With economy, Capitals fans find it hard to feel sorry for owners or players

April 14, 1992|By Bill Free | Bill Free,Staff Writer

LANDOVER -- There was an angry post-strike mood among many longtime Washington Capitals fans last night but there was little talk about any kind of organized boycott.

Some of the people who have been paying their way into the Capital Centre for the past 12 years seemed ready to accept the harsh realities that ice hockey is a business and strikes could become a way of life just like in major-league baseball and the NFL.

This was the first time in 75 years that hockey fans have had to deal with their heroes walking off the job just like any other union workers and some of them were having trouble understanding it.

"I wonder why athletes can go out on strike and hurt the people who have part-time jobs at the Capital Centre," said Joyce Willett of Waldorf as she prepared to watch the Capitals play for the first time since the end of the 10-day strike. "At least it didn't last long, so that's why people aren't too upset."

Willett, 35, has been a season ticket holder for the past 12 years and loves the game too much to blast either the owners or players. "But I probably lean toward the players' side," said Willett, who was among a season-low crowd of 9,164 last night.

Willett's sister, Debbie Johnson, also a season ticket holder, wouldn't lean to either side: "I don't feel sorry for anybody in this thing. They're all rich and all make at least $100,000 more than me a year."

But Johnson, like many others, never hinted at a boycott because the Caps are the only game in town.

"It's not like you can go somewhere else and get hockey," said Otis Ross, 33, of Olney. "The Skipjacks are not the same. The fans are getting ripped off, but I'll keep coming back until the prices go up."

Ross says he has attended 10 Capitals game a year for the past six seasons.

However, there were two Capitals fans upset enough to be considering boycotting games in the future. One was Steve Ziegler, of LaPlata, who had attended 20 games a year for nine seasons until cutting back to five this season.

"I probably will boycott the playoffs," said Ziegler. "I cut back to five games this season because it costs my wife and I and our three kids more than $200 to come to one game. It's hard feeling sorry for an athlete who is making $300,000 a year in this kind of economy. The fans are the ones suffering. I want to know if the owners lose money, will the players or the players union give the money back they've gained in these negotiations."

Ziegler said the NHL can't afford to alienate the fans too much because it doesn't have a major network television contract.

"The NHL has to rely on cable TV and ticket sales to make it," said Ziegler. "If the fans get angry enough and there is a dip in attendance, the sport could be in trouble."

Ian Henery, an engineer from Rockville, said he would consider a boycott if he had to buy his tickets. He gets free tickets from his company and has been coming to 20 Capitals games a season for the past five years.

"The players are wrong," said Henery. "They want to negotiate individual contracts and they want collective bargaining. You can't have it both ways. Both sides made out OK in the strike. What will happen is the price of tickets will go up and the fans will lose, but they'll keep coming back for entertainment."

The owners also drew their share of criticism from fans for the poor timing of the strike, seven days before the start of the playoffs.

"The owners procrastinated too long and then put off all the major issues," said John McDonald of Laurel, who says he has been attending 10 games a year for the past 10 seasons. "The contract is up in September of '93, so this is only a temporary settlement. The players made their point, but I'm sure we'll be going though this again in a year and a half."

Shea Shannon of Gaithersburg, 19, said simply, "The owners are fault. The players deserve more money. But I would never boycott because I love hockey too much."

Warren Parrish, of Powhatan, Va., said he was upset with the owners for talking about the players wanting too much money. "Why don't the owners look at how much they make from the playoffs?" said Parrish. "They didn't show the players the proper respect."

Perhaps Eric Viktora, 14, of Chesapeake Beach, who was attending his first Capitals game, said it best: "There was kind of dumb reasons for the strike. Both sides were at fault. The players should have the right to the money from their trading cards, that was evident, and shouldn't have been a major issue."

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