- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

The second-to-last place Washington Capitals have stumbled a bit out of the box, to the point that the nosebleed seats cost $5 and are sold in bulk. But that shouldn’t be fodder for post-lockout naysayers: Leaguewide, hockey is doing quite well and the sport’s economics are vastly improved over the pre-lockout period. As to the specific woes of our home team, rebuilding from the ground up without Jaromir Jagr and other stars mostly explains it.

The National Hockey League was ripe for a rightsizing in 2004-05, and this year it got it. In 2003-04, most team owners lost more money than they did not playing hockey at all during the 2004-05 work lockout. This year, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis figures to lose $5 million — “gentleman’s losses,” he called it recently — compared to $30 million in 2003-04. The same trend can be seen throughout the rest of the league. Mr. Leonsis probably wouldn’t say it, but the reason for this is simple: The league has tamed the powerful players’ union with a salary cap, something that Major League Baseball, with its burgeoning payrolls, can’t even contemplate.

As a result, things are looking up overall. Leaguewide, October attendance figures set new records with average of 16,820 tickets sold per game. The league is obviously on a campaign to juice up the game, too. Scoring is up significantly this year owing to rule changes and the old tie-game disappointments are replaced with game-ending shootouts. Insofar as the good old days of exciting 7-6 and 6-5 scores return, that’s all to the good.

So far, though, the Caps aren’t cashing in on the rejuvenation of hockey as much as other teams. In October, they averaged only about 12,300 tickets per game, down 11 percent from 2003-04, with noticeably fewer actually in the stands. But that’s to be expected in a rebuilding phase. The team’s roster is mostly unknowns and young players, with the biggest potential star being rookie Alex Ovechin, only 20 years old. Ovechin is proving his mettle; he is 3-for-3 in shootouts. Meanwhile, in October, goalie Olie Kolzig griped about the pummeling he’s getting as a result of Washington’s weak defense and the scoring-friendly rule changes, factors which have pushed the 35-year-old veteran’s goals-against average through the roof.

He can probably expect more of the same tonight, when the Caps meet the Atlantic Division powerhouse New York Rangers — the team that snatched up Jagr — and should gear for a long season. Over time, though, like the rest of hockey, the Caps should be in decent shape.

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