Walking around Verizon Center before the Detroit Red Wings/Washington Capitals game on Saturday afternoon, you could almost smell the octopus in the air.
Yzerman jerseys, Lidstrom jerseys, Stanley Cup champions jackets and shirts; they were all over the streets and inside the D.C. bars, like at the Irish-themed Fado where The Chief and his Abel To Yzerman readers gathered for some pre-gaming.
Like other franchises around the NHL, the scene has been a part of Washington Capitals hockey for years: "Enemy" fans invading the home rink when their team is in town, flaunting the colors and trying to take over as a vocal minority in the arena. For the Caps, the biggest outbreaks are when the Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres or Pittsburgh Penguins are the road team. (Hence those teams, along with the New York Rangers, are included in the franchise's variable pricing scheme.)
As much as it may make fans of the home team uncomfortable to suddenly share a section with shrill supporters of the other side, there's no denying the atmosphere for these "house divided" games is electrifying for a regular season tilt.
(That they sometimes attract leggy, good-looking blondes in six-inch heels wearing the heck out of a Chris Chelios jersey is also a bonus ...)
All of that said: Why would Ted Leonsis prefer a homogenous, 100-percent Capitals crowd over the amusing tension that a "rivalry" game brings to the stands? We decided to ask him and find out.
On his blog, the gregarious Washington Capitals owner wrote the following about the Detroit fans at the game on Saturday:
Many fans that were rooting for Detroit are actually our season ticket holders. They are happy Caps fans and loyal customers and they root for the Caps always except when we play Detroit. When we sell out the bottom and top bowl, the club seats go on sale via Washington Sports and some of those tickets get sold as groups or online to Detroit fans.
It is obvious that we have made progress. Perhaps ten percent of the arena was rooting for Detroit at yesterday's game. I won't rest until we have 100 percent Caps fans in our building but I admire what Detroit has built in terms of fan loyalty. Thank you Caps fans for being loud and proud. We are building a Hockeytown right here in DC.
(Scoff if you must at that last line, but he's actually correct: The Capitals are getting enormous crowds for weekday games that used to draw flies, and it's gotten to the point where the Washington Post is now bizarrely joking about its lack of coverage for the team.)
As we've talked about before, D.C. is a lot like New York and L.A. in the sense that the population migrates from so many different places around the country. There are Capitals fans who also root for the Red Wings or the Bruins or the Sabres. It's just the reality of their surroundings.
Back to Ted's take on the Red Wings fans and other foreign invaders: Is a complete Caps-friendly crowd, rather than having opposing fans in the stands, really something to strive for?
Doesn't a New Jersey Devils fan buy a ticket when the New York Rangers come to Newark because he or she knows what the atmosphere will be like? Doesn't a Boston Bruins fan do the same thing when the Montreal Canadiens come to Beantown, because he or she knows there will be a number of swaggering Habs supporters in the seats ready to stir the pot?
Aren't those markets, with the geography or the transient population that enable them to have crowds with divided loyalties, actually blessed with some of the best atmospheres for compelling hockey?
We asked Leonsis that over e-mail; his response:
I like it when our fans invade other arenas -- I don't like it when it happens to us :-).
It is just personal -- NOT a business imperative. I actually think we have beaten the issue by having a winning team at home -- selling so many season tickets etc., etc; as I note, I bet there were less than 2,000 Detroit fans in the arena on Saturday. Ted
That much is true: winning brings more local fans to the rink, and the Capitals are certainly winning.
That said: Does it get any better than hearing dueling chants from two different fan bases in the same rink? (Like the "Let's Go ___!" followed by the "____ Suck!" dynamic.) Or, in certain arenas, the growing chatter when there's an altercation in the stands between warring factions?
Do you, as home-team fans, want to see "enemy" fans eradicated from your arena?