It wasn't so long ago that the Capitals were playing in front of a half-empty arena out in Landover, Md. If you told someone you were a fan of the Capitals, the frequent response was, who are they? Things have certainly changed. Perhaps no one knows that better than NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
More than ever, Washington is a hockey town and Bettman credits owner Ted Leonsis for much of that transformation.
"Under Ted Leonsis' ownership, in particular, in terms of fan engagement and connectivity to the Capitals and to hockey, it has been extraordinary at all levels of the game - particularly to the youth hockey level," Bettman said.
But beyond just Leonsis, Bettman credits two major factors with the growth of the game in the Washington region.
Despite being one of the few cities that boasts a team in each of the four major sports, area fans went through a lengthy championship drought. Before 2018, you had to go back to 1998 for the last time a team from Washington even made it to a championship in the NHL, NBA, MLB or the NFL and back even further to Super Bowl XXVI in 1992 for when a team actually won. D.C. United did win an MLS Cup in 2004, but that was only the organization's ninth season.
For the Caps to break through that drought and finally bring a championship to D.C. was such an incredible moment for the city and one that will forever endear the Caps to sports fans throughout the DMV area.
"Bringing a championship to Washington, a city that can always use a unifying factor when other things are going on in the world," Bettman said. "I think the Caps have been great for the psyche of the city."
Twenty years ago, the thought of thousands upon thousands of fans lining up in the street to watch the team play for the Stanley Cup was unthinkable, but that's because a certain gap-toothed forward had not yet brought the team out of the depths of obscurity.
In terms of growing interest in the game, the effect Alex Ovechkin has had on hockey in the region cannot be measured. He is the biggest sports star in Washington and one of the biggest sports stars in the world.
"He is just awesome," Bettman said. "When you think of how long he has been playing, how old he is and the shape he's in and the skill that he brings to the game and intensity of the game, he's just awesome."
Washington is not Montreal or Toronto. It doesn't hold the same place in the game as a city like Boston or Detroit does, nor do the fans live and breathe hockey the way other cities do. But the Caps have cemented their place in the history of the game by winning the Stanley Cup.
Ovechkin is also one of the greatest players to play the game and his pursuit of Wayne Gretzky's goal record - a number once thought to be untouchable - will again bring Washington to the forefront of the hockey world.
But will he get there?
Said Bettman, "We're going to all enjoy the ride, to find out."
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