A Capital Affair

Being a hockey tourist in Washington is an amusing challenge

06.08.2010
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WASHINGTON – Summer temperatures invariably soar in America’s capital. But is Washington a bona fide hockey hotbed? That’s what I set out to discover during a July visit.

In a perfect scenario for hockey fanatics, it wouldn’t be trivial matters like, say, foreign policy, health care legislation, and Wall Street reform keeping the heat on American president Barack Obama. It would be more along the lines of, “How could the United States finish thirteenth at the 2010 IIHF World Championship less than three months after barely losing gold to Canada at the Olympics? Mr. President, our nation put a man on the moon and gave the world hamburgers, Elvis Presley, and the Internet! This is unacceptable!”

Shockingly, that line of conversation wasn’t on the lips of many (OK, well, any) Americans I met inside the Beltway. Even when it came to the local NHL team, the Washington Capitals, hockey fever didn’t grip the city’s broad avenues lined with white neo-classical buildings.

Never mind that the Capitals won last year’s President’s Trophy with a league-best 121 points and boast the world’s most exciting player in Alexander Ovechkin. During my week-long stay, I didn’t spot anyone wearing Caps paraphernalia. Total hockey gear sightings? There was a kid sporting a Carolina Hurricanes hat during a tour of the Capitol; a man with a Chicago Blackhawks jersey crossing at a busy intersection; and a teenager in a Calgary Flames T-shirt with “#12 Iginla” on the back hurrying up a Metro escalator. Presumably out-of-towners.

As a hockey tourist, I realized it would take extra digging to uncover the puck-related gems in a town known better for its political rock-throwing and massive marble museums. And it paid off.

Even though President Obama has yet to attend a Capitals home game, I found out hockey flourishes at the grassroots level right in front of his residence. Road hockey, that is.

Since 1995, when the section of Pennsylvania Avenue bordering the White House was blocked off to traffic after the Oklahoma City terrorist bombings, roller hockey aficionados have taken advantage by staging regular noon-hour weekend pickup games.

I wasn’t there during a pickup game. But serendipitously, I bumped into shock comedian Tom Green, who was hyping his stand-up show at the DC Improv. The 39-year-old Ottawa native’s best-known moment of hockey glory was guest-hosting David Letterman’s Late Show in 2003 and interviewing Scott Stevens after New Jersey’s Stanley Cup triumph. Yet in DC, Green is also famous for having his “Unleash the Fury” sequence from the 2000 comedy Road Trip used in a big-screen pump-up video at Capitals home games.

Green actually came over to me, not vice versa. Now why, apart from salesmanship, would he do that? Along with other members of a tour group, I was riding a Segway at the time, a colourful two-wheeled upright transportation device whose top speed is 20 kph. I took the tour because I wanted to retrace the hilarious December 2007 Segway odyssey of the Capitals. You can still find the Segway antics of Ovechkin, Nicklas Bäckström, Mike Green, and Matt Bradley immortalized on YouTube. (Sample dialogue from Ovechkin: “Girls, where are you? I can’t find you.”)

“The team was going through a slump, wasn’t playing so well,” recalled Capital Segway general manager Steven Orr. “They wanted to do something to get away from practicing and the craziness of their hectic schedule. They wanted a bonding experience.”

After I’d ridden my Segway past the numerous Smithsonian museums (at a somewhat slower pace than Ovechkin), it wasn’t hard to see why the Capitals broke out of their slump soon after their excursion. It was fun, and it got the endorphins firing.

As I visited the museums, a pursuit that could take up weeks in DC, I discovered cool hockey items – sometimes in unexpected places.

A display case at the turreted Smithsonian Castle features Bobby Orr’s skates, a battered pair of CCM Super Tacks with #4 on the heels. Nearby sit the helmet and gloves of Phil Verchota, a forward from the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Olympic team.

Culturally, Americans value winning above all else, and that became apparent as I saw how Washington museums commemorate the Lake Placid hockey gold.

The Newseum, whose 15 theaters offer more than 27 hours of media content describing how the news is told, includes a clip of the final seconds of the 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union in its Sports Theater. Even at the National Air and Space Museum, that footage shows up in a documentary contextualizing the development of the U.S. space program, with a solemn voice intoning: “In a time of uncertainties, America savored its victories.” (Of course, in 2008, the IIHF also chose the “Miracle on Ice” as the top international hockey story of the century.)

