Washington Capitals players have signs critical of coach removed; censorship or courtesy?

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Knuble's Knights are usually noticeable at Washington Capitals home games. The fans wear armor and carry replica Medieval weaponry, looking the part in support of Mike Knuble, the Capitals' veteran winger and the group's namesake. He's needed their backing this season, as a frequent scratch for beleaguered Capitals coach Dale Hunter.

On Tuesday night, the Knights did something else rather noticeable at Washington's game against the Carolina Hurricanes: They placed a sign in support of Knuble ("Free Knuble!") on the glass in Section 115 during warm-ups, right next to one critical of the team's coach, which read "SCRATCH HUNTER."

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That is, until arena security asked the fans to remove both signs.

[Related: Knicks fans get creative with Jeremy Lin signs]

"We waited to put them up until warm-ups started, because we were concerned about someone telling us to take them down. Especially the 'Scratch Hunter' sign, which is a little bit feisty, a little bit biting," said Nathan, one of the Knights. "But it was a little surprising."

Even more surprising? Where the request to remove the signs originated: Washington Capitals players, who saw them while taking warm-ups.

When arena security came over to the Knights and asked for the signs, they told them it was at the behest of the Capitals players. They finally agreed to allow the signs to remain in the fans' possession, but out of sight.

"It wasn't a huge scuffle or anything. We've never had a problem with the security staff. I mean, we're dressed in armor and bring swords and shields into the arena, and we've only had one situation where anyone's questioned us," said Nathan.

A Capitals spokesperson told the Washington Post that "three players saw the signs during warm-ups" and asked that they be taken down.

Which three? No one's talking. From Katie Carrera:

I spoke with a few players after practice today — though not all of them, because some had already left the dressing room — and none seemed overly concerned about the signs two fans brought to Verizon Center last night.

While two players said they didn't even notice the signs that read "Free Knuble" and "Scratch Hunter" along the glass during warmup, three others said they saw the signs and laughed off the messages.

The players said that they don't get too worked up because they know that fans are going to express their opinions however they wish. None of the players I spoke with were aware that a request was made to take them down.

The Verizon Center is as sign-friendly an arena as you'll find — especially when the Pittsburgh Penguins have come to town over the last few years, and Sidney Crosby has been targeted on a number of creatively caustic placards.

Yet when the cynicism was pointed at the home team, the signs were removed. With the Capitals struggling, was this really the time for censorship in the arena?

"Initially, that was thought," said Nathan of the potential censorship. "When so many signs get through, why are they taking down a sign that was critical of the coach?"

If this had come down from the arena or Capitals management, perhaps the reaction would be different; but Nathan said if it's the players making the request, then it's a request they're obliged for accept.

"There were a few players asking for it to be taken down, and we buy that. We don't feel like we're being censored at all," he said.

"From what we've heard, it was a case of the players feeling like it was distracting to them or upsetting to them. That's the last thing we want to do. We're Caps fans. We don't want to contribute to what's already a pretty high level of tension in the locker room."

It's been an interesting week for fan influence in the arena. Brian Burke admitted that the hostile atmosphere towards coach Ron Wilson at Toronto Maple Leafs home games hastened his decision to fire him — a reminder that the paying customers do have a voice.

[Also: Massive hockey brawl sparked by journeyman Frank Banham]

Nathan said that the Capitals' paying customers still have one, too, even if critical signs are confiscated.

"There's booing, there's chants, there's blog posts critical of the team. We don't think that's stopped by this," he said.

They also don't want to see Capitals owner Ted Leonsis drawing comparisons to a Washington Redskins owner that has trafficked in suppression during his team's unsuccessful run.

"A lot of people have drawn a comparison between Ted Leonsis and Dan Snyder, who has a history of censoring people. And we don't buy that at all," said Nathan.

Still, the notion that Capitals players would be that concerned with critical placards at this stage of the season is an indication of how stressed, strained and drained the team has become during its lackluster campaign. If there were any questions about the Caps being on edge as they battle to make the playoffs, all signs point to "yes."

UPDATE: Capitals owner Ted Leonsis addressed the issue on Wednesday:

In actuality, the sign did not violate any of our policies (e.g., profanity, political, commercialism or obstruction) and should have been permitted. So we have reconnected internally with a variety of folks involved to clarify our position. We actually have the right to refuse all signs, but in the past we have permitted them, so long as they didn't conflict with the policies we established. That's it.

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