The hopes are high for this year’s version of the Washington Capitals, who open the season tomorrow night in Atlanta. Owner Ted Leonsis and his coaches and players met with reporters Tuesday to promote those hopes. But sitting in Acela Club at Verizon Center — almost seemingly in reach of the giant new video board hanging over the ice — a melancholy thought came to Leonsis.
Dave Fay was not there.
“It feels a little different without Dave yelling at me before the season starts,” Leonsis said to open the session.
Washington hockey feels different without Dave Fay, the longtime hockey writer for The Washington Times who died in July at the age of 67 after a 12-year battle with cancer. He will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame next month, and the bottom of page 1 of the Capitals’ 2007-2008 media guide dedicates the publication to his memory.
Fay yelled because he demanded accountability, and he raised questions that many fans who paid their hard-earned money had about the Capitals’ struggles over the last two years under Leonsis’ plan to build a long-term winner. His voice is silent now, but someone else will be doing the yelling instead, if need be — someone like Fay who will demand accountability from a team that is projected to make the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
Olie Kolzig will make his voice heard this year if this group, which has matured together over the last few years, doesn’t deliver.
A fiery leader who has over the years commanded tremendous respect in the locker room, the Caps goalie wasn’t quite as vocal as he wanted to be over the last two seasons.
That is going to change.
“This year might be a little different than the last two years,” said Kolzig, who played his first games with this franchise 17 years ago. “Over the last two years, I’ve had to bite my tongue a little bit because we had some young guys who were put into situations that maybe they didn’t deserve to be put in. So you really couldn’t come down on them because they were expected to make mistakes. Now we are a little more mature, and our goal is to make the playoffs, so the accountability has got to be there from the players.
“If guys don’t want to tow the rope, then I will be barking a little more this year.”
Good. The kid gloves need to come off. This team has one of the best players in the game in Alex Ovechkin, a counterpart scorer in Alexander Semin and another European hot shot in Nicklas Backstrom to give them more firepower. It has added free agents Michael Nylander, Tom Poti and Viktor Kozlov, who should produce better puck possession and better defense — and a return to the playoffs.
That will be uncharted territory not just for the kids who are all grown up now but also for Glen Hanlon, who in six seasons as a coach — three in Portland in the American Hockey League and the last three leading the Capitals — has had only one winning record.
He seemed to be the right coach for a team full of guys trying to learn how to become NHL players, but now we will find out whether he is the right coach to take the team to the next level.
Hanlon said the expectations of success don’t create any greater pressure for the team than the fear of failure did over the past two years.
“There isn’t any more pressure,” Hanlon said. “The hardest thing to do, night in and night out, and we did it for two years, is to work hard every single night. If we didn’t, there was a huge opportunity there for embarrassment. We had a young group of kids that were growing, and now we feel it is no more or no less pressure than we had in the past.”
But it is a different kind of pressure for these young Caps who chased pucks and played hard with a combined 57-81-26 record over the last two years to show for it. They will be expected to be seasoned and mature enough to show more veteran tendencies than rookie mistakes. Kolzig had an interesting reason as to why this group should show more maturity on the ice — women.
“Two years ago, from a social standpoint, we had maybe two or three guys who were married or seriously committed to girlfriends,” Kolzig said. “Now I think there are maybe two or three guys who aren’t. I think that will stabilize a lot of players and keep them a little more focused as far as hockey goes. You have teenagers now who are young men, and they have played in a lot of different situations on the ice. Whether they deserved the amount of ice time they got, it didn’t matter. They were put in situations to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, and I think it has had a positive influence on most of the guys. We should be a lot more mature and ready to accept that challenge in making the playoffs.”
In boxing, they say women weaken legs. Must be different with hockey.