The 2010-11 Washington Capitals season was a rollercoaster ride filled with many ups and downs. The low points were clearly the December eight game swoon and the second round playoff sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but in between there was the 3-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Winter Classic and a convincing first round victory over the New York Rangers. This was a season that saw the Caps make changes in personnel as well as to their system and my good friend Ted Starkey, who works for The Washington Times, is publishing Transition Game, the story of the 2010-11 Washington Capitals in the coming months.
WNST was given a sneak preview of the book and it is an excellent read with some interesting inside scoop. I caught up with Ted this week and asked him a few questions about Transition Game. Below is the transcript of that session:
WNST: So what gave you the idea to do a book on the Caps 2010-11 season and when did you decide you were going to take on the project?
Starkey: I decided to do the book in March, before the season even came to an end. Having been the de facto sports coverage for The Washington Times since January, I had a season’s worth of notes and with the “24/7” series, Winter Classic, high-profile personalities on the Capitals’ roster and the high expectations for the team, I thought it would be an interesting read for fans. Usually books center around championship teams, but I thought this would be more of a “slice of life” work on one of the 30 National Hockey League teams, although an interesting one with the reality series and New Year’s game. So I gathered up my notes and consulted with some other of those who cover the team on a regular basis to create the material to draw the work from.
WNST: The title, Transition Game, is an interesting one. How did you come up with it and what is the meaning behind it?
Starkey: The title has multiple meanings, in part for the change that took place in the roster in the offseason with an infusion of youth, as well as the change in the style of play the team undertook in December. The work begins in Hershey with the trio of Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Michal Neuvirth helping the Bears win their second straight Calder Cup, and part of the story is how the three, along with Marcus Johansson, adapted to the National Hockey League. The change to a defensive style is also profiled, especially with the change taking place in front of HBO’s cameras. One of the things that took a while was to decide while writing the work was a title that encapsulated the work, and I think this covers two big themes in the work.
WNST: What part of the whole project did you enjoy most and why?
Starkey: It’s always been a goal of mine to write a book, and the whole process was a lot of fun. The best part was the collaborative effort with several writers, as I enjoyed trading stories and quotes to help shape the story, which I think does a good job covering the team, its impact on the Washington and Baltimore markets, the role of blogs and Twitter, as well as the season itself. It was a fun project to undertake, and I hope it shows to the people who read it.
There is no doubt that the popularity of the Capitals, fueled by Alexander Ovechkin and the team’s winning ways, has risen exponentially. Interestingly, the Caps seem to be the one Washington based team that many Charm City fans have embraced. Heck, even Ravens Coach John Harbaugh attends some games and can be seen on the jumbotron in a video screaming “Let’s Go Caps.” It always brings a smile to my face to see the coach of the Purple and Black shown and hear some of the Redskins fans in attendance lose their mind over it. That brings me back to Starkey’s book as Ted chronicles the meteoric rise in interest in the Caps, especially in Baltimore, where we saw just this week that the city hosted a youth street hockey tournament (kudos to the Capitals and City Council President Jack Young).
Starkey was kind enough to let our WNST readers preview below the chapter in Transition Game where he takes fans through the peaks and valleys of interest in the region on the Caps from their inception into the NHL in 1974-75, including insight into why Baltimore and the Capitals seem to be forging an increasingly stronger relationship.
CHAPTER 4: THE CAPITALS’ RISE IN WASHINGTON – AND BEYOND
While the Capitals have been in existence since the 1974-75 season, it’s clear that the team is currently enjoying a level of popularity the team hasn’t seen at any other point of its tenure in the nation’s capital.
As the new season dawned, superstar Alexander Ovechkin was starring on local television in a pair of Capital One Bank ads, one featuring the Russian helping new Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb move into a new house. Coach Bruce Boudreau again was featured in a round of local commercials for a Mercedes-Benz dealership, while Mike Green was still being featured in a national ad for GEICO.
For a club that has always labored in the shadow of the city’s NFL franchise, the Capitals have emerged as the trendy sports team to follow in the national capital area. While the Redskins still are the most-watched team in town – due to the team’s long tenure in Washington and the sheer brand power of the National Football League – the Capitals certainly have seized a strong second spot among the city’s four major professional sports teams.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this for the franchise that was awarded to Abe Pollin in 1972 to help the first Capitals owner solidify plans for the construction of an arena in suburban Landover to house the new National Hockey League franchise as well as Pollin’s relocating National Basketball Association franchise, the Baltimore Bullets.
