- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2012

As many years as NHL players have been around hockey, add years onto that for their fathers.

Driving their sons to early morning practices and helping out at the rink and away from it, hockey dads have a special perspective on watching games.

“When you watch all the games, you have a feel for how the team’s doing, where it’s going, trends that come up,” Washington Capitals center Jeff Halpern said. “They’ve all watched hockey their whole lives. So they’re not just a casual fan. They have a good idea what’s going on.”

This past weekend was the Capitals’ annual fathers-and-mentors trip, a chance for a break from the monotony of a long season and some bonding among multiple generations. This year, which started with Stanley Cup aspirations, hasn’t transpired as planned in Washington, and of course the dads have theories on what has gone wrong.

Mike Knuble’s brother Steve pointed out that Washington looked “stacked” going into the year and worked to explain the team falling short of expectations. He and a few dads were cautiously optimistic but still concerned about the Caps’ tenuous position.

“Sometimes I watch [and] it’s like the urgency’s not there, and all of a sudden they’re going to go into a five- or 10-game winning streak and everything will be OK,” said forward Matt Hendricks’ dad, Doug. “I just think the season’s wearing on and they’re leaving themselves exposed for the big disaster. And it’s kind of scary. I’ve got faith in the players, a great group of guys; a lot of real professionals, a lot of good young players. I’m just hoping they get there.”

Doug Hendricks knows from years of watching the Capitals, even before Matt arrived, that potential “to be the top team in the league” is there. But Washington is teetering on the edge.

“The big disaster’s not making the playoffs,” Doug Hendricks said. “That would be hard to handle.”

Gunther Alzner, who lives in Burnaby, British Columbia, watches every game on weekends and usually at least half the game the rest of the time. He listens to sports talk radio on his drive, always hoping to hear that son Karl and the Capitals aren’t losing.

He cited the five-time Stanley Cup-champion Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s and early 1990s as the example of what a winning team has to be — and what the Caps aren’t doing well enough.

“I guess it’s a cliche where you hear all the time that you have to play a full 60 minutes. I think that’s probably got a lot to do with it,” Gunther Alzner said. “I have my philosophy. I’m not a coach, I’ll never be a coach. I don’t have the capability of being as a coach. But as a fan sometimes they might’ve taken their foot off the gas pedal. You’ve got to play a full 60 minutes.”

With the wins coming less frequently than just about anyone expected, the dads’ views can be beneficial. Jeff Halpern talked to his dad about games well before this go-around with the Capitals, and though he conceded Mel and other fathers don’t know the ins and outs of game plans, video sessions and meetings, they provide different and respected voices.

“It’s another hockey person who’s going to obviously side with you, but it’s good people to bounce things off of,” Jeff Halpern said. “I think dad’s been fair my whole life, and if I haven’t had a good game, he probably won’t come out and say, ‘You played terrible,’ but he’s always had a good way of talking about games.”

Steve Knuble watches the Caps from Huntsville, Ala., to see his brother, and he’s seen every game this season. He pointed to injuries to defenseman Mike Green and center Nicklas Backstrom as reasons why Washington isn’t comfortably in first place.

“For the team, I think you live and die by a couple players. When everybody was healthy and everybody was here with Green and Backstrom and Ovi — they went 7-0, right?” Steve Knuble said. “Then Green got injured. I wouldn’t underestimate how Mike Green settles the defense down and how he starts to play and gets the puck moving up forward.”

There’s certainly that kind of optimism around the dads, all of whom have passed a competitive nature on to their sons. Even though Doug Hendricks referred to the “big disaster” possibility of no hockey for the Caps beyond April 8, he realizes that a hot goalie and playing well at the right time might make all this conversation about falling short moot.

“Maybe this will be the year,” he said. “Maybe playing a little poorly during the regular season, they’ll be strong in the playoffs.”

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