- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

The Washington Capitals are so popular these days that even their fan fest looks as if it will be a sellout.

The region’s hottest team began selling tickets last week for a daylong convention on Saturday, Sept. 26, featuring guaranteed player autographs and an array of interactive sessions for fans.

“This will be a full-day experience that is markedly different than anything we’ve done before or has been done in this city,” Caps owner Ted Leonsis said.

Indeed, details of the convention, which will be held at Gaylord Convention Center at National Harbor, suggest it will be impressive in size and scope. There will be games for kids on four full-size rinks, question-and-answer sessions with coaches and memorabilia and equipment sales. In addition, there will be a series of panels with Leonsis, general manager George McPhee and Don Fishman, the assistant general manager in charge of managing the salary cap.

Tickets went on sale July 9 and are already more than half gone. The team will limit the crowd to 5,000 and expects to sell out.

Team officials said they capped the number of tickets sold to guarantee that each fan admitted receives at least two autographs from players. The Caps’ full roster is expected to attend.

“It’s one thing to sell out the event, but it’s another to make sure everyone has an awesome experience,” said Tim McDermott, Caps senior vice president and chief marketing officer. “We just decided to make sure we put on a first-class event. We’ll probably have more demand for tickets than we’ll have tickets, but we want to make sure everyone has a great, great time, and maybe next year we’ll consider doing it over several days.”

Team conventions aren’t a new concept, though they have generally been less common in hockey than in other sports. The Caps are following a model created by the Chicago Blackhawks, who earned rave reviews for a big convention last year. The Caps hired the same event production company, Hat-Trick Productions, which was founded by former Caps defenseman Jason Woolley.

Tickets for the event cost $40 for adults and $25 for kids. That’s not cheap, but the Caps insist this isn’t a cash grab. The team is spending more than $300,000 to put on the event, virtually ensuring it will lose money.

“We’re taking a little bit of a risk, but we feel it’s worth it to keep innovating,” Leonsis said.

The Caps may get some grief from fans who question why the event would be held in Maryland instead of at Kettler Capitals Iceplex or the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the District. According to McDermott, the team looked at nearly every potential site but chose Gaylord because of the more than 100,000 square feet of space with breakout rooms for panel sessions.

The intriguing thing about this convention is that the team doesn’t need to hold it in order to drum up interest. There’s already a waiting list for season tickets for the 2009-10 campaign, and the Caps are likely to sell out every game.

This is not an event that could have happened two or three years ago, at least not at this scale. But the Caps are a scorching property right now, and the team is doing whatever it can to leverage the fan interest.

“The beauty of having such a large and passionate fan base is that it does allow us to innovate and try some new things,” McDermott said. “This is certainly one of those, and we see this is as a fantastic way to ring in the season.”