During a stoppage in play during the third period of Thursday's AHL Showcase between the Hershey Bears and Norfolk Admirals, a holiday promotional video aired on the Verizon Center scoreboard.
As the vignette came to an end, a message meant to bring seasonal cheer flashed across the screen: "Happy Holidays From The Washington Capitals." It was lustifully booed.
Verizon Center was supposed to be a sanctuary Thursday, a refuge for the hockey-starved who may not have seen live hockey since May and may not for the foreseeable future after negotiations between the NHL and NHL Players' Association broke down in an almost soap-operatic fashion. Instead, it resembled more of a town hall meeting where fans took the opportunity to air their grievances.
A haze of apathy engulfed the announced sellout crowd -- though the arena never looked more than two-thirds full -- as the game progressed. The most enthusiastic chant all evening began midway through the third period as "Fire Bettman" echoed throughout the arena.
For two of the Caps' most ardent supporters, something didn't feel quite right. Sam Wolk, better known as "The Horn Guy," returned to his normal seat in Section 415, Row D, but left his instantly-recognizable noisemaker in storage, where it has been since this summer.
"The horn's locked out," he said. "I didn't want to bring it. I knew I wasn't going to bring it.
"It's just a mixed bag of moods going on," he continued, describing the vibe inside Verizon Center. "You can hear the excitement when there's a scoring chance or a great save, but it just doesn't seem right."
Meanwhile, in the lower level, William "Goat" Stilwell traded in his trademark No. 74 "Goat" jersey and backwards cap for a Penn Quarter Sports Tavern shirt to support a local business hurting from the lockout, which is now 83 days old. His booming voice was nowhere to be heard.
"When the lockout became a reality, you kind of looked at [Thursday's game] and went, 'This is going to be great. That will be fun,'" Stilwell said. "But as everything progressed over the next month or two, you start looking at it like, 'Is this going to be the only live hockey we're going to see?'
"It started to take on a strange, almost surreal turn," he continued. "It was like I would be at a hockey game, but I would be at a hockey game that would have no emotional investment at all for me, unlike a regular Caps game. I was looking forward to tonight placating me, but as soon as I got there, even on the way there, I was just reminded, especially in the light of this afternoon's crumbling, it kind of just served as a reminder that I don't have hockey that I really want to watch.
"I like the Bears. I root for the Bears in general, but it's not my spot, it's not my team, it's not my game."
Stilwell noticed that the crowd around him seemed like a preseason crowd (even though it was a regular-season game for both Hershey and Norfolk); people were excited to see hockey again, "but as the game [went] on, it [didn't] matter...as the novelty of seeing hockey at Verizon Center began to wear off."
The crowd began to thin out as the game progressed, but those who remained made sure to make their voices heard. Stilwell recalled hearing a horn blasting three beats, like Wolk normally does during Caps games, but instead of a resounding "Let's Go Caps" cheer, it was replaced by "Fire Bettman" and "Bettman Sucks" as fans voiced their disdain for the NHL commissioner.
"You could tell that, no matter how many people wanted to admit it, that was forefront on a lot of people's minds or at least lurking towards the surface," he said.
After the game, Braden Holtby, who recovered nicely after allowing a goal 10 seconds in by making 26 saves in Hershey's 2-1 victory, was asked about his reaction towards the "Fire Bettman" chants.
"I was actually wondering what they were chanting," he said. "You could hear it most of the time."
On a night where live hockey was supposed to take fans' minds off the wreckage of the NHL lockout, it became secondary to serving as a reminder of what they wanted, but could not have.
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