It lasted just one night, but professional hockey was back in the District Thursday night and, if not for some depressing news from the NHL, the Hershey Bears’ 2-1 win over the Norfolk Admirals was quite a success.
Bears goaltender Braden Holtby allowed a goal on the first shot he faced 10 seconds into the game, then shut the door on the Admirals by making 27 straight saves for the win. The crowd was announced as a sellout at 18,506, although there were probably a few thousand short of that in the stands.
“It was a lot of fun,” Capitals general manager George McPhee said. “We’ve got a fabulous fan base here that really supports this hockey club. To sell out this game tonight, we’ve got a real good thing going here and I hope we can see more of it soon.”
Before Thursday night’s AHL Showcase, game, the prospects of the NHL returning to VerizonCenter seemed like a strong one. Progress was reported from both sides of the negotiations on Tuesday and Wednesday, but it all fell apart around 8 p.m. when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the NHL had rejected the players’ most recent counter-proposal and that the league had suspended negotiations.
Word of that news must have spread like wildfire through VerizonCenter because by the third period, fans began chanting “Fire Bettman!”
Several players said they were too involved in the game to understand the chants, but the fans’ message served as a reminder that it may be a long time before hockey in D.C.is a nightly occurrence.
Either way, Capitals coach Adam Oates was happy to see the excitement of professional hockey return to Washington, where he played from 1997-2002.
“I wish it was the Caps, but it’s still nice for one night to have an NHL atmosphere in this arena,” said Oates, who spent the first six weeks of the Bears’ season behind their bench as co-coach with Mark French.
“[Wednesday] night I went to a function on Capitol Hill and I could not believe how many people were Caps fans compared to when I was here before when no one would have known you.
“Just driving up the street [before Thursday’s game] and seeing the people walking up the hill to come to the game. It’s sold out. It’s a good event to come here every night and people are excited about it.”
Like most NHL fans, Oates said he was optimistic about a settlement to the NHL lockout on Wednesday.
“The two leaders [Bettman and Don Fehr] were out of the room and it was a different forum and there were some positive vibes out of it,” Oates said. “But I’m not trying to get too crazy with that because it’s a work stoppage. It will end when it ends.”
Kermit Kidwell, 68, from Mason Neck, Va., has been a Capitals season-ticket holder with his wife, Janet, since 1997. He said he attended Thursday night’s game because he missed the sport he was introduced to in 1995 after living in California.
“We love the spectacle,” Kidwell said. “I just love to watch them play. It’s a sport that needs to be seen live. I like coming to the games and spending time with people in our section. I wish to hell they come back and play.”