In the “Champions” exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, more cool finds awaited, including two original hockey paintings for Time Magazine covers. One was LeRoy Neiman’s big, impressionistic depiction of Bobby Hull (March 1, 1968), and the other was Bart Forbes’ juxtaposition of Wayne Gretzky with basketball legend Larry Bird (March 18, 1985).

The National Museum of American History’s Hall of Invention illustrated chemist Stephanie Kwolek’s creation of Kevlar with a contemporary goalie mask and hockey stick.

This was getting better and better. My belief in America’s hockey potential was being restored.

In some U.S. cities, you’re hard-pressed to find hockey reading material beyond, say, one copy of The Hockey News. But at the Library of Congress, the world’s largest library with some 145 million items, I signed up for a free reader identification card. That entitled me to view and handle, not just the expected Canadian and American titles, but also foreign-language hockey books like Valeri Kharlamov (Oleg Spassky), Dominik Hasek - Cesta za Stanley Cupem (Jiri Lacina & Jirka J. Novak), and Hockeyns stora grabbar (Stig Nilsson). None of these are quite as popular or closely guarded as the $50 million Gutenberg Bible, so you should be able to do likewise if you’re there.

Even at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in trendy Georgetown, I found an entire shelf full of hockey books, including Dave King’s King of Russia, Ken Dryden’s The Game, and biographies of Ovechkin and Washington coach Bruce Boudreau.

Washington was feeding my appetite for hockey culture, but could it also feed me some hockey food? I found out the answer was “Yes we can” when I visited restaurants near the Verizon Center, the downtown home of the Capitals.

Autographed Capitals jerseys flank the interior entrance of RFD, where I sampled a couple of the 300-plus beers and had a Chesapeake Bay Burger, complete with a crab cake, for lunch.

Clyde’s of Gallery Place is connected directly to the arena by an overhead walkway, and has plenty of other hockey connections. After tucking into a savory rack of ribs and Sam Adams beer, you can check out an oil painting of two-time Norris Trophy winner Rod Langway that hangs over the “Alley Bar”. The high-ceilinged restaurant with dark wood paneling is a popular hangout for NHL referees. During the 2009 NCAA Frozen Four battle for U.S. college hockey supremacy, the Hobey Baker Memorial Trophy (college’s answer to the Hart Trophy) was displayed at Clyde’s. “I thought before that the point of hockey was just to get hit and keep on going,” said Mildred, a waitress, with a giggle. “But then I realized there’s so much more to it.”

I really got a taste of Washington fan culture when I took the Metro to the nearby colonial town of Alexandria and sampled the famous deep-dish pizza at Bugsy’s. Operated by former NHL agitator Bryan “Bugsy” Watson since 1983, the upstairs section is DC’s original hockey sports bar. Beyond the hockey memorabilia and classic photos that adorn the brick wall, talking hockey with Watson in itself makes the trip worthwhile.

Once the NHL’s all-time penalty minute leader, the 67-year-old has opinions and stories about everyone in the game. He’s best-known for shadowing Bobby Hull in the 1966 playoffs, and the “Golden Jet” didn’t appreciate it one bit. Watson once hurt himself with a chainsaw, and a reporter asked Hull to comment. “How’s the chainsaw doing?” was the caustic reply. Years later, after seeing female Team Canada forward Gillian Apps employ her abrasive style, Watson phoned her father, former Penguins teammate Syl Apps Jr., and said: “Syl, the way she plays, are you sure she’s your daughter and not mine?” (Also, ask Watson to reminisce about his days coaching the young Edmonton Oilers and how Mark Messier “taught” Risto Siltanen to speak English.)

Back in Washington, even if it’s not always visible, hopes for the 2010-11 NHL season are already starting to grow. At the Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the team’s practice facility open 22 hours a day, 3,000 spectators regularly attended the Caps’ July development camp to cheer on prospects.

During the upcoming season, the team expects to continue expanding its fan base, which goes as far afield as the 40-odd Brynäs fans who come over each year from Sweden to cheer on alumnus Nicklas Bäckström. And as Washington strives to become the third consecutive Stanley Cup champion built around young guns (after Pittsburgh in ‘09 and Chicago in ‘10), there are sure to be more celebrity sightings at the Verizon Center, where sports heroes like retired baseball star Cal Ripken and NBA MVP LeBron James have made a point of meeting Alexander Ovechkin.

According to an August 2 posting on the blog of Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, President Obama has promised he’ll get to a home game next year. Which, regardless of your political persuasion, should help to heat up the hockey spotlight in Washington, DC.

For more information on being a hockey tourist in America’s capital, check out washington.org.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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