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Capitals head to Baltimore for preseason game, happy to find more hockey fans

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The last time Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau was on the home bench in Baltimore, he was member of the minor league Skipjacks.

The year was 1985, and his memories of how that season ended aren’t too fond. Down a goal with a minute to go in Game 6 of the Calder Cup finals, Boudreau hit the knob of Sherbrooke goaltender Patrick Roy’s stick on an odd-man rush and the Skipjacks were eliminated.

“The Sherbrooke team that beat us,” Boudreau recalled recently, “I think nine of those guys graduated to the Canadiens the next year and won the [Stanley] Cup.”

On Tuesday night, Boudreau returns to 1st Mariner Arena, formerly known as Baltimore Arena, for the Baltimore Hockey Classic, a preseason game between Capitals and the Nashville Predators. With only a few hundred tickets to be sold, the nearly 11,000-seat horseshoe-shaped arena is expected to be sold out by the opening faceoff, according to team and city officials.

So why are the Capitals hosting a Western Conference opponent 40 miles from home?

For one, there’s no such thing as too many fans for a professional sports team.

The Capitals expect sellouts for all 41 regular season games this season at Verizon Center. Unlike tickets, though, the number of jerseys, hats and posters a team can sell is limitless. There’s also the potential for forging corporate relationships with companies from Baltimore, as well as continuing to build up their audience for television and radio broadcasts.

The Capitals’ television ratings in the Baltimore market aren’t huge in terms of numbers. The amount those ratings have grown, however, is eye-opening.

Based on statistics provided by Comcast SportsNet, the Capitals drew an average household rating of 0.89 (equivalent to approximately 10,000 homes) in the Baltimore area last season, a 123 percent increase over 2008-09. That’s twice as fast as ratings have grown in Washington during the same time period.

“We’ve talked about it for a few years and basically, the decision in the hockey department was, if you can fill the building, we’ll go play,” General Manager George McPhee said. “You don’t want your players playing in front of 3,000 people. We discussed it, and our marketing department felt that we have a strong group of fans up there that likes to follow the Caps, so we felt it would be great to have our product in front of them live.”

He added: “We think it’s really neat that we’re sold out [in Washington] for every game this year and now we can go up to Baltimore on a Tuesday night in the preseason against a nonconference team and sell a building out.”

Both the Capitals and Predators have ties to Baltimore. The Capitals, after all, made their practice home in nearby Odenton, Md., for years, and the Skipjacks served as the primary feeder team for the NHL club from 1988-93.

Boudreau had four goals and seven assists in 17 games as a member of the Skipjacks after signing with the team midway through the 1984-85 season. Meanwhile, Predators Coach Barry Trotz stood behind the Skipjacks’ bench from 1990-93, and Nashville General Manager David Poile was the Capitals’ general manager when the Skipjacks were the local club’s top affiliate. Washington’s head athletic trainer, Greg Smith, broke into professional hockey as a trainer for the minor league Baltimore Bandits from ’95-97.

Since the Bandits left town, though, fans have been forced to travel or watch television to get their pro hockey fix.

“The people in Baltimore are clamoring for the game as much as we are,” Boudreau said.

McPhee wouldn’t specify how many of the Capitals’ star players will suit up in Baltimore — for the preseason games, teams often take skeleton rosters on the road — but he did say, “We’re taking a good team up there.”

The idea of the Capitals hosting the Predators in an exhibition contest at 1st Mariner Arena was cultivated more than ago year by Bernard C. “Jack” Young, the president of the Baltimore city council. At the time, Young was working with the Capitals to bring street hockey to recreation centers in his city.

The game is expected to have a $1 million economic impact on the city from business generated by hotels, shops and restaurants along the Inner Harbor, according to the Maryland Office of Sports Marketing. The agreement is for one season only, but a Capitals official said if all goes smoothly the team would consider participating in the game again next season.

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