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Capitals, other NHL teams show dogs some love with pet promotions

January 4, 2019

Baseball clubs have held “Bark in the Park” nights for years, but now that’s old news. These days, no sports league shows more public affection and enthusiasm for dogs than the NHL a relationship forged between pucks and pups.

Just last year, the Washington Capitals introduced a Caps Canines Club for its four-legged fans, doggy superfan accounts such as Ovie the Bulldog and Bark-Andre Furry were hits on social media, and three NHL teams adopted dogs of their own.

Yes, adopted dogs.

The trend didn’t come out of nowhere. For years, some NHL clubs have sold dog-themed calendars for charity. In Pittsburgh, it’s “Penguins and Paws.” The Tampa Bay Lightning did one called “Barks and Bolts.”

Washington’s 2019 “Caps Canine Calendar” featured one new element: the Stanley Cup. But the theme stayed the same: Capitals players posing with dogs and puppies.

As lighthearted as the photo shoot was, rookie forward Travis Boyd might have had even more fun while waiting for his turn.

“We just went in the back and went by some of the shelter workers, and they had a little pen and it was five of the same litter puppies there,” Boyd said. “We just went over there and played with the puppies for 15, 20 minutes. If that doesn’t make you happy, I don’t know what does.”

Puppies with a purpose

The New York Islanders, New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues are fostering puppies that are training to become service dogs. The Rangers’ dog, named Ranger, will be an autism service dog. The Islanders’ pup will become a guide dog for a blind or visually impaired child.

Islanders fans named the dog Radar after Hall of Fame coach Al Arbour, whose nickname was Radar. It’s also an especially fitting name for a Seeing Eye dog.

The team is working with the Guide Dog Foundation. John Miller, the foundation’s president and CEO, said he has found dog lovers to be prevalent throughout the NHL, particularly on Long Island where the foundation is based.

“You can’t buy passion, and the Islanders have it,” Mr. Miller said.

A volunteer named Jimmy Tubbs, who has fostered young service dogs, is housing and taking care of Radar. Mr. Tubbs takes the puppy to two guide dog classes a month and to Islanders practices and home games as often as possible.

Homeward-bound

The Capitals haven’t dived in quite that far, but by starting the Caps Canines Club in October, they are the latest NHL club engaging fans who have dogs in the family.

Proceeds from the membership club and the calendar benefit Homeward Trails Animal Rescue. Fans who sign up their dogs receive a “membership kit” that includes a Capitals-branded collar, leash, dog tag and rope toy. A Caps Canines event is in the works for later this season.

Megan Garner, the Capitals’ director of marketing, and Liz Wardlow, a manager of marketing and fan development, came up with the idea.

“It really stemmed from seeing how passionate our fans are, obviously about the team but then also about their dogs,” Ms. Wardlow said. “It kept popping up on social media, and they wanted to get their dogs involved in the team, so we thought it was a great tie-in.”

“It’s really a touch point for our fans to feel interacted and engaged with the team and with our players. Our players are really passionate about their dogs as well,” Ms. Garner said. “You can see that in our players who have fostered or adopted dogs after the fact, after they’ve shot with the canine calendar and they’ve had a chance to interact with some of the adoptee dogs that we bring on.”

One of those players was Chandler Stephenson. He and his girlfriend adopted Finley, a black Labrador retriever mix, through Homeward Trails four months ago.

“It’s obviously a serious thing, with dogs that are found and put in shelters. Some of them are even put down because there’s so many of them,” Stephenson said. “It’s obviously nice when people can help out and adopt and give them a forever home and love them.”

Part of the family

Practically every team in the league has at least one well-known dog lover. After the Penguins won the 2017 Stanley Cup, forward Bryan Rust (and his puppy, Cooper) used his day with the Cup to hold a fundraiser for a beagle rescue group in Pittsburgh.

″[We were] just trying to figure something out to help raise awareness,” Rust said. “Being pet lovers, my fiancee I decided to do something like that.”

The Penguins also have hosted a “puppy party suite” for two years running. They award select fans by letting them bring their adopted shelter pets or service dogs to a game at PPG Paints Arena.

But why this celebration around the NHL of all things canine? What makes hockey and dogs such a great pairing? To dog owners in the league, it feels natural.

“You don’t meet many hockey players who are cat people, come to think of it,” Boyd said.

″[For] people in general, having a pet’s basically just part of the family,” Rust said. “A dog is a high percentage of family, and I think it kind of helps relate us with our fans and things like that.”

Tubbs, the Islanders’ volunteer who has also worked with athletes in catering and real estate during his career, said he thinks it has something to do with hockey players being “grounded,” genuine people.

“I just find them to be more family-oriented, and I know many of the Islander players have dogs and are dog lovers,” Tubbs said. “It just seems to me that the dog is so symbolized of a warm home that maybe there’s some connection there. That’s just my theory.”

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