- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2011

Catherine Taggart-Ross is looking to buy Capitals playoff tickets for her family and a jersey for herself. She has been a hockey fan for about a month, and it’s all because of the Caps.

“I was watching the news, and people said that D.C. has no good teams. But I was flipping channels and saw the hockey team and saw how exciting they were,” said Ms. Taggart-Ross, who lives in Clinton.

“I’ve watched about four or five Caps games now, and it was fun. I’ve never been to a game in person, but I want to go and take my family. Even on TV, you can see the diversity and the excitement in the crowd. I think I have the hockey bug now.”

Losing teams and lockout-bound sports had better beware, because fans prefer games over legal battles, and D.C. fans are more than ready to see a winning franchise.

“Caps fans, and even area fans, are excited because the Capitals are the only winning team going, the only team they see with a legitimate chance right now to win a championship,” said WTOP Radio’s Jonathan Warner, who hosts the Capitals pre- and postgame shows, as well as the weekly program “Saturday Night Caps.”

“D.C. is still a Redskins town, but we’re going on 20 years now since they won their last Super Bowl trophy. The void is there to be filled. This town hasn’t had a winner in so long; people are ready to jump on the Capitals bandwagon, if they haven’t already.”

The Capitals have won the Southeast Division four straight years but haven’t made it past the second round of the playoffs. Last year’s first-round upset loss to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens was particularly disappointing, but Caps fans are a resilient bunch, with a loyal, dedicated and almost rabid base.

“Verizon Center is electric for Capitals games,” Mr. Warner said.

“The Capitals have been sold out for over 100 straight games, and you see bumper stickers and people wearing Caps paraphernalia, but I believe the Capitals have to at least reach the Eastern Conference finals this year. You can’t keep teasing the fans by getting bumped out early in the playoffs.”

But the electric atmosphere generated by the Caps fans extends far beyond Verizon Center.

During Wednesday night’s double-overtime comeback victory over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, which put the Caps up 3-1 in the series, several hundred fans gathered at a watch party at Union Jack’s in the Ballston Commons Mall, just steps away from the Kettler Ice Complex where the Caps hold practice.

The crowd was a sea of red, with nearly every fan sporting a Caps T-shirt or jersey, all watching the game on big-screen TVs and cheering on their team - loudly.

“I’ve been a Caps fan for 25 years,” said Josh Callister of Arlington.

“They play very good hockey. They have a lot of young talent, and they relate well to fans. You really get the feeling that they want to win for Washington. This is more than just a team.”

Mr. Callister agreed that the team needs to at least reach the conference finals for the season not to seem like a disappointment.

Chris Koves, a Caps fan since 1982, said if the team does make it to the conference finals, he would be happy with that. Mr. Koves, an Arlington resident, said his fandom began in 1982 - the year he was born.

“I’ve been a fan all my life. This is a young team, and they’ve had so much success recently. They are so close to doing some really good things,” Mr. Koves said.

He compared the excitement around the team to that of a college team.

“A Caps game is an event. It’s a party everybody wants to go to,” Mr. Koves said.

The hockey converts include Mr. Koves’ friend Mark Brook, a Southern California transplant who has lived in Ballston for less than three years, but he acknowledged that the Caps already have supplanted his former team, the San Jose Sharks.

“If they meet in the finals, I’ll be pulling for the Caps,” Mr. Brook said.

“I’ve been going to games all my life, and I go to Redskins and Wizards games. But the atmosphere at a Caps games is one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

Alexandria residents Lisa Gasparotti and Kristen Wheeler, sporting Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom jerseys, respectively, are mothers of autistic sons who play hockey.

Ms. Gasparotti recalled the day when her son, Sami, met Green, who posed for photos and spent time talking with her son. She bought her jersey the next day and has been an even bigger fan of the team since.

“The players spend time with the fans. They engage them,” Ms. Gasparotti said.

“They’re a great team. They play together so skillfully; it’s not a lot of individuals doing their own thing. It’s great to see them doing so well. When you go to Verizon Center, everyone is wearing red and everyone is screaming. It’s great,” Ms. Gasparotti said.

Ms. Wheeler said her son, Jacob, wants to be a goalie because of Michal Neuvirth, and her jersey was a present from her husband, who teases her about the intensity of her Caps fanaticism.

“The game is so passionate. It moves, it’s exciting, there’s constant motion,” Ms. Wheeler said.

It helps that the Caps are winning, but Ms. Wheeler said that’s not why she’s a fan.

“My son is glued when hockey is on. Nothing has ever engaged him like this. It’s just the best sport ever.”

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