With the Capitals entering the NHL the same time that the upstart World Hockey Association was beginning to draw talent away from the more-established league, the early editions of Washington’s franchise weren’t pretty.
The inaugural 1974-75 club set a record for the fewest wins in a season (8), and didn’t register a win away from the brand-new Capital Centre until March 28, 1975 – their only points away from Landover during the campaign. The next season was marginally better, recording an 11-59-10 mark – a wide 95-point gap between them and the first place team in the Norris Division, the Montreal Canadiens.
Washington eventually climbed out of the NHL’s basement, but the Caps failed to make the playoffs in its first eight seasons, narrowly missing its first-ever playoff berth in 1980-81 but regressing back the next campaign.
By the summer of 1982, with the team’s lack of success on the ice being reflected at the gate, Pollin threatened to move – or disband – the Capitals without getting concessions from Maryland’s Prince George’s County and the team selling thousands of tickets for the new campaign.
Thus, the “Save the Caps” campaign was born, and with support from the local media, fans and local businesses, Pollin eventually backed down from threats to possibly merge the Capitals with the relocating Colorado Rockies in New Jersey.
Thanks to the ticket drive, what had been a floundering franchise got more stability as a business venture, and successfully averted what to date has been the only major threat to the franchise’s existence in Washington.
On the ice, the team would also make a major move towards being a true Stanley Cup contender for the first time in the franchise’s tenure in the NHL.
That September, under the direction of new General Manager David Poile, the Capitals made a major move when the team acquired defenseman Rod Langway from Montreal on the eve of the 1982-83 season.
Buoyed by Langway’s strong defensive play – and with future-Hall-of-Famer Scott Stevens already in place on the roster – the Capitals quickly redefined themselves as a strong defensive club, and jumped 29 points in the standings and earned its first-ever playoff berth in the spring of 1983 before bowing out to the eventual Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders.
Washington continued its improvement as the 1980s progressed, reaching the 107-point mark in 1985-86, and securing the team’s first regular-season Patrick Division title in 1988-89. With the strong play on the ice, the team also hit new watermarks in attendance late in the decade, setting a team mark for 23 sellouts at the 18,130-seat Capital Centre in 1988-89 and the highest average attendance of 17,251 the season after that.
During the 1980s, the team enjoyed a popularity that it didn’t have during its first decade in the region.
The Redskins were in the midst the best run in franchise history by winning three Super Bowl titles in 10 seasons, but the Capitals created a good following of their own and taken over the role as the second team in town, replacing the Bullets franchise. Pollin’s other franchise won its only NBA title in 1977-78 but had slipped back into mediocrity during the 1980s, creating a chance for the NHL franchise to take a solid second among the city’s three teams.
However, the wave didn’t last forever for the Caps, and the departure of two of the team’s future Hall-of-Famers didn’t help matters.
Following an off-ice incident after the team’s best-ever playoff run to the Wales Conference Finals in 1990, Stevens and the Capitals parted ways when the defenseman signed a four-year, $5.1 million offer sheet from the St. Louis Blues that Washington didn’t match.
Two years later, Washington traded another popular star in Dino Ciccarelli to the Detroit Red Wings, and the loss of two of the team’s big stars began a slow slide in attendance that lasted into the middle of the decade and the lockout-shortened 1994-95 NHL season.
With the decline in attendance, at the end of the 48-game 1995 season, Pollin put Susan O’Malley in charge of the Capitals’ business operations as well.
Although the Capitals reportedly brought in more ticket revenue than the Bullets, the NBA franchise was having more gate success in terms of average attendance – through some rather unconventional methods – and Pollin was looking to transfer that apparent success to the NHL team.
O’Malley had run the Bullets’ ticket operations and had made a point of selling ticket plans for fans to see the opposing stars – leading to some unusual sales patterns for the struggling Bullets with some large crowds when the team played league’s big-name teams, although other games drew very small gatherings. O’Malley quickly took over the hockey team’s ticket operations and instituted a similar model with the perennial playoff-contending Capitals.
“I remember in the early ‘90s, when I was working for the Caps, the Bullets were bad and they were marketing the other franchises in an attempt to get people to come to their games,” recalled Ed Frankovic of WNST radio, who was working with the club at the time of the merger.
