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Bryan Watson feels as if the NHL, the league he loves like no other, is about to cross-check him. Right in the wallet.
In 1983, four years after retiring from the Washington Capitals, Watson opened a hockey bar in Old Town Alexandria. In a region that wears its apathy toward hockey on burgundy-and-gold sleeves, Watson’s enterprise, now called Bugsy’s, was the first local tavern geared toward fans of the world’s fastest team sport. Bugsy’s remains the only hockeycentric nightspot in the area.
Traditionally, this time of year, what with the World Series over and the Redskins settled into the middle of their schedule, would be the start of Bugsy’s high season.
But the owner isn’t optimistic that his seasonal patrons will be stopping by anytime soon to catch a game on his 16 satellite-ready TVs. He’s not anxious to find out who will go to a hockey bar, no matter how good the burgers or cold the beers, when there’s no hockey. But he’s gonna find out anyway.
“I don’t mean to be negative,” he says, “but this thing’s got ‘long-term’ written all over it.”
“This thing” is a labor dispute so vitriolic that even casual observers agree that it threatens the very existence of the NHL. This summer, after complaining for years about a lack of television revenues and escalating free-agent contracts, league owners voted to lock out the players until a new labor agreement, complete with the league’s first hard salary cap, was in place.
Given how much money and tradition and good will are at stake in the squabble, there has been incredibly little give from either side since the work stoppage commenced. And what movement has taken place has only widened the labor/management divide.
More than 250 NHL players left the country to play in European leagues rather than stick around and force the issue. Jeff Halpern, the Washington Capitals’ homegrown forward and fan favorite, is playing in Switzerland. Capitals spokesperson Brian Potter says that the only two Caps players who lived in the D.C. area full-time have moved away, goalie Olaf Kolzig to Washington state and defenseman Brendan Witt to Florida. When the Capitals held their annual charity golf tournament to benefit Children’s Hospital in late September, no players were around to participate.
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There have been no negotiations at all since early September. On Nov. 2, after a meeting of players’ representatives in Toronto, the union announced that its members, some 700 strong, were united behind the principle to sit out until the owners take any salary-cap demand off the table. Just one day later, Commissioner Gary Bettman responded by canceling the 2005 NHL All-Star Game, though that isn’t scheduled until Feb. 5.
If it weren’t for the work stoppage, the Capitals would be kicking off a huge homestand this week, with five games at the MCI Center in a 10-night stretch. In a normal year, that would mean a decent uptick in Bugsy’s cash flow.
While both sides have been fiddling, Watson’s been burning.
“What the hell does [the canceled All-Star game] tell you?” says Watson. “It tells you that the owners don’t want hockey. I don’t know what the players expect is going to happen. I’m just one bar, but you can take my situation and multiply it by 30, because there’s guys like me in every [NHL] city who are going to be taking the same hit.”
Unlike those other bar owners, however, Watson has reasons to be peeved that go far beyond his bar’s bottom line. Before opening the business, he’d given a good portion of his life to the game of hockey and the league that now seems to be in a suicidal spiral.
Now 62, Watson grew up playing hockey in his native Bancroft, Ontario. Over the years, with Bettman handing out hockey franchises as if they were Wendy’s, the NHL has ballooned to 30 teams. (Surest sign of the impending Armageddon: Columbus, Ohio, got an NHL team in 2000.) But when Watson first made it to the NHL in 1963, there were only six teams in the entire league—the Rangers, the Canadiens, the Maple Leafs, the Blackhawks, the Bruins, and the Red Wings.
The early portions of his career were spent in Montreal and Detroit, cities with perennially contending clubs where hockey takes a back seat to no other sport. His 1968 Canadiens team won the Stanley Cup. But in 1976, the Detroit Red Wings traded him to the fledgling Capitals, an expansion club that at the time was breaking records for futility while playing before small crowds in the woods in Landover, Md.
No matter what jersey he wore or what town he played in, Watson’s role was to be, to use a word that isn’t wholly pejorative in hockey circles, a goon. His career stat sheet shows just 17 goals but 2,212 minutes in the penalty box. Because he was such a good roughhouser, he lasted 16 seasons in the NHL. When he retired from the Caps and hung up his skates for good in 1979, no player in NHL history had spent more time under house arrest than Watson.
Little has changed about the Caps’ standing on the local sports ladder since Watson left hockey. “The Redskins were No. 1, the [Wizards] were No. 2, and the Caps were way, way down on the list,” he says. “It was interesting to see the Caps grow and really grab the fans’ interest a few years back, but now the interest in the team seems to be way back down, like it was when I got here in 1976.”
But, the lockout and local sports realities notwithstanding, Watson says he never regrets that he didn’t start up a Redskins bar.
“I opened a hockey bar,” he says. “And I’ve still got a hockey bar.” —Dave McKenna