan | April 23, 2008 12:01 PM

I went to my first Caps game this season and I have to say I had a great time. Leonsis has obviously done a lot for the fans, and it shows. I plan to go back next season. I'm going to my first Nats game in the new ball park tonight, but I doubt that it will surprise me as much as the hockey game did.

Posted by: ML | April 23, 2008 12:20 PM

trash thrown on the ice?? It's good to know Caps fans are becoming genuine real hockey fans. Who knows, maybe we'll have riots around DC after a win in the future.

Posted by: chopseuy | April 23, 2008 12:30 PM

To me one of the more cynical marketing ploys of all sports teams is to come up with silly reasons to change colors or introduce a new color to their regular palette. It means that all the fans who feel a need to have every variation of his team's jersey's, many of whom are teens or younger, have to shell out another $100 plus for gear.

Posted by: Paul | April 23, 2008 12:50 PM

It would have been far more appropriate for fans to throw doughnuts on the ice. Officer Koharski was killing me last night.

Posted by: Courtnall | April 23, 2008 12:57 PM

I'm not one to throw trash, but I am throwing around the word "egregious" in describing the officiating at last night's game. The outcome should have been 2-1, Capitals. The Flyers' second (non-) goal was just awful, and the fact that it wasn't even reviewed is unacceptable. An apology after the fact from the NHL isn't going to provide much comfort to the fans, who were understandably outraged. Let's hope the team's momentum carries into next season!

Posted by: mosulldc | April 23, 2008 1:28 PM

Paul - The caps were getting back to their traditional red, white and blue colors. It doesn't make much sense for a team in DC to be sporting black, copper, white and blue like the Caps had for so many years.

This was not a cynical ploy by management but something that the fans of the team have been requesting for several years -- and Leonsis listened.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | April 23, 2008 1:36 PM

Nice piece, Mark. I did think you left one important factor in the Caps' increased popularity--Alex Ovechkin. When a team has a player who is so transcendant, plays with such flair, and shows such personality and excitement on the ice, it gives people who don't know a lot about hockey something and someone to latch on to and the anticipation that they're going to see something special if they go to the game--somewhat akin to the way Michael Jordan brought people to the NBA and Wayne Gretzky to the NHL 20 years ago.

Also, in this age of incessant media hype about everything, the Caps' increased popularity happened somewhat under the radar. The crowds started filling up for the Caps in March, before much of the sports media in Washington had really noticed, and when the Caps returned from a long road trip on April 1 and the place was rocking, it seemed the entrenched sports media (like TK and Wilbon for instance) finally seemed to say, "Hey, how did all these people get interested in the Caps?" It is a tribute to Ted and his marketing, and the excitement the team provided on the ice, that they didn't need lots of media coverage to become the hot ticket in town.

Posted by: Eric Fingerhut | April 23, 2008 1:36 PM

Does anyone know if the two Teds -- Lerner and Leonsis -- have any kind of relationship? The Lerners (and team pres Stan Kasten) have some distance to travel in the fan relations department, even among those of us who believe in the "plan" for the on-the-field product.

If the two Teds don't talk from time to time, they should.

Posted by: Meridian | April 23, 2008 1:36 PM

Meridian, IIRC Mark Lerner is a minority owner of the Caps.

Posted by: dgc | April 23, 2008 1:55 PM

Well, Mark Lerner is a minority owner in the Caps and was in the owners suite for several games over this recent run. I'm sure that they are well aware of Ted's efforts in fan relations but I really don't see Ted Lerner sitting down to the computer to respond to fan emails.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | April 23, 2008 1:56 PM

The Caps brought me great joy on many an evening this year when I wanted to distance myself as far away from work as I could. They succeeded in doing that. I look forward to the next several seasons of Washington Caps hockey, we have a lot to look forward to with this very young team.

Now go and get a rough and tumble defenseman!!

Posted by: Go Caps | April 23, 2008 2:02 PM

As a group, Flyers fans are typical Philly.
Loud, obnoxious, and violent. You wouldn't be able to go to Philly for a game with a Caps jersey on without being cursed, spit at, and jumped in the men's room. That said, we are classier than that (except at Redskins games). I had forgotten how awful the NHL refs are. Call it all or don't call anything, but be consistent! As for Ted as an owner, as others have stated, he's always been a 1st-rate owner. He should hold a seminar for all of the regional team owners, especially the Lerners, Snyder, and yes, Angelos, on how to do it the right way. Anyway, I look forward to the moves that GM GM will make to improve our defense and to next year and a deeper run in the playoffs. Lets Go Caps!

Posted by: cabterp | April 23, 2008 2:43 PM

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