Stanley Cup fever sweeps D.C. Hockey: Washington has finally discovered the Capitals, a team that will make its debut in the finals on Tuesday.

June 06, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It hit with the force of a flying puck.

Overnight, this city has turned itself into a hockey town. For years, the Washington Capitals were a source of derision and apathy, not pride.

No matter. As the team fought its way this week into the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in its 24-year history, new fans, along with old loyalists, joined the cheering squad for this team faster than you can say "bloody nose."

"It's the Stanley Cup -- you've got to be excited," said Andrea Min, 25, a systems analyst from Arlington, Va. "Everyone here is following the team, even if they didn't care before."

Washington and hockey are a case of opposites attracting. Most of the high-priced professionals who fill sports arenas around here think checking is something you do at the bank. Known as a game that scores big in the suburbs, hockey hasn't always attracted D.C. crowds the way the Redskins and Wizards -- and even the Orioles -- have.

Still, Washington's band of die-hard hockey fans have been quietly pining for this moment, and the devoted followers of the game are finally taking their victory lap.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," said Al Guthrie, 46, a Justice Department staffer and Capitals fan for the past 16 years. "Now I'm a part of it. I can finally say I was there."

If a team can have karma, then this one has certainly been tortured. In hockey circles, the Capitals were perhaps best known for their "curse," a hex that supposedly allowed them to get close to the finals -- only to crush their hopes at the last minute.

But for now, the curse is gone. The team beat the Buffalo Sabres Thursday night in overtime, and the finals begin Tuesday night against Detroit.

The team has undergone a transformation this season. The players settled in with a new coach and general manager, snapped up new talent and settled into a glittering new arena.

Even as the team thrived, attendance stayed low. When the Capitals moved from from their suburban home at the USAir Arena in Landover to the MCI Center in downtown Washington, many Marylanders stayed home, wary of the long commute. So the Capitals needed to find new fans.

Higher ticket prices in the new arena contributed to the poor turnout, and empty seats marked the stadium even as the team slugged its way up the rankings.

But all this may become history. These days, the team's new home is the hottest place in town. Scores of people lined up outside the arena at 6 a.m. yesterday hoping to buy tickets. It took a certain devotion: The franchise was selling Cup seats yesterday only to those who also bought tickets to at least 10 games next season. So fans had to spend between $255 and $1,600 per person for the privilege of sitting in the stands at one game in the Stanley Cup finals.

"This is injustice," Mohamed Mosslih fumed as he stalked away from the ticket booth, no tickets in hand after waiting in line for more than an hour. "Look at what they're doing for money. They say they want fans, but then they tear your hearts right out."

Truly rabid fans were kept in check by the price of the championship seats. Some fans took the hit. Others decided to settle for watching the finals at home, while more who already had tickets for next year were planning to buy from scalpers.

But many fans were only too happy to part with their money, given the reason.

"They seemed to always win but never go far," said Guthrie, who dropped $700 on two tickets in the high-altitude section of the arena. "I've waited a long time for this."

Guthrie still has framed in his rec room a certificate from the Capitals' first-ever playoff game in 1983. When he was younger, he attended home games wearing a red, white and blue firefighter's helmet with a puck glued to the front of it. Whenever the Caps scored, the puck started spinning, a siren screamed from his hat and blue and red lights flashed from his head.

Though Guthrie has since toned down his act, a young crop of hockey fans is just as devoted.

Mosslih, 27, stayed up all night after the Capitals clinched the series Thursday watching replays of the game.

Sarah Hickingbotham, 30, dressed up her Jack Russell terrier, Kipper, in a Capitals outfit -- a team bandanna draped over the pooch like a cape.

And Chris Forrest, 18, watched the playoffs end while fashioning a Stanley Cup hat from aluminum foil, coffee cans and a bowl. He plans to wear it at the game.

"When I realized they were going to the finals, I screamed so loud my brother knew they won even though he was two floors above me," said Forrest, a student from Chantilly, Va.

Some fans are feeling left out at this moment. Hockey-lovers from Maryland call it cruel fate that their team finally has a championship season the year it moved away.

"This team was a part of my life," says Dolores Adams, 67, who works at the U.S. Census Bureau and lives in Suitland near the Caps' old home in Landover.

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