“When the Bullets and Caps offices merged around 1995, Susan O’Malley wanted the Capitals to do the same but from General Manager David Poile on down, the hockey people thought that made little sense and so did the majority of the Caps marketing and communications personnel. To go out and market to the fans of your opposition seemed ludicrous.”
While the figures improved sell-out wise for the Capitals, a number of those tickets usually found their way into opposing fans’ hands. The problem became even more apparent as the Caps’ ticket prices rose sharply when the team moved from Landover into brand-new MCI Center in the middle of the 1997-98 season.
Even when the franchise reached its only Stanley Cup Finals at the end of their first season in Chinatown, O’Malley undercut the Capitals’ own fan base by selling thousands of tickets to a Detroit travel agency for Washington’s home games. The move left Caps fans looking for tickets for home games being required to buy partial plans for the next season, while out-of-town fans buying packages through a Detroit travel agency didn’t have the same stipulation.
The result of the move was a large Red Wings contingent for the two games that were played in Washington, including the series-clinching Game 4 in which Detroit claimed its second consecutive Stanley Cup title with a 4-1 win over the Capitals.
The following summer, Pollin sold the Capitals to America Online executive Ted Leonsis. Although the arrangement wasn’t as financially viable for Leonsis without control of the NBA franchise and the building – which Pollin held until his death in 2009 – the team underwent damage control to undo some of the alienation of the fan base that O’Malley’s tactics had done.
One of Leonsis’ first acts was to reverse course on the practice of going out and looking to sell tickets to opposing fans. The team tried to limit the number of tickets that ended up in opposing fans’ hands – even looking to restrict sales to buyers in certain area codes.
“As a practice, the Capitals have worked diligently to ensure Caps fans are buying tickets to games at Verizon Center — we like it that way and our fans like it that way, too,” Jim Van Stone, the team’s senior vice president for tickets sales and service, wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Times in 2010.
“Many sports teams, especially NHL clubs, rely heavily on ticket sales as a revenue stream,” he said. “Of course you want the home team’s fans filling your arena or stadium, but that’s not always the case. Players and management alike, no one wants to hear the visiting fans cheer in the home team’s building.”
The Capitals got a spike in attendance with the change and the acquisition of Jaromir Jagr from the Penguins in 2001.
But the spike quickly ended with the lack of on-ice success with the Czech star, and after just one playoff appearance in three years with Jagr on the payroll, the team decided to undergo a major rebuild as the 2003-04 season drew towards an ugly close.
Coming off a 2002-03 season where the Capitals had finished with 92 points and had narrowly missed winning the Southeast Division title from the Tampa Bay Lightning, the disarray surrounding Jagr’s unhappiness over being in Washington ripped the club apart and left Washington with the league’s third-worst record and just 59 points after a purge of talent.
Jagr was shipped off to the Rangers – a deal where Washington still was required to pay a portion of the star’s salary – and other big names such as Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar and Robert Lang were shipped elsewhere as the team looked to rebuild.
With the league’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement looming – one that would eventually claim the entire 2004-05 season – the Capitals were playing in front of sparse crowds with an AHL-quality lineup as the season drew to a close.
The Capitals were at their lowest point in terms of the team’s popularity since the franchise’s early days in Landover.
“We had really good teams my first few years here and then went through some lean years – we hit rock bottom going into the lockout,” former Capitals captain Halpern recalled.
With the Wizards reaching the second round of the NBA playoffs in 2005 and Major League Baseball’s Montreal Expos relocating to Washington for the 2005 season, by the time the NHL returned from the lockout in October 2005, the Capitals had fallen from their spot as the second team in town all the way down to fourth, trailing the Redskins, Nationals and Wizards in the local pecking order.
One thing the team’s dismal 2003-04 season – and a fortuitous bounce in the NHL’s Draft lottery – the Capitals were able to select a young, electric Russian star in Alexander Ovechkin first overall in the 2004 draft.
Thanks to Ovechkin’s arrival in Washington – and the ensuing struggles of the Redskins, Bullets and Nationals – the Capitals slowly began to climb back up the ladder. When the team finally returned to its winning ways – and its first playoff berth in five years – in 2007-08, it also sparked a spike in attendance that hadn’t been seen before.
Before the season, the Capitals returned to a red-white-and-blue color scheme that was a modernized version of their first uniform. The move proved to be very popular with fans as sales of the new merchandise was brisk.
