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COVID-19: What the pandemic has meant for local hockey players

COVID-19: What the pandemic has meant for local hockey players

Justin Cade was in the midst of what had become his new routine of skating to Thomas Jefferson High School. 

With no ice access and both of his hockey leagues shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, finding a way to continue playing and practicing hockey had become difficult. Jefferson seemed like a good alternative with a lot of unused open space.

But even that option was soon taken away.

Cade, 35, was practicing his stickhandling and shooting by a dumpster at the high school when a security guard arrived.

“I was actually chased out by a security guard [last week] saying that it wasn't a good idea to practice,” Cade said. “He told me that it's no problem just to skate through, whatever that means. I assume it just means he doesn't want one person taking up a plot of land.”

“He said I could skate around or whatever so apparently I'm not allowed to bring a ball or a puck, but I am allowed to skate on the sidewalk and in the street.”

Cade’s ability to play with his team on ice had already been taken away. Now he is left with few places he can play even on his own.

“To make it even harder for local players, they are shutting down potential places to practice,” Cade said.

The coronavirus pandemic has us all stuck at home which means no hockey, but it’s not just the professionals who are being kept off the ice. Though it may not be as easy as picking up a basketball and playing a pickup game or getting a soccer ball and finding the nearest field, a very devoted community of local casual hockey players has grown in the Washington, D.C. area. 

Those players have now found the sport that was their outlet, their release, their passion has been taken away. That leaves a void.

For many, the desire to play hockey grew out of interest in the NHL game.

“I became a hockey fan right around the time the Capitals got [Alex Ovechkin] - as I think a lot of D.C. hockey fans did,” said Jason Rogers, a sports reporter for the Washington City Paper who makes frequent appearances on NBC Sports Washington’s television coverage of the Capitals.

Growing up in Northern Virginia, ice time was limited until Rogers, 29, moved to Arlington.

“As I moved into Arlington, it became a real possibility that I could get ice time at Kettler, which is now MedStar,” Rogers said. “So I just started going probably three years ago and just whether friends or fellow people that I met in the press box or even just Capitals fans that I met, ever since then, [we’ve] been pretty regularly going to Kettler to skate and to play.”

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Cade works as a consultant and grew up in an Atlanta metro area where the NHL has a checkered history with the Flames and Thrashers moving out of town. But his love for the game grew through the grass roots. 

“I grew up in a suburb of Atlanta, which obviously was not the hockey hotbed at the time,” Cade said. “At that point the Braves were the star of the show and a lot of folks down there are really into college football. Hockey really wasn't much of a thing. But these kids from New York moved to my neighborhood and they introduced me to hockey.”

Cade had seen games on television. He knew all about legends like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux. It took his new friends to help really get him into the sport.  

“This one day they asked if I wanted to watch a hockey game and I thought to myself ‘Well sure. Why not? It's probably more fun than playing video games. I get to check out something new.’ I was hooked from the second the puck dropped. I just fell in love with it.”

The lure of playing hockey is not just limited to younger generations, either. John Ganoe, 67, a non-profit executive, was a long-time hockey fan who was inspired to lace up the skates after overcoming cancer.

“I was very fortunate and I recovered and I just decided I always wanted to play hockey, why not?” Ganoe said. “I went to Kettler, I signed up for learn-to-skate, rented a pair of skates and off I went.”

He added: “Every time I go over the boards - old and slow and really not responsive enough as I would like to be on the ice certainly - but every time I go over the boards it's a win for me.”

Ganoe was playing in three leagues before the coronavirus pandemic. As one would expect, the time investment is massive, the cost substantial, the ice available at inconvenient hours. But it reflects the level of commitment and how much hockey means to players like Ganoe. 

“Adult league hockey is very often played, particularly in the winter, very late at night,” Ganoe said. “With the getting there, the changing, the playing, the getting home again, home at 1 in the morning, all jacked up from playing and up again at 6:30 to go to work, that's a bit of a challenge.”

Hockey is just not an easy game to play. But it also means those who do are passionate about the sport. Otherwise the effort needed would scare them away. 

But even with the hockey boom the Washington area has seen since Ovechkin ignited the Capitals’ fan base, playing hockey in the traditional sense is just not possible for everyone. It sometimes takes a little creativity.

