Tension hangs over Caps' start


WASHINGTON -- It wasn't exactly normal. Fans saw canine units as they came up from the subway. A greater number of policemen were present along F Street. And there was extra security at every entrance.

It wasn't what used to be normal, but Matt Williams, vice president of communications for Washington Sports and Entertainment, which owns MCI Center, said it is the norm now.

"For the unforeseeable future," Williams said.

It was the preseason opener for the NHL's Washington Capitals against the Philadelphia Flyers, a game Washington would lose, 6-1, with its only goal coming from All-Star Jaromir Jagr, who was playing as a Capital for the first time since being acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But, it was also the first sporting event in the city since Sept. 11's devastating terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.

All week, members of the Capitals voiced concern about playing this game, and the organization had a connection to the tragedy. Ace Bailey, the Los Angeles Kings' director of pro scouting, who was on board the second plane that crashed into the World Trade Center, was a Capital during the first three seasons of the team's existence.

D.C. police lieutenant Shawn Maguire said people shouldn't have been nervous.

"We have absolutely no reports or intelligence that there would be any disturbances here tonight," Maguire said as he stood with five other officers in front of the main entrance.

Still, precautions were taken, and people were hesitant to come.

It looked as if nearly two-thirds of the 18,672-seat arena was empty, even though the announced attendance was 12,190, and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said as much after the game.

"I don't think there were more than 6,000 people here," he said, noting the crowd announcement was based on tickets sold. "I was prepared for a lot less. We didn't know until Saturday night that this game would be on Tuesday, and the tragedy -- the feelings are still out there.

"It still doesn't feel good. It's hard to get started, and I'm glad the first one is behind us. ... You can't just flip a switch. This is a first step."

Still, those who came were happy to be here.

"My mother and father were murdered when I was 5 years old, so I can relate to all the sorrow," said Milt Thomas, 40, a machine foreman for 8 O'Clock Coffee in Landover.

"But I feel pretty good about being here. Life can't be at a standstill. The people who did those horrible things want to back us into a corner and disrupt our lives. That's the only way they can win.

"So, you can't stop living. I want to see the Capitals' new guy [Jagr] -- the guy from Pittsburgh. I want to get a feel for him, see how he skates, how he fits in."

It was why the doors were open last night, so that fans could come and see how the 2001 edition of the Capitals would perform with Jagr, who is generally considered the greatest player in the game.

Jagr played on a line with center Trevor Linden and Adam Oates, who was playing left wing for the first time in his career. Together, they made some fine plays, but it all went unrewarded until the third period, when the game was already out of hand.

It was surprising, given Jagr had an open-net opportunity just 36 seconds into the game, but pushed the puck wide.

"I know it looked easy," he said, with a subdued smile. "But you're so close to the other players. It's the first game. You're not nervous, but you want to score the first goal with your new team."

And then there has been all the sadness. Jagr said before the game that he didn't feel much enthusiasm for this game and afterward was still thinking of the victims.

"Once you step on the ice, you kind of forget," he said. "But not really. All week it has been tough. You listen to the radio and watch the TV and that's all you hear and see and you want to hear and see.

"I thought our line played pretty well, but all week at practice there has been the distraction. And it has been tough -- but not as tough as it has been for all those people who lost family."

Before the game, both teams lined up at center ice while everyone observed a minute of silence for the victims. The colors were presented and a fan screamed, "Yeah, America!" and everyone applauded.

Fans joined in singing the national anthem. One waved a sign that said, "Proud to be an American" and, as the game was about to begin, everyone chanted, "USA! USA! USA!"

The Capitals played, but didn't score until Jagr's power-play goal at 17:16 of the third period. By then, Philadelphia already had goals by Justin Williams, Marty Murray and Jeremy Roenick. Roenick added a goal 76 seconds after Jagr scored, and the Flyers' Pavel Brendl and John LeClair also scored.

Jagr called it "a kind of embarrassing loss." But Washington coach Ron Wilson lent perspective.

"There's still a little bit of a funk" from the events of last week, he said. "It's going to take everybody awhile to put this out of their minds -- if we ever do."

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