In January, the Capitals announced a 13-year, $124 million contract with Ovechkin at a team event, and with the team’s improbable second-half run into the playoffs, Washington was selling out regularly and largely successful at keeping opposing fans to a minimum during the team’s first-round series with the Flyers – a team that in past years had had thousands of fans in attendance at Washington home games.
The next season, the Capitals sold out 29 games, then managed to set a franchise mark by selling out all 41 home games for the 2009-10 season.
“It was off-the-charts growth,” Ewell said of the Capitals’ post-lockout rise. “You couldn’t even compare it from the 2005-06 season where we had a superstar on our hands that was the darling of the National Hockey League on an national and international level, but we couldn’t get any coverage locally – and obviously you could buy tickets.
“It started to turn the time when [Ovechkin] scored the goal in Phoenix, and when we started winning, that’s was the tipping point, then Bruce being hired. The thing that topped it over the scale was Ovi’s contract. [Fans] knew we were going to be good for 13 years and he was committed to us. From that point on, as a public relations staff, we were able to shift gears from trying to attract coverage to managing it.”
All of which left the Capitals in the highest profile it had ever held in the city by the time the 2010-11 season was opening. While polls indicated the Redskins holding a sizeable lead over the Capitals among the region’s residents, the gap was narrowing. The NHL franchise was also shown to be holding a sizeable lead over the Wizards and Nationals in the city’s pecking order.
To Capitals’ General Manager George McPhee – who has been part of the team since 1997 – Capitals’ games have become an event.
“They can come to games, and be really entertained and be part of something really remarkable,” he said. “I’ve never seen a fan base like this. You come to regular-season games where they’re sold out for [2010-11] – and sold out for [2011-12] – everybody’s wearing a jersey. … It’s a great environment and it’s a great experience, and our building is as good as in all of sports.”
“This has turned into one of the best places in the league to play,” Maryland native Halpern said of the redeveloped hockey scene in Washington. “The players on the ice have given the people a product and they’ve responded.”
The team’s influence also was showing up with rising television ratings – not only in the Washington area, but across North America.
“Since the lockout and the arrival of Ovechkin, and the entire Capitals’ phenomenon has been a hit, they’ve become major ratings players for the NHL,” Steve Lepore, who tracks the business of the NHL on television for the popular blog Puck the Media. “Capitals-Penguins is considered the premiere made-for-TV rivalry [and in ratings figures, only Flyers-Penguins draws more viewers] in the league, and the Caps are now frequently topping the list for TV appearances on VERSUS, NBC and the NHL Network.”
The Capitals have even penetrated the fickle Baltimore market – a town that usually is loath to support any team with “Washington” in front of the name.
“With the arrival of Alexander Ovechkin after the NHL lockout there has been a huge uptick in popularity of the Caps in Baltimore,” Frankovic said. “Since Washington started making the playoffs on an annual basis beginning in 2008, the interest has grown exponentially and the television ratings that Comcast ratings reports bear that out. The interest is definitely there and growing. In fact, people routinely call the WNST morning show to talk about the Caps during hockey season, and this is occurring in a very strong Baltimore Ravens market.”
“Baltimore has been dragged along with the Washington hockey craze,” Lepore said. “There is now a legitimate, large, cult following for the Capitals in Charm City.”
Capitals merchandise, which had been hard to find at local retail stores coming out of the lockout, was now prevalent in local stores – and even outside the mid-Atlantic region thanks to the star power of Ovechkin.
The new season would bring the team’s merchandise even more to the forefront in the upcoming season, as the Capitals unveiled their throwback Winter Classic uniforms at the team’s second-annual Capitals Convention in September.
Capitals captains Yvon Labre, Langway and Ovechkin unveiled the star-spangled uniforms, which were a modernized version of the team’s old home jerseys the team wore from 1974 to 1995, even featuring the red pants that were used by the hapless 1974-75 edition of the Capitals.
“There is a great sense of history in playing hockey outdoors, and we wanted to pay tribute to our team’s history with this uniform,” McPhee said in a statement at the time of their release.
With the increasing role of the Winter Classic in the NHL calendar, so too came a boost in the event’s merchandising.
While the first Winter Classic didn’t even feature an actual mass-marketed jersey for the host Buffalo Sabres, three years later, Reebok was producing 38,000 total jerseys for the 2011 event. Of those, 40 percent sold were Capitals jerseys, or roughly 15,200 – enough for nearly every fan at a sold-out Verizon Center.
