Kevin Cowherd: For Baltimore's hockey diehards, exhibition lifts hopes for minor league team

  • Baltimore hockey fan Howie Lewis is shown during the Baltimore Hockey Classic between the Capitals and Predators at 1st Mariner Arena.
Baltimore hockey fan Howie Lewis is shown during the Baltimore… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
September 20, 2011|Kevin Cowherd

The true believers come out on nights like this.

They come from Timonium and Bel Air and Severna Park, drawn to the artistry and brutal grace of 200-pound men with facial scars and dental plates gliding across the ice, trying to stick a puck into a net before they're slammed into the boards with another jaw-rattling hit.

On a Tuesday night, with a big crowd shoe-horned into musty 1st Mariner Arena to see the Washington Capitals and Nashville Predators in an NHL exhibition, the true believers watch like kids with their noses pressed against a toy-store window.

They think: Why can't we have our own hockey team in this town?

Why do we have to watch it on TV? Or schlep down to Washington to see the Caps, or up to Philadelphia to see the Flyers, or to Hershey, Pa., to see the Bears?

"It would be hard for Baltimore to support an NHL team because you have Washington right down the road and Philly an hour and a half north," said a man named Howie Lewis, who sat with his wife, Terri, in Section 229, both of them decked out in Caps gear. "But a minor league team? It could be done."

A few words about this Howie Lewis. He's 47, from Perry Hall, a lifelong hockey fan whose favorite team is the Boston Bruins. (It's a long story.) He also happens to be the president of the Baltimore Bandits Booster Club.

Remember the Bandits? Of course you don't. There are only three people on the entire Eastern Seaboard who remember them. But the Bandits were the last pro hockey team to play in this town. They were the American Hockey League affiliate of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and left for Cincinnati after two seasons here.

Imagine that — leaving Baltimore for the hockey hotbed of Cincinnati. Yes, I'm being sarcastic.

Anyway, Lewis never forgot the Bandits. Of course, being the president of the Bandits Booster Club is like being the president of the Ford Pinto Booster Club. Pintos aren't around anymore, either.

But Lewis said the club has 60-some active members. They still meet at a local restaurant on the third Monday of every month to talk hockey and the glory days.

But back to Lewis' dream of a minor league team. It's not far-fetched. Minor league hockey used to do OK in this town.

The AHL Clippers played here from 1962 to 1976. The Blades of the World Hockey Association played here for about five minutes in the 1970s. The Skipjacks, an AHL affiliate of the Caps, Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins, were here from 1981 to 1993. Then came Lewis' beloved Bandits.

And all those teams filled a need. They appealed to the small but dedicated legion of hard-core hockey fans.

"Baltimore is a great hockey market with a long hockey tradition, and some talented NHL players and coaches have come through that city," Caps president Dick Patrick said recently.

A "great" hockey market? I'd take issue with that. That's a little hyperbole there. And what do you have here now?

What you have, to hear Lewis tell it, is a vast hockey desert, figuratively speaking.

"Go into a sport store around here and ask if they have any hockey stuff — T-shirts, sweat shirts — and they look at you like you have two heads," he said.

So let's say the city gets serious about attracting a minor league team. First thing you need: a new arena. 1st Mariner Arena won't cut it anymore. It's the "Ugly Betty" of arenas. And this Ugly Betty is now in her late 40s, wearing support hose and troweling on the mascara to keep people from noticing how she's aged.

After all, the place was built in 1962, opening as the Baltimore Civic Center. The Beatles played there in 1964. In fact, that should be one of the criteria when assessing the state of any arena. If the Beatles played there, it's time to tear the joint down and put up a new one. If Elvis played there, the wrecking ball should be crashing through the doors right now.

"It's just an obsolete arena," Lewis said of 1st Mariner. "I don't want to use the word dump … "

"But any building that has a stage at one end … " said Terri Lewis.

Yep, that's the kind of charm it exudes now. Sometimes it smells like the circus just left. Or worse, like the circus is still there.

Still, on Tuesday night, the tired old gal lit up one more time — well, if "lit up"' is the right term — for the Capitals-Predators game. The Caps say at least 10 percent of their full-plan, season-ticket holders are from the Baltimore area. And it showed in the number of folks who "Rocked the Red" Caps colors.

It was a great night for the city. A great night for hockey fans. But for Howie Lewis and a lot of other folks in the creaky arena, it wasn't enough.

They want their own team. It has been their dream for 14 years, since the Bandits left.

And like a certain booster club, it's a dream that won't die.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

Listen to Kevin Cowherd at 7:20 a.m. Tuesdays on 105.7 The Fan's "Norris and Davis Show."

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