D.C. has never been considered a hockey town.
Located too far south, with winters too mild, the District lacks the long hockey history that cities like Boston, Chicago, and Detroit can boast. For a long time, enthusiasm for the sport remained confined to such colder regions. This has slowly begun to change, and Washington, D.C. is on the leading edge of the game’s expansion.
Before the 1980s, only pockets of imported interest allowed the sport to survive in D.C. Newcomers arrived from the Northeast and Midwest, bringing their favorite sport with them. Whatever hockey culture existed in the city came largely from outside.
“I’ve been around for a while. And initially, many of the people who got involved in hockey or who got their kids involved in hockey were transplants,” said John Coleman, president of the Potomac Valley Hockey Association.
Hockey did eventually begin to grow. In 1992, according to USA Hockey, there were only 250 registered youth players in Washington, D.C. By 2010, that number had risen to 742. Virginia saw an increase from 1,459 to 7,251 youth players over that same time span, while Maryland’s youth participation increased from 1,951 to 7,326.
These are promising signs for the sport, but it is still far from the first choice for youths in the area. That place belongs to soccer, as last year 142,260 children in Virginia and 60,884 in Maryland played soccer, according to U.S. Youth Soccer.
Dan Litke (SFS ‘15) has seen youth hockey increase in popularity in D.C. as a member and assistant captain of the Georgetown club hockey team. “Formerly, we practiced in Kettler [Iceplex in Arlington]. But the growth of the sport has been apparent and there are way more kids playing, so we ended up getting kicked out of Kettler because the Little Caps expanded their program,” Litke said.
The foundation of hockey’s rise in the area lie in the recent past, with Washington’s National Hockey League franchise playing a major role. Craig Laughlin is now the color commentator for the Washington Capitals, but in the 1980s, he was a hot-shooting right wing for the team, arriving in 1982 as part of a trade with the Montreal Canadiens—a move that proved crucial to the club’s survival. He remembers the days when his sport and his team hardly registered on the District’s radar.
“[The Capitals] weren’t getting fans,” Laughlin said. “I remember my last game with the Montreal Canadiens was at the Cap Centre. It was way out in the middle of nowhere, in this field, and it was in this huge building that looked like a saddle that was out there in Landover. And I remember, we played the last game of the season and there were maybe 7,000 people at the most in the building. At that time, it held 18,000 or so.”
The arena was only a 30-minute drive from D.C., but the team was far from the minds of most of the city’s residents. Given the Capitals’ weak performances over successive seasons in the late 1970s, few wanted to make the trek to Landover, Md. At that time, Washington played in the NHL’s Patrick Division, along with the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, and Pittsburgh Penguins. From their inception in 1974 through the 1981-1982 season, the team failed to place higher than fourth in their five-team division.
In the three year span beginning in the 1979-1980 campaign and stretching to the 1981-1982 season, the team posted 79 wins, 127 losses, and 54 ties. The Capitals finished last in the division in each of those years. In a league that sent 16 of its 21 teams to the playoffs each year, the team failed to reach postseason play during the first eight years of its existence. If the distance between the city and the arena presented a barrier to the emergence of a fanbase, the distance between the team and the playoffs built a much greater one.
The city stayed away from the team, and the team stayed away from the city. “We were in Landover, in Maryland. Guys lived in Virginia and you would pass by the District. You would never go to the District. It was never part of the daily routine,” Laughlin said.
This was a critical period for hockey in D.C. “Back in the ‘80s, the Redskins were the team. They had [Joe] Theismann and [John] Riggins,” Laughlin said. “And the Orioles, at that time, were also winning a World Series, so it was a double whammy, with the Orioles winning their championship and the Redskins winning their championship.” Interest in hockey seemed at risk of dying out completely, with the Capitals flailing while the region’s other teams found success.
Then, in 1982, a group of local businesses and fans launched the “Save the Caps” campaign in response to owner Abe Pollin’s threat to move the team to another city. The group rallied support in the city in order to sell tickets, and the first 10 games of the season sold out. The campaign proved successful, and Pollin kept the franchise in Washington.
