Friday, January 15, 2010

Washington Capitals and Hershey Bears - A Winning Combination...


Over the past few years, the Washington Capitals organization has experienced a tremendous resurgence on the ice and at the turnstile. A team that was once in trouble, with low attendance figures (14,720 fans per game in 2004) and finishing 28th in the overall standings during the 2003-2004 season, has now captured the hearts of sports fans in the US Capital. The recent success reaches farther then Washington, all the way to their American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey Pennsylvania.

While it is easy to say, “They have Ovechkin now, of course they have become a good team,” there is more at work then drafting one phenomenal athlete. The turnaround in Washington goes all the way to the top. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis is very involved with the team and is extremely interactive with their fans, General Manager George McPhee has made the most of his draft choices and Head Coach Bruce Boudreau has found a permanent home in the NHL and has his young team firing on all cylinders.

Bears GM Doug Yingst, along with Head Coach Mark French, have prepared their players for promotion to the Capitals when needed. The play of last year’s Calder Cup MVP Michal Neuvirth in Washington this season is a perfect example. Called up to the NHL when injuries struck the Capitals net minders, Neuvirth has a 5-4-0 record in 11 appearances and his play has earned him more playing time, ahead of NHL veteran Jose Theodore.

Heading into Friday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Capitals sit third in the Eastern Conference, with a 28-12-6 win/loss record. Their 62 points is four more then they had for the entire 2003-2004 season. Already considered a lock for the playoffs, their fans “rock the red” every home game at the Verizon Center and they are 11th in NHL attendance this season, averaging 18,277 fans per game.

The Hershey Bears, one of the most successful AHL teams in history with 10 Calder Cup victories, recently set a franchise record with a 12 game winning streak. The Bears are at the top of the AHL in attendance, averaging 8,863 fans per game and their 29-9-0-2 win/loss record has them two points ahead of the Hamilton Bulldogs for the top spot in the AHL standings.

In his 11 years as general manager in Washington, George McPhee has focused on drafting quality players and the Capitals fans are starting to witness the results on the ice. Besides Ovechkin, selected first overall in the 2004 draft, McPhee’s roster includes Alexander Semin (selected 13th overall in 2002), Nicklas Backstrom (selected 4th overall in 2006), Eric Fehr (18th overall in 2003), Mike Green (29th overall in 2004) and Seymon Varlamov (23rd overall in 2006).

In the AHL, the Bears fans are witnessing the emergence of Keith Aucoin, Alexandre Giroux and Andrew Gordon. Aucoin, second in AHL scoring with 46 points was a free agent signing in 2008 after being part of the Carolina Hurricanes organization. He joined the Bears with a championship ring from Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup Championship (he was a member of their “black aces”), and has played 21 games with the Capitals during the past two seasons. Giroux was selected by the Ottawa Senators in the seventh round of the 2001 entry draft and after spending time in the New York Rangers organization, he joined the Capitals as a free agent in 2006. This season in the AHL, his 42 points is third overall in league scoring. Gordon, selected in the seventh round of the 2004 entry draft, is seventh in AHL scoring with 39 points. All three players have joined the Capitals as call-ups this season and filled in admirably when needed.

While the spotlight shines on the big name players in Washington, Ovechkin, Green and Backstrom, the entire organization has a winning attitude. Management expects maximum effort from all their players and the players have responded. With smart selections in the draft and timely free agent acquisitions, the Capitals and Bears will be at or near the top of their leagues for many seasons. In the challenging salary cap era, if the Capitals lose a player to free agency or injury, there are several candidates in Hershey ready, willing and able to step in and get the job done. Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by clydeorama on Flickr.com

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