As a scrum master, managing and organizing people is part of the job for Philip Karash, 34. When he moved from Connecticut to Washington, he quickly became a fan of the Capitals and was interested in playing. He found that a local social sports league offered floor hockey - played on foot - but needed help running it. He soon took it over and has been playing and managing the league ever since.

“I had never really found athletic activities that I super loved to do, but I loved playing hockey,” Karash said. “For me, getting out there and doing that was an awesome way to exercise more so I started doing that as often as I could.”

Everyone agrees that hockey, on foot or on skates, is great exercise. But there are other ways to get exercise that are easier and cheaper. That hockey can be such a commitment to play means unique communities evolve around the sports and become tight-knit groups. 

“It's not a sport you can just pick up a ball and go shoot on a hoop,” Cade said. “I'm not taking a dig at basketball, but it takes a certain level of commitment to play hockey and I really like the passion that you have. Even in a beer league, we're playing for nothing more than a little cheap made-in-China plastic trophy for the championship - let alone something like the Stanley Cup. But you take a lot of pride in lifting that tiny seven-inch piece of plastic over your head if your team wins.”

Everyone has a different story on how and when they first got into playing hockey, but every player credits that community and the people they play with as the major reason for why they love playing.

“You go out there, you sweat, you get hurt, you leave it all on the line, you compete against friends, you compete with friends,” Rogers said. “There's this communal collaborative aspect of hockey, specifically. It's such a team sport, it's such a culture of the team comes first, sacrifice your body, everybody's hurt, we're all kind of suffering. And I think a lot of people miss that during this quarantine time. They miss that communal feeling. They miss that collaborative feeling. For me especially, that's what I miss about hockey is going out there and sweating and working with your friends and then being able to kind of be in the locker room afterwards and kind of commiserate and all put your arm around one another and I think that's what's really tough about it right now.”

Part of the challenge for local players, as it has been for many people, is finding ways to stay active with gyms, ice rinks and sports leagues closed. For many, the coronavirus has robbed them of their primary source of exercise. 

“Let me tell you, if you want to go on something like a wild goose chase just try to buy a kettlebell today,” Ganoe said. “Just try. It's just ridiculous.”

But when hockey becomes such an important part of a person’s life, when it becomes ingrained in who they are, being without it is about more than just losing out on exercise.

Even if they find other ways to stay active at home, it doesn’t take long before thoughts drift to hockey again anyway. 

“I finally broke out the roller hockey skates and I have been literally skating around my neighborhood with a hockey stick just doing anything I can to try to simulate the feeling of skating again,” Rogers said.

“I've been practicing with a little net and a little knee hockey stick that I like to take shots on a little goalie template,” Cade said. “Our cat likes to chase little balls and stuff that I shoot down the hall.”

It has now been two months since the pandemic shut down leagues across the region. That’s two months without hockey to watch or to play, two months without those team interactions, two months away from those hockey communities that players have come to love. 

“I found myself in the last two weeks especially reaching out to a lot of those people because these are folks that I would see every single week for the last nine years,” Karash said. “Not getting to see them, it really stinks. So I've been trying to reach out, text people, see how they're doing.”

He’s not alone in that thought. It’s hard not to look ahead to when those social bonds through hockey can form again.  

“I miss all those people. We've been very good about keeping in touch in the limited ways that we all can right now,” Ganoe said. “[But] I miss skating. I miss the physical challenge of skating … and I miss all of that a great deal. And then there's just the element. I miss my routine. I miss that life. I certainly miss the playing, I miss the camaraderie, I miss my teammates, I miss all of that. It's been difficult.”

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Alex Ovechkin selling ‘We Will Skate Again’ t-shirts and masks to help local community

Alex Ovechkin selling ‘We Will Skate Again’ t-shirts and masks to help local community

Alex Ovechkin will be selling custom "We Will Skate Again" t-shirts, face masks and neck gaiters with all proceeds going toward foundations in the DMV community, the Capitals announced in a press release Thursday.

