A terrific authority on 35 seasons of Capitals hockey — a man who has seen every one of them — is the team’s very first radio broadcaster, Ron Weber. He was in attendance along with some high-profile Capitals’ alumni Saturday night to help commemorate 35 seasons of pro hockey in D.C. The celebration comes at an auspicious time in the team’s history: the team is hard-charging toward a 120-point season, which would obviously obliterate last season’s best-ever tally of 108 points, and every home game is sold out — 46 in a row in fact.
Weber’s voice was synonymous with Capitals’ hockey in this region even well into the 1980s; certainly for much of this organization’s first 10 years Weber was the only broadcast access point for hockey fans, until Home Team Sports, the predecessor regional sports television outlet to Comcast, formed in 1984 and began broadcasting home games on local cable TV. If anyone can appreciate where the Caps are today relative to where they were back at the start, it’s Ron Weber.
Saturday night I asked Weber: Back in the day, could you have ever imagined demand here for hockey such that the team would sell out 50 straight games at home?
“You’ll be surprised when I say yes,” Weber told me.
“I just thought that if the product was good enough . . . I guess if it surprises me at all it’s because we’re in the teeth of a recession. So that may suggest yes, it’s a little surprising.
“Ted Leonsis is the most popular owner of any sports team I’ve ever known,” Weber added. “You’ve got to have the winning, to be sure. But having said that, it also has to be the ‘In thing’ to do, and right now the Caps are the ‘In thing’ team in town right now.”
Another large-looming figure from the past in the rink last night was former Caps’ defenseman Calle Johansson, holder of the record for the most number of games played in a Caps’ sweater, 983. Johansson, who lives back home in Sweden, is only able to return to Washington, he told me, at most two times a year. But the Capitals’ success has made them a darling of hockey-mad Sweden, Johansson said.
“Since they’re doing so well now I get to see maybe three or four games a month [back in Sweden],” the great no. 6 said.
How excited are Swedes about Nicklas Backstrom?, I asked.
“It’s unbelievable. The Capitals have never been a fan favorite in Sweden before, but now it’s Washington all over the place. Detroit used to be the favorite team with all the Swedes on it, but now Washington has taken over big-time.”
Johansson of course was a big part of the Capitals’ magical run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, and nascent Verizon Center then was a fun joint to watch hockey in, but nothing like it is now. I asked Johansson if he ever could have imagined an atmosphere like the one he was immersed in Saturday night.
“No, never. You know it’s funny you mention that, because I asked a friend of mine when I came here [for the celebration], ‘How many people for the game here tonight?’, and he was like, ‘What, are you kidding? It’s a sellout again.’
“I didn’t know it was going to be a sellout every night. I knew they had some sellouts, but not every night. It’s great. I am so happy for the team.”
Besides bringing back VIPs from the past the Capitals on Saturday night also brought back a sampling of hockey sweaters worn from every era in franchise history, and they were wonderfully and most colorfully displayed on the first-level concourse. Authentic game-worns that bore beautiful battered evidence of wars fought by Washington hockey from the very beginning.