If there's a market for the NHL in the Baltimore area, the Washington Capitals are going to find it.
No longer feeling hand-tied thanks to the departure of the Skipjacks, the Capitals for the first time are beginning to market the team in Baltimore, hoping to entice area residents to Landover in the same fashion -- but likely on a lesser scale -- as the Orioles have lured Washington-area fans to Camden Yards.
"It is an intriguing proposition," said Capitals general manager David Poile. "We'd certainly like to be more of a regional team than we are."
Until this season, club officials had never tried to entice Baltimore-area residents to come to Capitals home games.
"We felt it was inappropriate," said Lew Strudler, Capitals vice president of marketing. "The Skipjacks were there. We were affiliated with them. We felt people knew we existed, knew we were here. And what were we going to say? 'Come see real hockey. Come see major-league hockey?' We didn't want to infer the AHL [American Hockey League] was a minor league."
But owner Tom Ebright decided to move the Skipjacks to Portland, Maine, after last season, and the Capitals no longer feel compelled to stay out of Baltimore. But they are easing their way in.
"One thing we're having to overcome has been a feeling on the part of many Skipjacks fans that the Capitals were somehow responsible for the Skipjacks leaving," said Sherri Petti, a former Skipjacks employee who is now the Capitals' regional sales manager in Baltimore.
"We've taken a slow approach and I think that's been wise. I'm starting to get more of a positive response as people realize the Capitals were not at fault.
"We had trouble selling advertising and tickets for the Skipjacks, but we always felt that was because we were trying to sell minor-league hockey in a major-league city. I think we're seeing that was the case."
Free tickets offered
The first sign of the Capitals' change in approach was the team's media guide. For the first time, players are posed for photos in locations that aren't limited to Washington. Of the 26 photos, half were taken in Maryland, including seven in Baltimore at places such as Camden Yards, the National Aquarium and the Inner Harbor.
The Capitals offered two complimentary tickets to all Skipjacks season-ticket holders and 450 turned out for the free game Friday against the Vancouver Canucks. The organization also is creating five-game ticket plans exclusively for hockey fans in Baltimore. Those plans include Sunday afternoon and Friday night and Saturday night games.
"We know that Baltimore is used to lesser prices [for hockey games] and we're offering discounts there," Strudler said. "If they're willing to go the extra mile for us, we're willing to give them a break for making the effort."
While the Capitals will not say precisely what the discounts are, Rich Grimmel, who lives in Jarrettsville, said he is delighted with the location and value of his seats. "I'm paying $25 for $33 tickets," he said.
The Capitals estimate from 8 to 10 percent of their crowds comes from Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties. They want to increase that percentage, although it could be a tough sell.
Dan Brooks, a computer systems analyst for T. Rowe Price, said he and his wife decided six months ago that they would continue to keep hockey in their lives after the Skipjacks departed.
"We decided to budget the same amount of money for Capitals tickets that we had for Skipjacks season tickets," Brooks said. "Since the Capitals tickets are about three times more expensive -- and I don't believe the hockey is three times better -- that means the five-game mini-plan is what we bought. And if the AHL or the IHL [International Hockey League] came in, I'd probably shift back to Baltimore. If it was a lesser league -- the East Coast or the Colonial -- then I think I'd continue with the Capitals."
So the Capitals not only have to persuade fans to try the NHL in Landover, but they also have to convince them it is a ticket worth hanging on to.
"I don't envy what they're trying to do," said Herb McNally, president of McCready Marketing, who took his clients to old Clippers games in Baltimore until the Capitals were formed in 1974. "Hockey is a cult sport. It excludes most of the black population, a major portion of the entertainment dollar, and it is up against others who have avoided it because they don't understand it and have closed minds to it.
"On top of that, they're fighting against the Great Wall of China that runs between Baltimore and Washington. When the Capitals fired up, they took half of the Baltimore fan base and that left 2,500 or so for the Skipjacks. And those fans have to be the hardest-core fans in America.
"I think for the Capitals to have a major impact there, it will take magic."
If not magic, at least a lot of leg work. The Capitals are working on setting up group bus trips from the Baltimore Arena and from local businesses, which they hope will begin later this month.