Capitals forward Brooks Laich remembers looking out from the tunnel at Verizon Center and players saying to each other before some games that it was "S.O.S. night: Sold-Out Section." Once-proud hockey towns, Chicago and Washington were home to many empty seats and empty arenas come playoff time.
Now, it couldn't be more opposite as the Blackhawks lead the NHL in attendance and the Capitals are in the top half of the league. And while the two teams are success stories, the Blackhawks cashed in on the years of losing to win the Stanley Cup twice, while the Capitals are still a work in progress.
"We both have come from the ashes, if you will, to be pretty strong franchises this last decade," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "The one thing we haven't done, we haven't won a banner. We've won the smaller banners, but we haven't won the big one. That's what I know this ownership and this organization wants to do."
When Alex Ovechkin looks across the ice at Nationals Park during Thursday's Winter Classic, the Capitals' captain and the man most responsible for the American capital's resurgence as a hockey town sees the Blackhawks as the team that sets the bar.
"They won a couple Stanley Cups and they have that kind of experience and they're kind of a role-model team," Ovechkin said. "I think we as a group, it's time to move forward. We have to take this time and it's up to be our time."
The Blackhawks weren't always worth emulating. Beginning in 1997-98, they went to the playoffs just once in the next 10 seasons, finished last three times and were consistently one of the worst-drawing teams in the NHL.
Trotz, who coached the Nashville Predators from their inception, remembers that expansion team finishing ahead of the Blackhawks. Those were the lean times.
The Blackhawks didn't help themselves early, missing on first-round picks like Mark Bell, Steve McCarthy, Mikhail Yakubov and Pavel Vorobiev. Things began to change in 2002 when they spent a second-rounder on Duncan Keith, and in 2003 when they got Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford and Dustin Byfuglien.
By the summer of 2007, Chicago had selected Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Troy Brouwer and most importantly franchise cornerstones Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Attendance rose along with the tide of winning, and by 2008-09, United Center was the most packed building in the league.
That season featured the Blackhawks' first Winter Classic, against the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field. That was the beginning of their rise to prominence.
"That was kind of the start of everything," Toews said. "That year was the first year we made the playoffs in a long time. I think it was just the first step towards this group putting the Blackhawks back on the map."
The Blackhawks made it to the Western Conference final that season and won the Cup in 2010, ending a title drought that dated to 1961.
"They drafted high and well in getting guys like Kane and Toews and they went out in free agency and added some good pieces like (Marian) Hossa and people like that," Trotz said. "They've done everything right. I think the Blackhawks are probably the gold standard right now in the National Hockey League."
Dale Tallon began the process as general manager, then his successor, Stan Bowman, navigated through salary-cap woes and helped build the team back up to win again in 2013. Making playoff runs is now the expectation.
"We feel like we're capable of doing that every year given the experience that we have at this point," Toews said.
What makes Chicago the "gold standard" isn't just talent but the use of it by coach Joel Quenneville.
"I think lots of guys on our team understand their role," Hossa said. "We've got so much skill so nobody's worried about getting points or scoring goals because it just comes natural. People understand their roles, whether it's a penalty-killing thing or guys back-checking hard and helping the team. Those little things make us big."
The Capitals had their share of draft misses but hit on Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Karl Alzner and John Carlson. They beat the Blackhawks back to the playoffs and made it seven years in a row before missing in 2013-14.
In those seven playoff appearances, though, the Capitals won only three series and never advanced past the second round. Brouwer grew up in the NHL with the Blackhawks and was on the team that won the 2010 Cup and has been part of three post-seasons in Washington.
"There's been some growing pains for sure in this organization," Brouwer said. "It has been a little bit longer, and not every team is going to excel in the same time frame. You need the right atmosphere, you need the right pieces. ... I know guys have been frustrated with Presidents' Trophies and early exits in the playoffs — not quite getting there — but every year that I've been here I feel like we've grown as a team."
Trotz is the Capitals' fourth coach since they became contenders, following Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter and Adam Oates. Absent winger Alexander Semin, who left in free agency, the core has remained very much in tact.
Because of the changes and because of what has stayed the same, Capitals players must reconcile with the fact that this is a long journey to get over the playoff hump but that Trotz represents a fresh start.
"You learn from your experiences," said Green, who's in the final year of his contract. "We're not the only team that goes through that sort of stage and whatnot."
The maturation process is definitely going on with the Capitals, not just as players get older, get married and have children. Green said the mentality in the first season under Trotz has been "team and family and working hard," and he believes it's a recipe that will lead to success.
"As a team and an organization, we're on that path," Green said. "It's a matter of doing it every night and getting better each day. But we're on our way."
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