The products, which can be purchased at the Ovechkin's online store, feature his signature logo. The shirts also have the phrase "We Will Skate Again" written across the front. Here's a look at some of the designs from the press release:

Money raised from t-shirt sales will be donated to the Tucker Road Ducks and The Tucker Road Parent Hockey Organization. The youth hockey team from Prince George’s County, Md., tragically lost their ice rink in 2017 due to a fire. The organization is working to rebuild it, while also striving to make hockey available for kids of any economic background. 

RELATED: OSHIE LAUNCHES AUCTION TO BENEFIT COVID-19 CRITICAL NEEDS FUND

Proceeds from the masks and neck gaiters will go to the Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation's “Feeding the Frontlines” fund, which was created as a way to help those in the community who are dealing with the negative impact of COVID-19.

Ovechkin and the rest of the Capitals are gearing up for the beginning of training camp on July 13 as the NHL gets closer to a return.

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How a flat cap could affect the Capitals' approach to the Seattle expansion draft

How a flat cap could affect the Capitals' approach to the Seattle expansion draft

The NHL salary cap is going to remain at $81.5 million for next two years at least. That is going to make life difficult for Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. With the team already tight against the cap ceiling, he won't even get the annual relief of the cap rising. One way in which the team could find a modicum of relief, however, is through the 2021 expansion draft. Every team in the NHL will lose a player to Seattle which means taking a contract off the books. Given the team's cap situation, there is one player specifically to keep in mind when it comes to the expansion draft: T.J. Oshie.

For the expansion, each team will be able to protect eight skaters and a goalie or seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. It seems safe to assume Washington will choose the latter. Here are the forwards that will still be under contract after the 2020-21 season: Nicklas Backstrom, Nic Dowd, Lars Eller, Carl Hagelin, Garnet Hathaway, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Oshie, Richard Panik and Tom Wilson. The contracts for both Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana expire at the end of the 2020-21 season, but both will almost certainly be re-signed so we can add them to the list.

Of the forwards the team would want to protect, the most obvious choices are Backstrom, Eller, Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, Vrana and Wilson. Most would assume that the seventh spot should go to Oshie, but should it?

As I wrote yesterday, one of the issues for Washington is that the team has several long-term deals on the books. For a team with little room under the cap, MacLellan had to offer longer-term deals instead of big money ones to remain competitive in the gree agent market. The risk is that it ties you to a player for longer, but even if a player is not living up to his contract, the percentage of his cap hit would decrease every year with a steadily rising salary cap. Well, now the cap is no longer rising and that means players on long deals, like Oshie, are not getting better as the players age.

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Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to Oshie. First, he will be 34 at the time of the expansion draft and will only be halfway through an eight-year contract that carries a cap hit of $5.75 million. Obviously, the chances that Oshie would be living up to that cap hit when he was 37 or 38 were low when Oshie first signed the deal, but that's OK because with a steadily rising cap, the percentage would probably be low enough at that point that it would not be a significant issue. But now the salary cap is flat which means MacLellan is going to have to take a hard look at all of the team's long-term deals and project out what the team can expect from those players towards the end of their contracts.

Oshie is having a great season with 26 goals and 23 assists. He was on pace for 58 points which would have been his best in Washington. He is a leader on the team and a real boost to the locker room. No one could question his value to Washington now, but the question is what will his value be in the second half of his contract?

RELATED: WHY A FLAT SALARY CAP IS BAD NEWS FOR THE CAPS

Granted, Seattle knows all of this, but there are three reasons why Oshie would still be an attractive acquisition. First, Oshie's cap hit is essentially a non-factor for a team starting from scratch. The Caps have very little room to work with under the cap while Seattle has all of the room to work with. A cap hit of $5.75 million would hardly be a deterrent. Second, Oshie is actually from Washington state. While most fans remember Oshie taking the Cup to his hometown of Warroad, Minn., Oshie was born in Washington and lived there until moving to Minnesota in 2002. Third, when building a team, you need players like Oshie who are personable and charismatic. He is the life of the locker room and a natural leader. He would be Washington's native son, returning to lead the team in its inaugural season.

To me, it is not a stretch to think that if Oshie is indeed selected, he would be in the running to be Seattle's first captain. His departure would also provide some cap relief to a Washington team in need of the extra room. Losing Oshie would mean losing that spark in the locker room, however, and MacLellan will have to decide whether that is a fair trade-off.

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