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Cheap, Fun, Accessible--The Perfect Hat Trick

By Tom Flynn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 25, 2000; Page N65

ALTHOUGH pro basketball and football are part of the sports landscape in the dead of winter, hockey has always been to me the consummate winter sport. It is, after all, played on ice, and few sports can claim a stronger elemental link to a season.

As a father trying to share my interests with my three young boys, however, hockey can be an expensive proposition. The cheapest Capitals tickets hover around the $20 range and if all four of us go we are out a sizable sum before we ever make it to our seats. Since a chorus of "I'm hungry" usually rings out before the Zamboni has left the ice, a night at MCI Center can be costly even if our seats are barely in the same ZIP code as the players. As a treat the Capitals are fine, but to get through a steady diet of long winter Saturdays we needed a more affordable hockey alternative.

That we found when we ventured east on a recent Saturday to Annapolis to watch Navy's Midshipmen take on Drexel at the Academy's Dahlgren Hall. Hockey at the Naval Academy is a club sport; and, unlike a typical varsity sport, it does not receive extensive Academy funding. Navy competes in the American Collegiate Hockey Association's (ACHA) Division I program, which is comparable to the NCAA's Division III program and is the highest competitive level of collegiate hockey being played in the Washington area.

As we approached the gate to the Academy and saw a stern-looking guard stopping every car, I briefly wondered if you had to be Navy personnel to go to the games. The prospect of being turned around with a van load of boys (my like-minded friend had joined us with his sons) was a daunting one and I kiddingly told my friend that I planned to hit the gas and storm the gate if it came to that. Fortunately, it didn't, and we were directed to a parking lot just across from Dahlgren Hall.

We entered the Hall and walked right in. No admission. My eldest son was puzzled by this and suspected right up until the start of the game that there had been some kind of mix-up.

Dahlgren Hall itself is impressive and is nearly as much of an attraction as the game. Built in 1903, its predominant architectural feature is a procession of vaulted arches that span the width of the building and are adorned with a series of white lights running their length.

Encircling the Hall is an ancient iron and wood balcony that, I later found out, can double quite nicely as a running track. The balcony hovers a mere 10 feet or so above the ice and has benches for spectators. It is hard to imagine a sports venue with seating better situated to view the action. Suspended dramatically above the balcony at one end is an actual Yellow Pearl airplane, used by Midshipmen up until 1961 for training in the Academy's flight school. It is bookended at the far end of the arena by a massive scale model of a Navy sailing ship.

As face-off approached, the players skated out onto the ice for their pre-game rituals. The tinny loudspeakers screeched Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train": the same shrill song my teenage peers and I blared 17 years ago before our football games. As the Navy players skated through their drills and unleashed a relentless barrage of slapshots on their goalie, my boys watched with an awe induced by our close proximity to the intensity of the action.

After the warm-ups, the starting lineups for each team were announced. The predominance of Navy players from northern home towns boded well for the quality of play to follow. Not surprisingly, cold weather climes generally produce the best hockey talent. The Naval Academy, with its ability to draw nationally, has assembled a fine team. Play was fast and aggressive and the teams traded goals until they were deadlocked at 2 in the third period.

At one point during a break in play, my friend's young son's water bottle fell off the balcony onto the rink. We both expected that either a player or referee would flick the bottle from the ice, annoyed at a fan's intrusion on the game. Instead, a Navy player stopped, picked up the bottle, looked up to the balcony and threw it back to us. Another pleasant reminder that we weren't at a professional event.

Meanwhile, our older boys had found ample outlets for the stored energy that usually comes to a boil when they have to sit in one place for too long. Unlike most sporting events with their assigned, tight seating, the Hall's open balcony afforded the boys plenty of room to roam. Running laps around the balcony was a favorite pastime of a number of children at the game and our boys fell right in with them. At one end of the arena, a game that can best be described as soccer-on-your-knees-using-your-hands had spontaneously formed and involved 20 or 30 children.

With a mere 28 seconds remaining in the third period, Navy's Pat Eliason scored the winning goal in storybook fashion, beating the Drexel goalie to the glove side on a diving, lunging wrist shot that was reminiscent of Bobby Orr. The crowd along the balcony rose as one and roared its approval as Eliason skated back up the ice, pumping his fist in celebration. A great finish to an exciting game.

After gathering the boys and making our way down the staircase from the balcony, we spotted several Navy players doing something you rarely see: mingling with the fans. As we approached, we noticed that Eliason was signing autographs for the children in the crowd, and our boys quickly hopped on line to get the signature of today's star.

At 6-foot-4 and wearing skates, he towered over the boys and they looked up with admiration and smiles all around as he graciously handed out autographs. It struck me at that moment that I had perhaps found the perfect sporting event to enjoy with the boys.

NAVY HOCKEY -- At the Naval Academy's Dahlgren Hall, 103 Fullam Court, Annapolis. (From Route 50, take Rowe Boulevard Exit and bear right. Turn left on Taylor, right on Route 450 and right on King George; follow to Gate 1, where a guard will direct you.) 410/293-2350. Web site: www.dahlgrenhallhrm.com/navyhockey.

Friday at 7 -- Navy's ACHA Division III "B" team plays in the quarterfinals of the Mason-Dixon Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs at Dahlgren Hall. Call phone number above for their opponent and general information on the playoffs.

Playoff finals will be played this weekend at the Ice World Arena in Abington, Md. Semifinals will be at 5:45 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, with the finals scheduled for 12:45 p.m. on Sunday. Call 410/612-1000 for details on games at Ice World Arena.

Saturday at 2 -- A squad of Navy alumni plays an exhibition game against former Washington Capitals at Dahlgren Hall.

Sunday at 3 -- The Navy "A" team squares off against the Navy alumni at Dahlgren Hall.

March 3-5 -- The ACHA Division III National Tournament comes to Dahlgren. Navy will host,and fans should call Dahlgren Hall for participants and times.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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