The Washington Capitals first took their preseason show up I-95 two years ago, bringing hockey back to Baltimore for the first time since 1997 in a nod to the team’s ever-growing fan base around the region.
But the focus of that 2011 exhibition quickly became the questionable ice conditions of the aging Baltimore Arena rather than the excitement of the red-clad crowd.
“I remember that it was pretty electric, everyone was excited about that. It’s definitely a great idea,” defenseman Karl Alzner recalled. “But I do remember that the ice wasn’t too good, and it was smokin’ hot.”
The Capitals return to Charm City on Tuesday to host the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins in the second Baltimore Hockey Classic, with the hope that this time players won’t need to contend with mushy ice covered with puddles. Especially when some of Washington’s top talent, including Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Braden Holtby, will suit up for the game.
There’s been a concerted effort from the staff at 51-year-old Baltimore Arena to make Tuesday’s game a better — and safer — experience for players than the last one. Whether the conditions have truly been improved will play a large part in determining whether the Capitals keep returning to Baltimore during the preseason.
“We’ve made a lot of changes to address that and hope that the ice is better and the playing conditions are better,” General Manager George McPhee said last week. “If there’s more risk than we’re comfortable with, then we won’t play. It’s got to be done right or we don’t do it at all.”
Back in 2011, the aging arena’s lack of insulation, dehumidification system and unfamiliarity with maintaining NHL-caliber ice was glaringly apparent as the temperature rose throughout the day and the ice deteriorated with it. Players slipped in wet spots, had to avoid divots and mind the gap between the boards.
Frank Remesch, Baltimore Arena’s general manager, acknowledged that he and his staff made errors in the preparation process and overlooked details required for the building to host a hockey game as opposed to other events, like Disney on Ice and various figure-skating tours.
“We made some operational mistakes,” Remesch said in a phone interview. “Everyone makes mistakes, and this time we’ve already changed a lot of things.”
While no Capitals or Predators players suffered an injury in 2011 because of the ice, Remesch isn’t taking any chances.
“The event is great, but the game is [the event] and the players are the stars. It was embarrassing,” Remesch said. “You want the players to not even think about the ice. They shouldn’t have to think about it.”
Before they began building the ice surface on Sept. 11, Remesch and his staff addressed the problematic issues. A quirk with the building’s air conditioning system that made for warmer-than-ideal temperatures in 2011 was overridden to allow for a uniform setting of 58 degrees.
Building staff altered delivery schedules and only allowed shipments in a portion of the arena that could be sealed off by air curtains. And they rented two large dehumidifiers, similar to the ones Verizon Center uses in the playoffs, to help combat the heat and humidity that can still be present in Baltimore in September.
To a man, players who participated in the inaugural Baltimore Hockey Classic enjoyed the fan turnout and were happy to acknowledge the reach of their fan base. They’re optimistic that the ice will be improved this time around, which would make for a better game.
“I’m sure we’ll see right away if the ice is bad or not,” Backstrom said. “Obviously you’re a little bit worried you might fall or something worse, but if the ice is really, really bad like it was, then guys will notice that and adjust a little bit. Hopefully it’s better. Hopefully it’s a good game.”
Tickets still remain for Tuesday’s contest, according to a team spokesman, but most lower-bowl seats are sold out. Some of the available seats have obstructed views and will not be sold.
Capitals note:Complications with Mikhail Grabovski’s visa have been resolved and the center finally made his way to Washington Monday night. Grabovski, 29, will take part in Tuesday’s practice in Arlington. . . . The Capitals won their second exhibition, 4-3, over the Flyers in Philadelphia on a shootout goal by AHL tough guy Joel Rechlicz. John Carlson, Joel Ward and Ryan Stoa also scored goals for Washington, which improved to 2-0 in the preseason.