- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis looked out from a stage to a throng of red shirts and grinned.

“I really love you guys,” he said intensely, his voice barely emanating above a din of enthusiasm.

With less than a week before the start of the NHL season, about 5,000 hockey fans gathered Saturday at Gaylord National Convention Center to revel in their love of the Caps. They came to hear Leonsis give a pep talk. They came for autographs. They came for panel sessions with players and to watch their kids try a slap shot. They came to buy a discounted hockey stick or two.

Most of all, they came because attending the first Capitals Convention was the thing to do if you’re a fan of the team.

“There’s so much anticipation for the season right now,” said Andy Cecil of the District as he stood outside the convention center’s main exhibition hall, which was decorated in Capitals red, white and blue. “This is a really cool thing. For me, it’s just about being surrounded by other fans.”

Some fans came just to soak in the atmosphere. Others examined the convention schedule and planned every moment of their day. There was plenty to do. Kids tried their hand at hockey skills games or “skated” around on the two rinks placed in the center of the exhibition hall. Older fans went to panel discussions involving Capitals players, executives and media members. Others stood in line for autographs, photos and the chance to buy game-used equipment.

“It’s a little overwhelming in a way, but a good way,” said Kelly Stoner of Arlington, who attended the convention with her roommate, Ailey Merrick. “We were talking about all the things we want to do and all the things we want to go see, and it’s like we can’t get too attached to one thing.”

Stoner and Merrick planned to see the “Young Guns” panel discussion featuring Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin, plus a panel involving Capitals scouts and another involving assistant coaches.

In most cases, the panels attracted enough fans to fill the convention center conference rooms, with fans standing in the back and out the doors. Lines for autographs and photos went hundreds of people deep.

“I was shocked when I got here this morning,” Leonsis said. “It was like Comdex. It was like Woodstock. People were lined up and they opened the door and it was like the Friday after Thanksgiving when they put plasma TVs on sale. Just to see all these people all in one place wearing red and having so much fun is fantastic.”

Leonsis acknowledged that holding a convention of this scope might have been impossible a few years ago, when the team was struggling and fan interest was low. This year, after a run to the conference semifinals, the Capitals are expected to sell out every game. The response for Saturday’s event - tickets sold out weeks in advance despite being $25 to $40 a pop - served as proof of the Caps’ ascent to one of the NHL’s most beloved teams.

“There are more fans here than there were for games at Verizon Center five or six years ago,” said Mark Truffer of Sykesville, who held a hockey stick bought at the team’s equipment sale. “It’s great seeing everybody have the commitment to come out.”

Conventions of this size are a relatively new thing to the NHL. The Chicago Blackhawks held a similar event last year, which the Capitals used as a model. The crowds hoisted the spirits of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who has had a trying offseason involving a legal fight involving the ownership of the Phoenix Coyotes.

“I’ve had an interesting and distracting summer,” he said. “When you spend a lot of time in the courtroom, you can forget how special the sport is and how great the fans are.”