James and Shannon show off their jerseys at Front Page Arlington. (Photo credit: Ian iPad)
On Sunday, the Washington Capitals officially opened training camp at Kettler Capitals IcePlex in front of about 1,000 raucous Caps fans. There wasn’t an empty seat in the bleachers, and rows of red-clad fans, four to five people deep, surrounded the rink. It was as if the lockout never happened.
But there were some fans not in red. They stood out from the pack, and that was intentional.
“I wanted to come here, but I specifically did not want to wear something Caps-branded,” Ryan Fisher told me. “It’s my own ineffectual protest.”
Fisher, wearing a bright yellow Swedish National jersey with the number 19 and Backstrom sewn on the back, said he was fed up with the NHL’s latest tiff with players. “It’s annoying that it’s the same thing happening,” Fisher explained. “Three straight CBA’s have expired and three straight lockouts have happened. You would think someone would want to get their act together.”
But the NHL hasn’t. The league has lost part or all of its seasons on three occasions during the life of most fans, giving it the worst track record of all major sports in that respect.
And now some fans have found a nimble way to express their disgust for the league without abandoning the players they love: wearing their overseas jerseys.
Sitting with his wife Becky in the front row of the stands, Brandon Peiler caught my eye wearing a blue Dynamo Moscow Alex Ovechkin jersey. “As me and my wife were keeping an eye on the lockout talks, we became less and less positive,” Peiler told me. “We wanted to support the Caps players in some way.”
James Murphy and Shannon Morse, Capitals season-ticket holders who own six seats near the top of Verizon Center, also made the trip to Kettler. Murphy, dressed in a blue Brooks Laich Kloten Flyers jersey, and Morse, in a black and green Tom Wilson Plymouth Whalers ditty, stood in front of the glass near the net. They arrived early to get a prime standing position.
“We had a hockey budget, and we weren’t spending it,” Murphy explained on the jersey choice. “We were frustrated at Ted and the NHL so we spent our money on other places actually playing hockey.” Also new in Murphy’s wardrobe is a Dynamo Moscow Nicklas Backstrom jersey and a Filip Forsberg Leksands IF jersey.
Murphy went to great lengths to get his new jerseys. Using Google translate, he sent emails to the Kloten Flyers and Leksands websites. “I hoped for the best when I sent the emails,” Murphy said. “Thankfully, it worked out.”
The quiet protest of these fans — supporting their favorite individual players without supporting their team– marks a shift in attitude towards its owner, Ted Leonsis. For most of the last decade, Leonsis enjoyed the role of an avuncular benefactor. He built an exceptionally entertaining team, made himself accessible to fans, had the most blogger-friendly media policy in the league, and engaged in tons of charity work.
And now, the labor dispute in which Leonsis was allegedly a “hardliner” has eroded much of that good will.
“For Ted specifically it was a double standard of he wants to create happiness and it’s a public trust to own the team,” Murphy said. “I’m not sure how he enhanced the public trust with this lockout.”
“Everyone could have predicted what the final CBA would have looked like,” Morse interjected. “So why put everyone through this?”
“I loved Ted before,” explained Murphy. “But now, he went from high-flying internet stock to an Enron-like crash.”
“He’s got to earn the trust back,” Morse said. “It’s absolutely gone.”
Regardless, the two’s love of hockey is too great.
“It was hard not to feel like a sucker coming back, but we also love the game,” More said. “We didn’t want to punish ourselves.”
Thanks to Katie Brown for the help on the interviews.