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Caps fans, from left, Richmond Herrera-Smith, 5, Caroline Allen, 2, and John Allen, 5, watch the team practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington.
Caps fans, from left, Richmond Herrera-Smith, 5, Caroline Allen, 2, and John Allen, 5, watch the team practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington. (Photos By Dayna Smith)

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Thursday, March 10, 2011; 1:41 PM

Watch a Washington Capitals practice, and you'll see a side of the players rarely visible from your Verizon Center seat.

Stand by the rink, and you'll feel the vibration when a puck ricochets off the glass. You'll be so close, you can even see the sweat dripping off the players.

The practices at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington are open to the public, and fans of all ages pack the bleachers to snap photos of their favorite players and stand just inches away from their heroes.

"I like to come because you can see them up close," says Robin Yacur, a Caps fan of 15 years who came to the practice from Bristow with her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend. "You can see their faces."

You can also hear the players' cheers as they react to one another. Free from the pressure of a game, the athletes are relaxed and their love of the sport and their camaraderie shines through. You could be forgiven for thinking, temporarily, that you're watching a group of hockey lovers at play, instead of a team of professional athletes.

"It's great to see the players in a different context - yet still on the ice," says Mariana Cruz, a fan of about five years. She watched the practice with her boyfriend, Marc Schanz, also from Arlington. Here, Cruz says, the players seem more like "real people," rather than "abstractions on TV."

It's especially fun to watch an end-of-practice drill in which the players must shoot the puck in the upper corners of the net. The last player to do it has to get all the other guys drinks in the locker room after practice. Recently, the players ribbed one another, laughed and pounded the ice with their sticks as they ran the drill. When the last one finally got the puck in the net, the players reacted as if they had just won the Stanley Cup, huddling together, hooting and throwing up their arms.

"I'd love to have a beer with one of those guys," Cruz says. "They just all have different personalities, and you can see it."

As the athletes skated off the ice, defenseman Karl Alzner stopped to sign autographs and pose for photos, something that at least one of the players does after most practices.

"It's by far the most accessible professional sport," Schanz says. "The players are very approachable."

- Moira E. McLaughlin

Where is it? Kettler Capitals Iceplex, roof of Ballston Common Mall, 627 N. Glebe Rd., Suite 800, Arlington. capitals.nhl.com. 571-224-0555. Parking can be tight on the weekend, so park a few floors below and take the mall elevator. When you enter the Iceplex, turn right after the first rink and go to the double doors that will lead to the practice.

When is it? Usually 10 a.m. on game day; 10:30 a.m. on a non-game day; 11 a.m. on the day after a game. Check the Web site before you go because times vary. Arrive at least 30 minutes early on weekends if you want a bleacher seat; otherwise, you may be standing around the rink.

How much is it? Free!

© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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