By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Pucks bounced over players' sticks. Passes didn't reach their intended targets. Ice shavings built up along the boards and in front of the net.
The Washington Capitals defeated the Florida Panthers, 3-1, on Saturday night and in the process boosted their Eastern Conference-leading home record to 22-4-1. But after the game, veteran defenseman Tom Poti described the ice as "disgusting" and an "embarrassment," stoking a long simmering debate about the inconsistent condition of the Verizon Center sheet.
"It's why so many guys are hurt with groins," said Poti, who has been sidelined three times for a total of 25 games with groin injuries. "I can't even imagine a guy like Alex Ovechkin on a decent sheet of ice, how many goals he'd get, and a guy like Mike Green as well. You look at the puck, and it's just bouncing and rolling and flipping all over the place."
Majority owner Ted Leonsis addressed Poti's comments on his blog, Ted's Take, saying the team and building are working together to produce "great ice NOT acceptable ice" and that he heard Poti's complaint "loud and clear."
Leonsis declined an interview request yesterday, saying through a team spokesman that his blog entry spoke for itself. Meanwhile, three Capitals confirmed they had been asked by the team not to discuss the ice conditions with reporters.
NHL facilities operations manager Dan Craig, the league's ice guru, said the league is aware of the players' complaints and has been monitoring the situation since he visited Verizon Center in October to meet with building engineers and Capitals officials.
Craig said the NHL recommends 60 degrees and 40 percent humidity for hockey games and that Verizon Center measured 62 degrees and 37 percent humidity at the beginning of Saturday night's contest. But that wasn't good enough to produce a crisp sheet of ice.
Earlier in the day, the Georgetown basketball game went to overtime, delaying the conversion of the arena floor from basketball to hockey. Meantime, basketball players demand warmer temperatures inside, and that, coupled with an unseasonably warm day outside, put a strain on the arena's cooling system. Craig said the inside temperature rose steadily throughout the night.
Craig also said the relatively new sheet of ice could have posed a problem. It was laid during the all-star break, which was Jan. 23-26, and ice takes 10-14 days to fully "mature." Verizon Center, which hosts 220-230 events annually, removes the ice three times each season -- for the horse show, the truck pull and circus. It was removed during the all-star break for the truck pull.
The building's schedule also had an effect, a team official said. Generally, scheduling hockey games after basketball games results in less than ideal ice. The Capitals, though, were reluctant to give up a highly coveted Saturday night date.
Matt Williams, an executive vice president with Washington Sports and Entertainment, the company that owns and operates Verizon Center, defended the quality of the ice, saying the NHL most often grades it as "good," with occasional marks for "fair" or "excellent." Williams also said it has never been marked as "marginal," the worst rating.
"We're all on the same team here, we all want the same thing, which is as great ice as we can possibly have," Williams said. "That's the goal."
"The reality is in a building this busy, it's difficult to make the ice as good as it can be every day simply because of event schedules and [short] turnaround," he added. "Warm outside, a full building for Georgetown, the game went to overtime, then the Caps come in and fill the building up again. Those are all factors at play. So I'll venture to guess that our ice wasn't as good as it could be on Saturday."
Ovechkin has scored 24 of his 37 goals at home this season, but about a year ago, team captain Chris Clark called Verizon Center "the worst ice in the league," and Shaone Morrisonn grumbled about it in November as possibly contributing to his groin muscle pull.
"It's a good thing the Panthers had kind of an off-night because it slows a team like the Caps down," said an NHL scout in attendance. "Guys on their first stride were stumbling a bit, and that's huge for the Caps. It's an important part of their game, that separation speed."
Players and officials rate the ice after each game, but Craig would not divulge the marks Verizon Center's ice has received. He did, however, say that the ice has been better since his visit to Washington in the fall before acknowledging that the challenge of producing good ice consistently will increase as spring approaches. Craig said he will recommend the Capitals bring in dehumidifiers in the playoffs.
"One of the things we really have to watch is how the weather changes, especially coming into February and March," Craig said. "That's when it's even more crucial that the building staff and operators themselves pay attention to all of the little details to make sure that [the temperature] is as a close as it can be to the parameters recommended by the National Hockey League."