Surprise: A city without hockey falls into laps of hurting Caps

Phil Jackman

May 03, 1993|By Phil Jackman

It's not the fault of the Washington Capitals that Baltimore has seen the last of the American Hockey League for a while. Directly, that is.

But as a result of the folks calling the shots at the Baltimore Arena being unnecessarily hard-nosed negotiators, it doesn't appear the East Coast Hockey League will be coming here. And now we see a very definite pattern beginning to form.

Let's see, what organization would benefit directly from Baltimore's being stripped of its hockey? Why, the Capitals, of course.

Presently, the Caps are once again singing the blues about a waning of interest in hockey in the nation's capital and looking to extend their fan base. And, don't forget, the Caps are the blood brothers of the Capital Centre, the Washington Bullets and Capital Management, which handles the business affairs of the Arena, all under the aegis of Abe Pollin.

Taking it back a ways, many people here were more than a little upset when a deal was struck by the city to have Capital Management come in and run the Glass Menagerie on Baltimore Street. It was hinted rather loudly at the time that a flyer in the deal was that a working agreement between the Caps and the Skipjacks would be struck when the opportunity presented itself.

That became a reality and, coupled with a long-discussed plan for a rink at Piney Orchard, located midway between the two cities, a much-needed and classy training facility for the parent club and its top farm hands was put into place. A long and reasonably prosperous relationship seemed assured.

Year after year, the crowds built in Landover, pushing ahead to just over 14,000 per game in 1984-85 and climbing to 17,250 three years ago. That's about 95 percent capacity over 40 games, which is nothing shy of amazing, considering the last 20 rows of seats aren't even located in the same zip code as those down front.

The last three seasons, there has been slippage as ticket prices escalated, certain off-the-ice happenings turned off some, popular players were traded and loyalists became aware of a marked sameness to all Capitals seasons.

Annually, it seems, the Caps finish second in the NHL's Patrick Division, only to lose to a lower seed in the opening round of the playoffs or, assuredly, to be sent packing in the second round. Just once in 11 tries have they gotten out of the division and then, in a conference final, they were humiliated in four games.

The team's inglorious postseason record is 6-11 in series, 42-50 in games and then there's the habit of dropping series after holding comfortable leads.

The fact the team does an often boringly efficient job from October to April doesn't count for enough as many conclude that the NHL season comes down to to just one thing, the jousting for Lord Stanley's goblet.

The Skipjacks, needing 4,500 patrons per game in order not to lose money, were probably only an even bet to return after it hit owner Tom Ebright that he wasn't obligated to lose $400,000 every year.

The Caps could have helped the situation by not constantly calling the Skipjacks' best players up, only to have them sit in civilian clothes in the press box at the Cap Centre. Their argument is that Baltimore is strictly for developing players, suggesting fans here should satisfy themselves just being a part of the grand scheme of things.

Baltimoreans, recall, were into hockey years before a typical Washingtonian was aware the game existed.

Even late in the season, when the Skipjacks were life and death to make the Calder Cup playoffs, the Capitals nightly were scratching players who could have helped Baltimore in its quest. It would have made good business sense for the Caps to help out unless, of course, Skipjack success would have turned out to be a hindrance.

It was sweet irony that while the Capitals were dying off with all the other tulips, the Jacks nearly pulled off a monstrous upset before losing to the AHL's top team, Binghamton, in the seven-game limit.

With the team headed for Portland, Main, just hundreds showed up for the three playoff games at the Arena. Embarrassing. Meanwhile, Arena director of operations Gary Handleman of Capital Management was emphasizing that the Arena would just as soon not have hockey next winter as the facility can make just as much money by running in a half-dozen concerts.

In other words, you don't like it, sports fan, that's tough . . . or, as an alternative, why not take a spin down to the big saddle next to the Washington Beltway down in Prince George's County? Plenty of good (ahem) seats still available, and only $5 for parking (so far).

What a prospective ECHL franchise seeks is the same rental deal the Skipjacks had, which, recall, didn't help Ebright much. It's lower classification hockey, figures to have trouble matching AHL interest, yet here is Pollin's conglomerate insisting on more rent money while charging those upscale Washington prices at the concession stands.

Making matters worse is the city and Mayor Schmoke refusing to get involved in any way. And it's the Capitals who are crying.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.