By Pat Malone
For long-suffering Washington Capitals fans, hockey planets might be coming into rare alignment for the team this season, as they statistically have the National Hockey League’s best record, winning at a pace that should have scribes deeming them ‘the team to beat’ during the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Stanley Cup, one of the most coveted trophies in sports, has eluded the Capitals, as they have made it to the Finals only once in franchise history, in 1998, as they got swept in four games by the Detroit Red Wings, and have traditionally been ‘iced out’ in the first or second round of the playoffs ever since.
With great fanfare, Abe Pollin’s Capitals had their inaugural home game on October 15, 1974, right off the Beltway at the then brand-new Capital Centre, in Landover, Maryland, where they played the Los Angeles Kings to a 1-1 tie. Their record after the game was 1 win, 2 loses, and 1 tie. That was, unfortunately, their best hockey, after just four games, as the Caps would finish the season with the NHL’s still worst-ever record of 8-67-5.
Caps fans endured many miserable long losing seasons during the team’s first eight years, and as the team’s fortunes on the ice ‘went south’, attendance and fan support did as well. When the Capital Centre organist would orchestrally pipe the ditty for “LET’S GO CAPS!” frustrated fans often angrily stood up and throated at the top of their lungs, “HANDI-CAPS!” The rapid unraveling of fan support was not unnoticed by Pollin. He reached a pinnacle of his frustration in the summer of 1982, when he publically announced that he had lost $20 million since 1974, and that he was prepared to sell, merge or completely disband the franchise unless concessions were made for him to keep the team.
Pollin, who courted and secured a group of investors to help him stave off his financial bleeding, gave notice to four of what he deemed were “fair and certainly achievable” benchmarks that had to be achieved for him to keep the Capitals; fans buy 7,500 season tickets, up from 4,200, the previous season; rent for the Capital Centre (which he owned) had to be lowered from fifteen to ten percent of the net after taxes, which was subject to approval from his chief bond holder which helped to finance construction of the facility, Equitable Life Assurance, Co.; the team’s first ten home games of the 1982-83 season had to be complete guaranteed sellouts; and the amusement tax levied by Prince George’s County had to be lowered from an almost then league-high ten, down to one-half of one percent, gradually increasing over the next four years.
A ‘Save the Caps’ campaign sprang up from a group of the team’s season ticket holders, passionately extolling the virtues of keeping the team in our area, who descended, en masse, all over Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, pleading their case with flyers of Pollin’s demands in hand, even passing them out to thousands of fans at RFK Stadium during exhibition games and the start of the Redskins 1982 season.
Many home-grown Washington baseball fans that had deep roots in D.C. and the suburbs, knew all too well what Caps fans were going through, as they had their team, the Washington Senators, ‘stolen’, by a Minnesota trucking magnate, Bob Short, who almost ten years prior moved the team to Arlington, Texas, ending 68 years of continuous Major League Baseball in our Nation’s Capital.
At the end, the ‘Save the Caps’ campaign was deemed as a great success as three-out-of-four of Pollin’s checklist were achieved, one which came just short of his goal of 7,500 season tickets sold, but it was enough for him to know that fans ‘stood tall’ and solidly had his back for him to keep the team.
Today, Caps fans are still very much a force to be reckoned with as they ‘ROCK THE RED’, filling the Verizon Center to capacity, standing proudly to eagerly join the team’s long-time legendary public announcer, our one-and-only, Wes Johnson, as they collectively “UNLEASH THE FURY!”
If you haven’t been to a game to unleash your ‘inner fury’ this season, what are you waiting for? Please get your ‘Red’ on and join me at an upcoming Caps game at ‘The Phone Booth’, very soon!
(Pat Malone is a second-generation Washington sports fan, born at Georgetown University Hospital, and can be emailed at [email protected])