- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2013

As fans cloaked in red streamed into Verizon Center on Tuesday night, for at least a little while it didn’t feel like the Washington Capitals were playing a mid-January game against the Winnipeg Jets.

The home opener almost made it feel like the four-month NHL lockout never happened.

“Surprise is the wrong word. Happy [the fans] came back is the best word for it,” left wing Jason Chimera said. “Once you miss something, I think you realize how much you miss it. No matter how much bad feelings you have and whatever goes on with it, you want to come back to it, I think no matter what happens.”

There were concerns during the league’s third significant work stoppage in the past 20 years that fans wouldn’t rush back into arenas and embrace teams as much as they have.

“By a lot of the reactions you could tell that you lost some, if not a lot, of fans,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “That passion for the game, I don’t think goes away. It’s one of those things that when it’s not there, you’re angry, but when it comes back hopefully your love for the game just brings you back rather than your dissatisfaction with the lockout as it is.”

Some fans won’t come back, or at least canceled their season tickets. Owner Ted Leonsis estimated that about 70 accounts canceled during the lockout, or roughly 150 seats.

But it’s hard to tell that anyone left when looking around the league during the very early stages of this 48-game season.

During opening weekend, sellouts and standing-room-only buildings were the norm. NBC set ratings records with its Saturday afternoon coverage, and the season opener at the Tampa Bay Lightning drew a 2.30 rating for Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic in the D.C. area, the highest for an opener in the network’s history.

“All the teams are going pretty good and with the inauguration [Monday] there’s a lot of excitement in the city,” Chimera said.

Despite some ticketing issues that caused lines outside Verizon Center, the building filled up during the first period and the sound of hockey was back when Matt Hendricks scored 10:02 into the game.

“The Capitals fans are pretty passionate here. They love their hockey,” Brouwer said. “As players we really thrive off those kinds of things. We love being able to play in front of full houses. Any player will tell you that any building that they go into that’s not overly packed isn’t a whole lot of fun to even get up to play the game.”

That wasn’t a problem Saturday night at the Lightning, when 19,204 fans packed Tampa Bay Times Forum and gave Caps players a little reminder of what it was like to play NHL hockey again.

“It was unbelievable, you know? It was like it was playoffs there,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s always nice when the people come to watch hockey.”

Especially after the lockout angered some fans and alienated others enough to turn away from the game. The past few days have been a sharp reminder that hockey fans generally won’t leave.

“That was amazing to see all the fans. I know that Tampa doesn’t have the reputation, I would say, of being always sold out, but that was amazing,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It’s almost like it was better than before, which I don’t think anybody really expected.”

Leonsis expected it, citing his dealings with fans from last week’s open practice at Verizon Center. He wasn’t worried about the effect the lockout would have on the Caps.

“People understood. People knew were we going to come back,” Leonsis said. “And they’re back. We’re sold out. They’re happy. They’re happy to be here amongst their friends.”

General manager George McPhee was happy just to have hockey back. His hope was that fans were just as happy.

From the early looks of things, they’re excited for the return of the NHL.

“They’re fanatical fans. They miss the players,” Leonsis said. “I forget the energy that the fans bring to you.”

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