By the time the Winter Classic arrived on New Year’s Day, the merchandise sales were up 78 percent for the 2011 Winter Classic over the previous year’s sales of Boston and Philadelphia gear. The merchandise with the team’s inaugural logo was a popular seller, as hats, jerseys shirts emblazoned with the old logo moved briskly in local retail outlets.
Beyond the ticket sales, merchandising and advertising, attendance at the team’s development camp in July and during training camp was brisk, as fans quickly filled up Kettler Capitals Iceplex for even just team workouts.
The uptick in interest among the media was casually noted by McPhee at a press conference following the season.
“When I first came to Washington I think I had one person at the press conference,” McPhee said. “Great to see more energy.”
What had been a largely empty press box in the middle of the decade – usually only beat writers from the Washington Post and Washington Times, visitors and some other public relations personnel – now grew to a larger following, with increased coverage from newspapers, television and the boosted presence of new media.
With Capitals players and even their coach being featured in local television ads – a concept largely unheard of a couple of years before in the D.C. market – there was a sense the team had arrived.
While Ovechkin and his familiar-gap toothed smile adorned ads for a local bank, Boudreau was starring in some advertisements of his own. The coach was featured in several local ads for a Mercedez-Benz dealer, a copier company, and even a carpet cleaning company, playing off the coach’s lively personality – and his sense of humor.
Boudreau – nicknamed “Gabby” for his vocal personality – spent most of his career around the minor leagues looking for his shot to be part of the National Hockey League as both a player and coach.
According to those who cover him on a daily basis, that’s part of the appeal for advertisers.
“He is perhaps the most genuine person I’ve ever met,” said John Walton – who spent a little bit over two full seasons with Boudreau when he was coaching Hershey. “The phrase ‘what you see is what you get’ may be overused, but it’s a perfect description of Bruce.
“Some people I’ve met in my life are one person when they want to impress someone, and a different person when that may not matter as much. Bruce is one person, all the time, a trait I hold in high regard.
“He has a terrific sense of humor, lives and breathes the game, and an absolute joy to interview. The hardest part for me when he got the job in Washington was not being able to do our daily interview for radio with the Bears. If you can’t do a good interview with Bruce, it’s a pretty safe bet that being a journalist is not your life’s calling.”
“The definitive Bruce Boudreau story for me took place early in the season,” Sam Chamberlain, who covered the team for TBD.com. “Myself, [Washington Post writer Katie] Carrera, [Washington Examiner writer Brian] McNally, and [Comcast SportsNet’s] Ben Raby were sitting in the media work area at Kettler, working on stories about an hour after practice had ended.
“Suddenly, we hear a knock on the door and we open it to find Boudreau and his wife standing there. ‘I want you guys to settle something,’ Boudreau said to the four of us, while his wife was saying over his shoulder. ‘He’s not the coach anymore, you guys. He’s just a husband in trouble.’
“It was like a bad rip-off of a “Honeymooners” episode. The whole argument centered on the fact that the two had parked next to each other in the parking garage, and each was claiming that their car was “in front” of the other’s.”
With Boudreau doing bird calls, Ovechkin body-checking Visigoths into the boards and Green bantering with the GEICO caveman – all on the local airwaves – there was a sense that the team was a hot commodity after having lurking in the city’s shadows for years.
“It’s fun to see,” Ewell said. “It’s a sense they made it. I used to tell people in Washington in 2005, I was giving them a business card saying I work for the Capitals – the hockey team. I don’t have to do that anymore.”
Clearly, the Capitals had reached their peak in popularity by the time the new campaign opened. With the Redskins floundering to another mediocre season, the NHL team had a chance to make even further inroads to narrow the gap and cement their place as the second-most popular team in town.
Pre-sale information on Transition Game, is as follows:
A special first edition of the book is being sent to press in mid-August and should be shipped in September before the book is available elsewhere, and each edition will be personally signed and shipped by the author.
Because of the unique nature of this project, this pre-order helps determine how many editions to print and in return will noted as a specially marked first edition of the work.
The cost will be $25 for the book and $5 for shipping within the United States and Canada, and for other destinations please make a special request for exact pricing.
If you’d like to place an order, you can either make a payment via PayPal to CapitalsBook@aol.com, or mail a check to:
c/o The Washington Times
3600 New York Avenue NE
Washington, DC 20003
Orders need to be placed by August 15, 2011 for the pre-order, and are fully refundable until the book actually ships.
The book will be available for wider sale in September via Amazon and other outlets, but the first copies will be delivered to those in the pre-order.