The 1982-1983 season marked an abrupt change in the course of the Capitals’ history. That season, the Capitals managed to win 39 games and make the playoffs for the first time in their history, despite losing in the first round. As the team improved its play, it also worked to improve engagement with the community, as Capitals management worked to tighten the ties between their franchise and the city that it was supposed to represent.
“You had to do a certain amount of charitable work—a certain amount of getting involved with the fans,” Laughlin said. “It was written in your contract that you had to make a certain amount of appearances. We had to get out into the community to generate the sort of interest that would attract the fans and get the fans to come to our games out in Landover. It was a lot of background work that led to our success.”
Washington finished second in the division during each of the next five seasons before taking the division title in the 1988-1989 season. As the team improved and became a greater presence in the city, fans took notice. The Capitals’ average home attendance climbed to 17,891 during the 1990-1991 campaign from 11,377 for the 1981-1982 season.
Throughout the 1990s, both the team’s win and attendance totals saw peaks and droughts, but the franchise survived, with the gap between city and team quickly closing. Nothing symbolized this change better than their 1997 move to the MCI Center, now the Verizon Center, in downtown D.C.
“Ultimately, I think the franchises that are successful—and it’s been proven here now—are the teams that win and cultivate a following. [Cultivating] fans … in turn, leads to more ice rinks and more kids playing, and those kids are the kids coming to Caps games,” Laughlin said.
The Capitals began the push for hockey in D.C. with a top-down approach, as they focused on community outreach efforts and an improved product on the ice. The effort was then taken up by the region’s youth leagues, which formed a mutually-beneficial relationship with the team.
“The popularity of the Capitals over a number of years has helped [to encourage youth hockey],” Coleman said. “I think if they could ever win a Cup it would just be a tremendous boost to area hockey.”
When the team started winning more games, more local kids were inspired to join youth hockey leagues. Growth has continued in this manner for over 20 years, but it has been especially successful since the arrival of one of the most talented players to ever step onto an ice rink.
The Capitals drafted Alexander Ovechkin with the first overall pick of the 2004 draft. He would go on to win the Calder Trophy, an honor awarded to the best rookie, during the 2005-06 season. Over the next seven years, he would win three Hart trophies, which are given to the league’s most valuable player.
The Russian forward is one of the NHL’s most valuable players on the ice and one of its most visible off of it, pulling in $2.5 million in endorsements during the 2013-14 season, according to Forbes. His deals with Gatorade, Nike, and Bauer, among others, earn him the second highest endorsement total of any NHL player, only earning less than Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.
“We’re fortunate that we have one of the best players in the league bar none in Ovechkin,” Laughlin said. ‘He’s got a marketing ability that’s second to none. And that translates to the Caps.”
After dropping off somewhat in the early 2000s, Capitals attendance rebounded with the superstar’s arrival. Now, the team boasts a long-running home sellout streak that began during the 2008-09 season and continues today.
Youth hockey popularity also saw a spike in interest after participation had plateaued during the team’s dry spell in the early 2000s. From the 2001-2002 season to the 2006-2007 season, the numbers of PVHA players remained mostly stagnant, increasing to only 12,589 from 12,058. Then, over the next five years, as Ovechkin’s arrival rejuvenated the Capitals, participation jumped to 19,135 by 2011-2012.
With the growth in hockey’s cultural influence coming from newfound popularity of the Capitals and increasing interest in youth hockey, a gap remained between the professional and amateur stages of the game. Once youth players graduated to the high school or college level, they often had to leave D.C. to further their playing careers.
“Certainly in the past we’ve had a number of players who have left to go play in prep schools in New England, or play through the time they’re 15 and then go to play in junior programs both in the area and out of the area. I think that there are more and more ways for them to improve and stay in the area,” Coleman said.
