Hockey fans fear seats on thin ice

Arena: Free, front-row seats to watch the Caps practice in sleepy Odenton may be in jeopardy.

January 22, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

The fans are standing close enough to feel the "Thwack!" from the puck slamming into the plastic shield around the ice rink. They watch, transfixed, as well-padded men whoosh past one another, slapping backs and whooping in heavily accented English.

The fans move only when the Washington Capitals move - and then they seem to move all at once, a polite knot of young boys, German tourists and single women waving hockey sticks and felt pens at sweat-drenched players heading for the locker room.

"You're my mom's favorite goalie," shouted 9-year-old Brett Swerdlin as he wriggled toward Sebastien Charpentier.

"All right, I hear that," the hockey player replied as he signed the Baltimore boy's cap.

For more than 10 years, it has been one of Anne Arundel County's best sports deals: On just about any day, for about eight months of the year, anyone can watch the Washington Capitals practice at Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton. For free.

But no one is sure how long it will last, because Capitals management is talking about building a multimillion-dollar arena in Northern Virginia.

Capitals officials are considering a move to the Ballston Mall in Arlington, Va., so the team would be closer to its fan base and to the MCI Center in downtown Washington, where the Capitals moved its games three years ago. Two-thirds of the team's season-ticket base is from Northern Virginia, says owner Ted Leonsis, while only a few dozen hail from the Odenton area.

"No decision has been reached or finalized regarding any move to a new practice facility. It is possible that we will remain in Piney Orchard," Leonsis said via e-mail. "The issue isn't the community at all, or the facility. The issue is the new location of the arena, which was decided many years before I bought the team."

Even if the team moves, Leonsis promises, he will never charge fans to watch practices. Still, some fans worry practices won't be as relaxed as they are at Piney Orchard, a sleepy, 3,000-home development in Odenton.

"It seems that teams get less and less fan-friendly every time they move," lamented Wayne Walls, a medical recruiter from Baltimore who has become a Piney Orchard regular.

Those who have tried to keep the Capitals acknowledge it is hard to compete with the Ballston deal, which calls for the rink to sit on top of a 3,000-car parking garage that Arlington County owns. The proposed arena would have a huge Capitals logo wrapping around the building, two NHL-sized rinks and seating for 1,200 fans next to a busy mall, a Metro stop, restaurants and offices.

Piney Orchard Ice Arena, in contrast, could easily be mistaken for an elementary school were it not for the small "Washington Capitals Training Facility" sign outside.

The Capitals have scheduled ice time - often squeezed in before the Mites and the Squirts youth hockey teams. Only a chain separates the players' entrance from the fans' side. The affable staff fills the vending machines, and the players' managers usually order lunch from a local deli because of the dearth of restaurants within walking distance.

William Badger, chief executive officer of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp., said that when local officials heard about the Arlington proposal last year, he and County Executive Janet S. Owens met with Capitals management to see if they could persuade the team to stay. They proposed county funding to add new offices, and talked with Piney Orchard about adding a second sheet of ice.

Though neither the team nor Arlington County officials would discuss the deal's specifics, Badger said his office couldn't get close to Arlington's proposal.

"I think it's a great deal for the Capitals, and I don't blame them for doing what they're doing," said Badger. "I don't see any way we could keep them here."

Besides, Badger said, Piney Orchard practices don't exactly bring in revenue the way, say, Ravens games do. Few local businesses depend on the Capitals - though customers do relish the thrill of running into stars like right-winger Peter Bondra at the gas station. Even if everyone on the Capitals' active roster bought homes in Annapolis, it would only mean two dozen additional fairly wealthy families in an area teeming with affluent residents.

Piney Orchard's management, too, understands they can't do much to keep the team.

"When we first opened, this was state of the art for them. Now it's not," said facilities engineer Vince Rice. "They've outgrown it. They need more space."

The National Hockey League is not sure how many teams have free and open practices. Each team makes its own decisions. Some, such as the Philadelphia Flyers and the Los Angeles Kings, hold free practices. Others, such as the New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs, don't.

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