When a community is hurting and in need of hope and inspiration, sports is a platform where people can come together and unite during dark times. In 1980, the Miracle On Ice gave hope to our country during a tough economic and political time.
This past year, and especially in the past few months, our country has been struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic while also dealing with the stress and dangerous aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.
As the NHL is preparing for the start of the new 2021 season, the thought of having a hockey game to watch at night is bringing a little bit of normalcy back to the hockey community, especially the season-ticket holders (STH’ers).
“I think the timing of the ‘pause’ and all of the other events surrounding it definitely changed my perspective on sports in general,” said Capitals long-time season-ticket holder, William Stilwell, better known as Goat. “I kind of got used to the absence of the games a lot more quickly than I had anticipated. I think my mental priorities shifted a bit more.”
STH’ers haven’t been to Capital One Arena since March 4th when the Philadelphia Flyers beat the Capitals 5-2. For almost 10 months, fans have been dealing with a Zdeno Chara-sized hockey hole in their life. Some filled that hole by re-watching old games (the 2018 Stanley Cup Championship run) but others used the time to reflect on what was happening in the world and get into new hobbies.
“I miss being able to see hockey live but I am okay with it,” said Capitals STH’er Sheena Dunn. “The past few months have changed my outlook on a lot of things.”
When hockey returned in July, most Caps fans enjoyed having new games to watch on TV even if the Caps run was short-lived. Now months later, the NHL will have a shortened regular season (56) with a new schedule and divisions. Sam Wolk, better known as the Horn Guy, feels conflicted about the NHL returning.
“I welcome the distraction, but I don’t think we as a nation have earned the privilege of having sports in which to lose ourselves,” said Wolk, drawing from Sean Doolittle’s comments in 2020. “These players, coaches, bench and locker room staff, arena personnel, broadcasters, etc. are real people risking their health for our entertainment on a regular night. I like how Sean Doolittle put it: ‘Sports are like the reward of a functioning society.’ We are not there yet.”
The 2021 season will definitely be bittersweet for most fans. Stilwell has mixed emotions about the new format of the NHL this season especially now that most teams, including the Capitals, will be playing in their own arenas with no fans.
“That’s when it will really hit home. I’m supposed to be there but I can’t”
Being able to attend live games with friends and family is a big part of the hockey experience and helps to make memories that will last a lifetime. Gene Wu, a newer member of the season-ticket community, says watching hockey just is not the same.
“There is nothing like attending live games,” said Wu. “We miss our Caps family who has become our friends and family and a part of our lives. The fans are a big part of the experience. The passion and energy they bring to the games for the teams and players have been missing and nothing can replace that.”
Over the last year, TV ratings have generally lagged for empty-arena games and there is a noticeable passion gap for Capitals fans. “We saw our traffic drop by about a third from where it’s been in years past for the playoffs,” RMNB co-founder Ian Oland said. “Comments are down. Pageviews are down. Everything is down. You can tell that peoples’ priorities have changed. I have no idea what to expect in 2021.”
After 20 years as a season-ticket holder, Stilwell does not know when attending games will become reality again but when the time does come he said “as long as the lungs and the wallet can take it, I look forward to getting back to that seat behind the goal down on F Street.”
As for the Horn Guy, he has no plans of saying farewell to his 21 years of season tickets. “Enough people have told me the games aren’t the same without the horn,” he said.
Even though fans are a bit skeptical about the 2021 season, the team is staying optimistic.
“We’ve been excited about this year for sure,” said Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov. “It’s been a long time with no hockey and all the stuff that has happened around the world. It’s not just COVID-19, it’s everything. It just seems to me that there is not a lot of fun in their life. The sooner we get back and play hockey we’re gonna get our lives back.”
Headline photo: Cara Bahniuk/RMNB
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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