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When Slapshot, a bald eagle clad in oversized hockey gear and a black Capitals jersey, made his grand entrance into the gymnasium at Hutchison Elementary School in Herndon, Va., last month, he gave high-fives to any kid who reached out a hand. He pumped his arms up and down and “raised the roof.” He borrowed a move from Hulk Hogan, putting his hand up to his ear to dare the kids—most of who were unfamiliar with hockey—to make as much noise as possible.
Slapshot is always energetic, but the poor souls working underneath the eagle costume have been sweating buckets this fall. The Capitals have launched a public-relations blitz to counter the ill effects of a National Hockey League lockout with no clear end in sight; since the team can’t use the players for PR events during a lockout, this means a lot more work for Slapshot. He’s been to elementary schools, local ice rinks, shopping malls, and recreation centers on a nearly impossible mission: to keep people excited about hockey when most of the area has already forgotten about it.
“Normally we haven’t had time for a lot of this stuff,” says Mark Tamar, the Capitals’ manager of game operations. “Without games, we’ve had time to do a lot of things, and we’ve still had a lot of requests for Slapshot.”
Tamar is in charge of deploying the team’s stable of Slapshot performers. It’s a part-time gig, and the Capitals use a rotation of freelancers who have other full-time jobs. During the season, Tamar’s also in charge of game-night entertainment, but he’s had to shift his focus during the lockout.
“We’ve had to do some things differently than we would be doing if we were on the ice,” says Capitals Senior Director of Communications Kurt Kehl. “We haven’t been in contact with the players. We don’t ask from them, and they don’t ask from us. It’s a challenge.”
Even Caps owner Ted Leonsis has had to kick his usual fan-friendly act into higher gear. In November, Leonsis invited 25 of the most active members of the team’s online message boards to a free dinner at Signatures, an upscale restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. Sixteen fans took Leonsis up on the offer and dined with him in a private area while they talked hockey. The guests were required to wear name tags with both their real names and screen names.
“One guy even flew down from Toronto,” Kehl says. “But it actually worked out really well.”
But Leonsis’ hospitality still wasn’t good enough for some of his online pals.
“The Guinness sucked, but a bad Guinness is still better than anything you can see through, so I had two,” one guest posted on the message board. “The only food complaint I had was with the creme brulee. It didn’t have that sugar crust that one would expect. Somehow I expected more!”
Even if he doesn’t always satisfy his fans’ culinary tastes, Leonsis has always been one of the more accessible owners in the league. His colleagues might need to start taking some of his cues to retain their own fan bases.
“[The lockout] is a reality,” says Bernadette Mansur, the executive director of the NHL Foundation. “Because of the situation we are in, clubs are getting more creative.”
The Capitals have realized that they can’t rely on hockey enthusiasts to come to them, and as a result, they’ve been more proactive in finding promotional opportunities. They’ve bounced Slapshot, radio play-by-play man Steve Kolbe, and Craig Laughlin, a Capitals alumnus and Comcast SportsNet hockey analyst, from event to event throughout the fall.
When the organization heard about the opening of the Mary O’Neill Rush Memorial Rink, a street-hockey facility at Watkins Elementary School in Southeast, they recruited Kolbe to MC at the ribbon-cutting. The Capitals also jumped in on a ski expo at Dulles Town Center in November to capitalize on a large crowd of winter-sports enthusiasts attending the event. The team was given a table between an exercise-gear vendor and a fitness demonstration.
“[The Dulles event] was a situation where we decided there would be a lot of people there,” Kehl says. “We sent Slapshot and set up a table. We had people sign up in a raffle to win an autographed stick. People could come by the table and check us out. It was good.”
Kehl is quick to admit, however, that these events are no substitute for games—regardless of the turnout.
“Normally on a Friday or a Saturday night at this time of year we’d like to have those people in the MCI Center,” Kehl says. “It’s been different. We’re adjusting, too. Our jobs are different. Normally we’d be writing up press releases for games at this point and focusing on the season, but we’re trying to make the best out of the opportunities we do have.”
The Capitals will have more than enough time to keep coming up with fresh ideas. The NHL has already canceled February’s All-Star Game, and the NHL Players’ Association is making one more proposal late this week before the entire season is canceled.
And while the players scramble around Europe to find ways to stay out on the ice, Slapshot is likely to have an even more hectic spring rallying whatever enthusiasm is left for hockey in Washington. When the Capitals resume play, there’s at least one member of the organization who won’t need to worry about getting in shape, at least judging from Tamar’s description of Slapshot’s recent workout at the Dulles event. “Slapshot was going around meeting people, shaking hands, slapping backs,” Tamar gushes. “He can get around. He can run and jump and skate. A lot of times, these mascot outfits prohibit people from being athletic. I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s universally loved.”CP