Less than four years ago, when Alex Ovechkin arrived in the capital of the United States from his native Russia, he was a teenager who could move around his new town without creating a stir. On his occasional attempts to play the fame card -- offering, he said, perhaps an "I am left wing for Washington Capitals, you know?" -- the responses indicated his place in the Washington sports landscape, which seemed relatively negligible.
"Rookie year, nobody know," he said. " 'Where you from? Capitals? Who? Capitals?'"
"The first season, we'd have sold out probably one game, the beginning of the year, opening-night game," Ovechkin said. "This town has changed a lot."
The team's broadcasts on Comcast SportsNet have drawn an average rating of 1.2 locally, tied for 10th among U.S.-based NHL teams. The average of roughly 27,600 households is more than triple what baseball's Washington Nationals drew last summer on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, and no NHL team has increased its local viewership more from last season to this. In 2006-07, the Capitals' average rating was a paltry .40.
"There are cities that you say, 'Well, how did they become hockey towns and do so great?' " Leonsis said. "They won championships. That's the answer. That's why, to me, everything else is noise."
The noise, too, is what is filling Verizon Center on a nearly nightly basis. When the Capitals begin post-all-star play Tuesday in Boston, they will do so as the top team in the Southeast Division, second only to the Bruins in the Eastern Conference. And when Ovechkin and the team return to the District after that, the team's most recognizable player may choose to grab something to eat at the most crowded joint in town. The response is almost certain to be something akin to, "Right this way, Mr. Ovechkin."
"If you want to go somewhere like a restaurant or bar, the hostess just says, 'Hey, come on in,' " Ovechkin said. "They always give us good table. What a change."