WASHINGTON — The two brawny men met in the middle of the arena. They threw off their gloves, circled each other warily, then suddenly collided.
They punched, ducked, tugged on each other's shirts - and in the end fell to the ice in a tumble of flailing limbs.
The crowd let out an exuberant roar.
Hockey, and for that matter, sports, had finally returned to Washington, a city still stinging from the attacks last week on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
The fight, a bizarre hockey ritual between the Washington Capitals' Stephen Peat and the Philadelphia Flyers' Todd Fedoruk - no hard feelings, no one hurt - was just what the sparse crowd needed. They needed a chance to scream, pump their fists in the air, and let out some tension - before everyone in the MCI Center burst.
"This feels good," said Dave Lindenbaum, who was at the game with his 14-year-old son, Michael, and wearing a red-white-and-blue bandanna over his head. "We gotta get back to what we do. If you don't, you just play into their hands."
They, of course, are the ones who last week carried out the surprise attacks that left more than 5,000 dead or missing. One of the more insignificant side effects was that almost all sports were canceled for about a week, to give people time to mourn, to wait until playing games felt OK again.
This week, baseball, golf, tennis, hockey, and other sports got back to action. Pro football games resume this weekend. It was the longest sports layoff anyone can remember.
One difference: Security has been tightened at arenas and stadiums across the nation. At the MCI Center, fans coming out of the Metro were greeted by bomb-sniffing dogs. Huddles of police officers were everywhere, forming what seemed like a blue moat around the arena. The far-from-capacity crowd of less than 10,000 was asked not to bring bags inside.
And once the people assembled, many of them wearing either patriotic clothes or oversized hockey jerseys, it was clear that the outcome of this pre-season game was of little significance. When the players lined up, the two opposing teams joined together at the red line rather than face each other on opposing blue lines. There was a moment of silence to remember the victims, and a spirited national anthem.
One fan screamed out, "Yea, America!" and the rest responded with applause.
Todd Ensiminger, who was at the game with his wife, Lisa, had brought his own large American flag. He said he and his wife were somewhat torn about going to a sporting event during such a somber time, but thought that they eventually made the right decision.
"We thought about tonight," he said. "It's not that we aren't concerned about what happened - all those people are on our minds - but we need some enjoyment. Like the president said, we need to go about what we do."
The crowd, which was given cardboard American flags at the gate, was bolstered by police, fire, and military personnel, who, along with their families, were allowed to enter the game for free.
"We had a lot of police and firemen here," said Capitals owner Ted Leonsis after the game. "I had some who told me, 'Thanks for the tickets, now I'm going home to change and then going back to the Pentagon [rescue and cleanup effort].' "
The players, as in other sports, had been reluctant to return too soon. They seemed a little distracted at first, but eventually got into the game, doing their best to put on a good show for the crowd.
"Everyone is deeply concerned," said Flyers coach Bill Barber. "I hope sports can be some kind of release valve for the American people, to help get their minds off everything that has been going on."
Jaromir Jagr, from the Czech Republic, was making his debut as a Capital. He dazzled the crowd much of the night, creating chances for his teammates and scoring a goal with a close-range tap-in.
"We were a little nervous at first," he said. "Once you step onto the ice, it gets a lot better."
Later, Jagr offered a little perspective on how the world views what is going on in America, and how people abroad hope it will not lead to widespread war.
"I understand that America [is a lone superpower]," he said. "They have to make sure they make good decisions with what they do, because it will affect everybody."
With that, he went back to the locker room to join his teammates. And prepare for the next game.
Oh, and by the way, the Flyers won, 6-1.