Back in January 2010, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, speaking of his team’s American League affiliate in Hershey, told the Patriot News (Pa.), “The excellence with which that organization is run washes up on us.”
Umm . . . not . . . quite.
This season in Washington, it’s as if the Capitals barricaded Kettler with sandbags to prevent the very winning tide of Hershey hockey from bathing them in good fortune.
The Bears last June successfully defended their Calder Cup title of the season before, earning their 11th overall (best in the AHL). Then, anticipating a healthy contingent of promotions to the parent club, went about strengthening their roster for the following season. As they always do. For there is only one acceptable outcome to a hockey season in Hershey.
For some years now, there have been reasonable forecasts suggesting that all that winning in Hershey — all that championship pedigree on the farm — would, like a rising tide, lift the good cruiseship Capitals. It hasn’t happened. In fact, water levels are approaching the bridge this season for the parent club. It’s with this curious competitive disconnect in mind that I identify my next principle in my renovation of Capitals culture:
- How can Washington be more like the Bears?
You can point to the absence of a salary cap in the American League, you can further suggest that the Bears are uniquely advantaged as the big (and perhaps the only) game in their town, but the bottom line is that winning at pro hockey requires a lot of blocking and tackling basics, and the Hershey Bears block and tackle in pursuit of victory better than anyone in hockey. You don’t get 11 Cups with merely a big checkbook or by luck. Hershey has a championship culture. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to study it a bit closer, I think.
If I could help usher in a new culture for hockey in Washington, I’d urge a re-orienting of the Capitals’ relationship with its American League affiliate, trying to bring a little better balance to it. It’s one-sided not only in terms of winning when it counts, but in subtler ways that from my vantage evoke a bit of a patriarchal arrogance. For instance, I find it incredible that Alexander Ovechkin has never been showcased in a training camp skate or NHL exhibition or in a parent-affiliate exhibition before some of the greatest fans in all of hockey. It’s rather arrogant I think to in effect say to Hershey hockey fans, ‘Come on down to D.C. and see Ovi.’ The Caps should take him up there, and maybe even once a season. We are so fortunate to have him; absolutely we should share him with our affiliate. And so I say:
- Let’s give back a little to the affiliate that’s done do much for us in player personnel development.
It isn’t just Ovi who ought to be showcased in Hershey. Bruce Boudreau should be behind the bench again in Giant Center for an NHL exhibition game, or leading a camp session on the ice sheet in historic Hersheypark Arena.
George McPhee told me straight out a couple of seasons ago that, notwithstanding that other NHL clubs pursue them, he doesn’t like parent-affiliate exhibition games. Thinks the youngsters will try and show up the stars with some rough stuff, trying to make a statement with parent management watching. I imagine there’s validity in there somewhere, and of course a parent-affiliate exhibition game is his prerogative, but imagine the fun of such a game in old HPA, perhaps ticketing just Bears’ and Caps’ season ticket holders. The greatest hockey player in the world (prior to this season) ought to skate at least once in one of hockey’s all-time greatest barns.
Washington I think needs greater tangible integration with such a historic hockey town. Let’s try and change our culture a bit by better associating ourselves with one of the all-time best hockey cultures.
- Planes, trains, buses, and automobiles. The American League is a bus league, but not all that long ago, busing it wasn’t all that uncommon in the NHL.
Back when they were in the great old Patrick division, the Capitals never had 300 miles to travel to meet a division rival, and consequently, they logged a decent bit of time on buses. Today in the Southeast, the Caps have no such luxury, so they’re up in the air a ton. But buses are a touchstone to a pro hockey player’s development roots — at least for North American pro hockey players. I don’t think it would be such a bad idea to incorporate a wee bit more everyman travel to the Capitals’ comings and goings — remind them of their roots. Today, the Caps see buses pretty much only from the ride from the airport to the hotel, and from the hotel to the rink. I think this Capitals’ club should bus up to Philly, New York, New Jersey, and Long Island, harkening back a bit to the good old Patrick division days. Schedules permitting, Alan May and Craig Laughlin ought to be on a good many of those rides, and other Capitals’ alums, and they ought to share their history of the rides they took to lace ’em against the dynastic Islanders, the nasty Flyers, etc.
And have you seen the caliber of bus pro sports teams utilize today? It’s not exactly roughing it. The Caps would still fly for 75 or 80 percent of their road travel in this scheme.
- TV timeout? Nah. But TV pitchman dough out to have a charitable kickback.
If you’re like me you’re having a tougher time watching Bruce Boudreau making bird calls, or elderly white man dancing, during his pitches for Mercedes Benz these days, relative to say last fall. It’s misplaced concern, though, I think suggesting that the Caps lose focus spending hours before television commercials cutting spots. All of this work is pretty much done in the offseason. Moreover, athletes and coaches have every right to earn supplementary income, to commercialize on their respective individual brand. It’s part of what makes America distinctive and insufferable.
However, management could approach the participants and ask if they’d be willing to direct a fraction of their television-derived income toward local charity. Some of them already do. But it’s at times like now when it’d be less galling to see the TV antics if we knew, for instance, that the Friends of Fort Dupont Foundation was benefiting from the mayhem.
It has to be acknowledged: the Capitals are exceptionally well immersed in their community, and their charitable commitments and impulses are exemplary. But you can always do more. Incidentally, when I participated in a bloggers’ roundtable discussion last weekend with my friends from Russian Machine Never Breaks and Capitals Outsider, organized by the Capitals’ Fan Club, donations in our names were made by the Fan Club to Fort Dupont. I really liked that.
This last principle for a reformed Capitals Culture is purely symbolic, but I’m a big believer in the power and effect of symbolism.
- The raised stick salute.
The toughest moments fans endure are those seconds that follow the season-ending horn, especially when it sounds on home ice. We endured that last April. But in that agonizing moment we also saw something special: Alexander Ovechkin, our captain, raise his stick high in the air in a salute to the Red Army. And the Red Army in turn warmly acknowledged its hero. I thought it was a special moment. And this morning, suffering as all you are, I worry that unintentionally the Capitals this season have frayed a bit of their special connection with so special a fanbase.
The Capitals like every other hockey team bounce off their bench at game’s end and embrace their netminder. But I think after every home game, before exiting the ice, win, lose, or revolt us with sub-par effort, every Capitals player ought to offer a raised stick salute to the foundation that is Washington the hockey town. No other team does it. What’s been built here the past 5 years has been so special. It ought to be acknowledged.
[If you missed Part I, check it out here.]