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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.

Ryan shows off his awesome beard and his Swedish national team jersey.

Ryan shows off his awesome beard and his Swedish national team jersey.

“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.

Brandon shows off his Ovi Dynamo jersey

Brandon shows off his Ovi Dynamo 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.

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  • Caps 93

    STH who wore our Caps jerseys inside-out at the AHL game in December. Got a good response from those at Rocket Bar and in Section 105….

  • Sgt. Hartman

    So…the players are blameless in all this?

  • abrlcklnthewall

    So… in a lot of the interviews the players have been talking about stick curve. What exactly is Oates having them do different in that regard?

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Not blameless, but damn close.

    Just a few reasons:

    1) The PA was willing to play another season under the old CBA.
    2) The PA gave ground in nearly every major negotiating point: HRR, make whole, contract limits, etc.
    3) The PA diffuses responsibility among 800 players, whereas owners diffuses among just 30.

  • Annie

    Yeah, basically. Labor politics can be remarkably nuanced, but not this time. Think about which party was trying to enrich itself at the expense of the other, and try and think of a game that exists on this planet that you love enough to allow yourself to be treated like a rube fresh off the turnip cart.

    I’m rather proud that a PA finally matched the sophistication of the owners and didn’t accede to what were, objectively, some laughable initial offers.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Yeah, that first offer that came out on the last day of dev camp was ABSURD and precipitated a lot of the conflict and tone problems that followed.

  • Dark Stranger

    I will be joining in the fan protest this season. I was originally thinking of getting another Caps jersey but when the lockout happened and dragged on, I changed my mind. I went international instead. I decided to get a KHL jersey in honor of a non-NHL player instead. While following my favorite boys overseas, I also grew attached to one other young man in the KHL. So decided to get his jersey.

  • NovaCath

    I root for the players, not management or the owners. My protest is I will not wear a jersey at all and will wear whatever color I feel like. Since most of the games are after work, it will be what i wore to work that day. I will not buy any merchandise nor will I buy food or drink at VC. I will pay what I now owe for the tickets but not a penny more. My wallet is locked for anything else at VC. If I want to make charitable donations, I will do so on my own and will not participate in any requests for fans to donate food, clothing, or blood through the Capitals.

  • Guest

    I totally agree. I read that thing and thought the season was done for sure.

    The only thing that makes me feel gross about supporting the players is that the owners tank the public opinion battle on purpose. They don’t want our support in the lockout, they want our money afterwards, and being hated is just the price of doing business. So long as I support the PA they know I’ll be back. So the more I think about it, the more I like the idea of protest jerseys, for what it’s worth.

    Edited to add: I was trying to reply to Peter and not myself.

  • Livia

    Wearing a European team jersey is a fitting way to support
    the players and not the NHL or the Capitals organization. Before the lockout, I
    didn’t give the business side of pro hockey much thought, at least not enough
    for it to disturb my irrational love for the Caps. My whole focus was on the
    beauty of the game and all that was familiar about these particular players. But
    now when I think of the Caps, it’s not Ovi or Backie who come to mind, but Ted
    Leonsis and Gary Bettman. I have no wish to support the league or owners when
    they have shown that they regard their players and fans with nothing but
    contempt. It will take some getting used to, this loving hockey and hating the
    league.

  • Rhino40

    You are absolutely right, Peter.
    Unfortunately, this self-destructive cycle is likely to continue after the expiry of every CBA until:

    • The owners stop trying to make the players shoulder the entire burden when unintended consequences arise from economic structures that the owners themselves create,
    &bull, The owners re-take Labor Relations 101, and learn once and for all that lockouts are a last resort (to be used only after all attempts to negotiate in good faith have failed), rather than a ready-use “nuclear option” to be employed in all cases short of total capitulation by the NHLPA.
    • Owners set aside their egos and recognize that, without the fans, the business of NHL hockey is set on a long-term trajectory to failure, and
    • The NHL catches up to the other professional Leagues and names a Commissioner who takes responsibility for acting in the best interests of not just the franchise owners, but of hockey itself.
    Peter Hassett For NHL Commissioner!

  • Holy_Cal

    Tuesday vs the Jets I’m wearing my red #21.

    Protesting the league by wearing some soviet threads is pointless. A.) You probably already have a few Caps jerseys B.) It’s one thing to dislike [insert owners name] (acceptable answers are, but not limited to: Angelos, Lerner, Teddy, Snyder etc. etc.), but it’s another thing to protest the clubs we love, whether it be the O’s, Caps or Skins.

    So, while Rock The Red might be some outlandish cash grab; not wearing your favourite player’s jersey isn’t the answer. If you wanna protest, don’t go to the games, don’t buy your $5 popcorn from the nice lady on the main concourse with extra butter. Instead, go to Chinatown, watch the game at the chophouse, go to Rosa Mexicana. Support the businesses who were actually hurt in the lockout.

  • Frank D

    Proposal – Give the Owners what they stated as their position for 6 months – No Concessions : no food, drink, souvenirs. Hit them in the pocket book.
    I have 6 games (two 5 game packages truncated to 3 games) and will not spend a nickle inside, supporting the neighborhood establishments before and after to help them recover from the beating the NHL owners put on them.

  • http://twitter.com/tinyXmatryoshka Freyja Carmine

    better idea. give Morgan Freeman the capitals and all will be right with the world