- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2001

Minutes before the start of last night's Washington Capitals-Philadelphia Flyers preseason game at MCI Center, Caps general manager George McPhee had a strange feeling.

He wasn't nervous at least not about hockey. "This is as calm as I've ever been before a hockey game," McPhee said. "That's probably because this doesn't seem as important as it usually does."

We don't know what to think anymore about anything. Strong emotions were unleashed on the morning of Sept. 11, just across the river at the Pentagon and up the East Coast in New York, but we're not exactly sure how those emotions fit in with the daily lives that we all must try to return to.

Of course a hockey game a preseason hockey game, no less isn't important. Then again, it was the first major sporting event to take place in Washington since one of the hijacked planes crashed into the Pentagon. It was, in its small way, a step toward returning to whatever will now be considered our normal lives.

At this point, nobody knows what that will be. Will it be police surrounding MCI Center with guard dogs for sporting events? Nobody knows.

MCI Center spokesman Matt Williams said fans can expect the increased police presence will be a fact of life, at least for now. "It will go on indefinitely until we get word otherwise," he said. "This may be the way it is. Nobody knows how this will play out. But we want our fans to feel safe about coming here."

There weren't a lot of them fans, that is in the house last night, even with free tickets offered to police officers and fire fighters, with an announced crowd of 12,190, but in actuality about 6,000 people were in the arena. Then again, it was a rescheduled preseason game originally set to be played Saturday night on a weeknight, with little notice.

Those fans that did come to the game appeared to feel safe. Christopher Stevenson, a transit police officer from Baltimore, was wearing the NYFD T-shirt he had purchased at a Fire Expo during the summer, at the time to show his support for firefighters who had already lost their lives in the line of duty.

He wore that shirt with pride last night and without fear. "I didn't have a problem coming to the game tonight," he said. "No anxiety at all. And if you did, the police have made their presence felt, and that should ease people's fears."

Philip McGuiney, a Caps fan from Leesburg, Va., also said he had no worries about his safety at MCI. "None at all," he said. "You can't live your life in fear."

Caps owner Ted Leonsis showed he was confident in the safety of MCI. He got off the elevator near the Caps locker room shortly after 6 p.m. with his son by his side. "I feel pretty good about tonight," he said. "I think we're safe."

That struck me. Fathers and sons, walking along the concourse, going to a hockey game together the best of times.

At the same time, just 30 miles away, a Northwest flight at Dulles Airport last night had an emergency false alarm call as the plane was about to leave for Amsterdam. The pilots left the plane by climbing down a rope from the cockpit, and local authorities surrounded the plane. The worst of times.

I didn't have as much bravado as the fans I spoke with. I felt like we were canaries in a coal mine. People would be watching to see if it was safe to go to a sporting event often considered to be prime targets for terrorism. If last night went off without any catastrophes, then maybe it will be OK for those who are a little more frightened to come out the next time.

Of course, we could go to 99 games, and everything could be fine. The 100th game may not be so fine. Nobody knows.

Nobody knew before, either, but nobody knew there was any reason to be fearful.

Those who came to MCI last night were not showing their fear. They were flying their colors, thanks to an American flag placard that was handed out to each fan as they entered the arena. They stood for a moment of silence before the start of the game, and the military color guard carried out a display of six flags the American flag and the flags of the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard for the national anthem. I noticed that no one shouted out "O" the invention of Baltimore Orioles fans that has become standard for the anthem at all local sporting events during the singing of the anthem last night at MCI. I'll be curious if the Camden Yards crowd shows the same deference when the Orioles come back to Baltimore for their first home game Friday night since the attack.

The color guard at a sporting event never seemed as important to me as it did last night. One member of that unit, Specialist Kevin Daugherty of Mount Pleasant, Texas, currently stationed in Arlington, realizes that for Americans, those flags they carried on the ice probably have never meant more. "People have more pride in what they are seeing," he said. "There is much more emotion."

By the way the Caps lost 6-1.

Jaromir Jagr, making his Caps debut, nearly scored 30 seconds into the game, and scored his first goal for Washington on a power play at 2:44 in the third period. And, of course, there was a hockey fight. The Caps Stephen Peat and Philadelphia's Todd Fedoruk dropped the gloves and squared off in the first period.

Yes, there was a hockey game at MCI last night, and nothing happened. That is the news.

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