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Washington? a Hockey Town? Lars Noble Thinks It Is

The Stanley Cup finals make a first appearance in US capital.

As a dedicated fan of the Washington Capitals, Lars Noble has found respect hard to come by.

In a league that crowned its first champion in 1918, the 23-year-old Capitals are new kids on the block. And considering that the team had never even made it to the Stanley Cup finals, many hockey afficionados have found it a bit difficult to take the Caps seriously.

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But like it or not, Washington is forcing puckheads to take note. Now that the Capitals have advanced to their first Stanley Cup finals and are preparing to host Game 3 tomorrow night, the hockey world has trained its eye on America's capital for the first time.

Still, the long-awaited arrival of the biggest event on the hockey calendar has brought with it a degree of introspection. In a town where the official uniform is pinstripes and wingtips and entire professions exist solely to create and protect an image, it's perhaps not surprising that many here are wondering if Washington is truly worthy of being called a blue-collar hockey town.

For Mr. Noble, the answer is obvious.

"If I had to sum it up in one sentence, Washington is a hockey town and always has been," says the Caps season-ticket holder, who has been a dedicated fan since moving here in 1984 to work in the Reagan administration. "This year they are just realizing and earning it."

Others, however, aren't so sure, and there has been as much examination of the fans' loyalty base as there has been about winning hockey's holy grail.

"Part of the problem is [the Caps] always let you down in the playoffs," says Washington native Andy Pollin, who occasionally hosts a nationally syndicated radio sports talk show on ESPN. Indeed, the Caps have made it to the semifinals only twice, and they have had a legendary penchant for losing series that they seemed certain to win.

The collective self-consciousness has been fueled by jibes from cities with well-established hockey traditions. On the way to the finals, Washington had to go the hockey-crazed towns of Boston, Ottawa, and Buffalo, and one Buffalo newspaper went so far as to sneer, "Washington is no hockey town" in a headline.

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The sense of inferiority has only sharpened in the finals. The Caps are matched up with Detroit - a city that calls itself "Hockeytown, USA" and displays the moniker proudly with a graphic painted on center ice of its home arena.

There are Washington fans who envy towns like Detroit, steeped in tradition both on and off the ice. Detroiters, they realize, were institutionalizing some of the game's most bizarre and rowdy traditions nearly 30 years before the first Cap ever laced a skate and hit the ice.

For example, in 1952 Motown began one of hockey's best-known traditions when two brothers who owned a fishmonger's hurled an eight-armed octopus onto the ice. Back then it took eight games to win the title (two best-of-seven series), instead of the 16 (four series) it takes now.

While Washington may still be establishing its hockey credentials, observers say there are several reasons hockey mania has been slow to ignite here.

Washington is a diverse city with citizens from all over world - unlike northern US towns and those in Canada, where hockey is an obsession and ponds freeze over every winter.

And because so many of Washington's citizens are transient, they often cheer for other teams.

Regardless, some local experts say that Washington is a good sports town, and if the Caps deliver, they'll have plenty of fans.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being a town like Detroit or Buffalo, we are a 7 or an 8," says Rene Knott, a sportscaster for a local TV station. "If they can win the Cup - and it's not out of reach - then you are going to see a parade and they will be treated the way the Redskins are after a Super Bowl."

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