Thursday's AHL Showcase returned hockey to the Verizon Center for the first time since May, but a strange confluence of events turned the evening surreal and left local fans wondering when they'd be back to see the sport on ice.
At the same time that the Capitals' main American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, faced off with the Norfolk Admirals, 226 miles to the north at a hotel in Times Square, the NHL labor talks took an ugly - and public - turn.
The two sides, who had appeared to be making progress this week, suddenly went their separate ways Thursday afternoon and by the end of the night, both sides were pointing the finger at the other for holding up the process. At one point, the NHLPA even accused the NHL of declining its latest contract proposal by voice mail.
Back on the ice in the District, the star of last year's Stanley Cup run for the Capitals, Braden Holtby, was also the star of a 2-1 Hershey win over Norfolk. Holtby, who allowed his only goal just 10 seconds into the contest, saved the other 26 shots he faced as goals by Evan Barlow and Ryan Potunly gave the "visiting" Bears the win to move to 10-11-1-0 on the season.
"To be honest, the first three strides didn't feel to good - the ice wasn't that great tonight," Holtby said afterwards. "But it was good to see the crowd again and be back here at Verizon Center. It was great, and luckily we pulled out a victory."
But as the game wound down, the crowd let their frustration with the stalled labor process show.
Fans booed a video that ended with the message "Happy Holidays From the Washington Capitals," and started chanting "Fire Bettman!" and "We Want Hockey!" at several points in the third period.
Holtby said afterwards "[I] actually was wondering what they were chanting."
While the game was officially a sellout with 18,506 tickets sold, Holtby also noticed the crowd didn't carry the same electricity as a normal Capitals game.
"It's weird, you didn't know which team was the home team," Holtby said. "Obviously, not the loudest I've heard it here but they're always great fans. I've never heard a very quiet game here, ever. It's something to say to cheer for a team that isn't even their city. That's how passionate they are."
AHL President Dave Andrews admitted that while showcasing the highest level of professional hockey in North America with the NHL temporarily shuttered was a success for the league and had provided it with a financial boost, he wanted the NHL back soon for the sake of the sport of hockey. Andrews also hoped that Thursday night's game gave locked-out fans a chance to enjoy the game live.
"I was having an exchange via e-mail and text with [former Capital] Alan May earlier this afternoon - he played for me when I was the management side of the American League [with the Cape Breton Oilers.]," Andrews said.
"I just said I hope its a great game for the fans because they deserve it. You get this many fans coming out, they're hungry for hockey, you just hope they're get really entertained and send them home happy."
For Caps head coach Adam Oates, it was a bit strange to be at the Verizon Center not knowing when the next hockey game in the building will be.
"It's been like that every day," the new Capitals coach said before the game. "It's all part of our normal routine, and we're routine people and we're all used to it.
"You have a reason to get up, and now, it's like, what do we do? ... It's the same for everybody. Everybody's gone through it, every industry's gone through it. It's part of life."
Holtby agreed with Oates' assessment of the strange situation the fans and players are in at the moment.
"It's is, it's not the best situation ... it's out of our control.," the goaltender said "We'd all love to be playing hockey for the fans, especially here. It's the hardest part to swallow to see the game of hockey take a hit. It's a game we're all passionate about. But it's hard to take."
So as the game ended and the Bears filed out of the Capitals' locker room and got on a bus bound for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the site of Friday's game, the doors were shut and the room went dark once again. When the lights will come back on is anyone's guess.