The American Collegiate Hockey Association, the league in which Georgetown’s club hockey program competes, has emerged as an attractive way for students to continue their hockey careers through college, especially in areas which lack major NCAA programs. The ACHA has become a major presence in the area, with programs at Georgetown, George Washington, American, George Mason, and Maryland, among other universities.
“We had 20 teams [in 1993], and they were all over the place, but most of them were in New England and the Midwest,” said Marshall Stevenson, president of the ACHA. “You look at the expansion in the Mid-Atlantic states and in the D.C. area, and that has progressed quite a bit in the past 15 years.”
From the original 20 programs, the organization has expanded to include close to 450 teams. For many colleges, including Georgetown, hockey can help to attract new students to campus. “Some schools use it as a recruiting tool,” Stevenson said.
“Coming from prep school, I was looking at [Division]-3 schools, but none of them were academically what I wanted to do,” Litke said. “The Georgetown club program really caught my eye and was a big draw for me to come.”
Although player participation, both at the youth and collegiate level, has increased in D.C. since the 1980s and Capital crowds continue to hit the sellout mark, among the most daunting challenges to the growth of hockey is the cost of playing.
“You can maybe play soccer for the cost of a pair of cleats, but it’s not quite that way for youth hockey,” Coleman explained.
Litke knows firsthand just how expensive the game of hockey can be.
“I worked at Kettler [Ice Rink] in the pro shop,” Litke said. “Just basic gear, lower-end stuff for a kid, can cost $300 to $400 … I use a lot of top of line stuff, and skates alone can be 500 bucks. A stick can be $200.”
The Washington metropolitan area is divided into several distinct socioeconomic groups. A 2012 report by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute found that, of the 50 largest cities in America, D.C. had the third highest level of income inequality. Ultimately, hockey may see continued growth in a patchwork pattern across the map, only thriving in those areas in which residents have the means to play.
“We’re trying to look for ways to keep costs down at the younger levels,” Coleman said. “In some areas around here, that may not make a difference. That may not make a difference in Fairfax County or in parts of Montgomery County … but in other areas, the cost of participation in hockey is a major factor.”
Further limiting hockey’s growth is the cost and difficulty of reserving rink space in the area. At Cabin John Ice, the rink at which the Georgetown club team practices, the rate for ice time is $340 an hour.
“Ice time is super expensive,” Litke said. “It’s expensive to maintain a rink and an ice sheet. We’re lucky we have a good booster club that takes care of a lot of that stuff for us, so our dues are relatively low, but most of our budget goes toward ice time.”
“In some areas we’re pretty limited by facilities, by the number of ice rinks. And places like Ashburn or Reston, they’re maxed out. It’s difficult for them to take a number of kids each year at younger levels to keep the pipeline going,” Coleman said.
These problems of cost check growth at the youth level, and they do not disappear at more advanced stages.
“There are opportunities for growth, but a lot of that has to do with the level of support from the school,” Stevenson said. “Some of that is just a matter of money. There are lots of alternatives to what you can do with your time and money as compared to when I went to school.The schools are fighting for every dollar they’ve got and sometimes they don’t want to fund something like [an ACHA program]. ”
Hockey has come a long way in the nation’s capital. It has transformed from a fringe activity to a much more integral part of the city’s sports landscape. Its progress has varied widely over both time and geography, and obstacles remain to its continued rise, but hockey’s presence in the District can no longer be ignored or dismissed. The NHL has taken notice, awarding this year’s Winter Classic to Washington, D.C. Hockey’s marquee regular season game will come to Nationals Stadium, when the Capitals host the Chicago Blackhawks. Held outdoors each year on New Year’s Day, the game has been played in familiar hockey cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Buffalo. For Craig Laughlin, the message is clear.
“The Winter Classic means that the NHL—the owners and the board of directors—believe that Washington is a hockey town,” Laughlin said. “It’s a stamp. Everyone around the NHL, who has hockey in their veins, has said, ‘Washington has arrived, and it’s here to stay.’”