Owner Abe Pollin said in November that the Washington Capitals would be playing at Capital Centre at least until the year 2,000. Pollin has not been saying anything recently, however, and the result has been even more speculation concerning the hockey team's future.
There were two contradictory reports yesterday. One, immediately discounted by NHL President John Ziegler and Rockies owner Peter Gilbert, had the Capitals merging with the Colorado team and moving to the New Jersey Meadowlands.
Another NHL source quoted Pollin as saying that he was "no longer interested in a merger with the Rockies," because he had found "a buyer for the whole package in Washington."
Pollin declined to respond to reporters' phone calls or in-person requests for a meeting, as he had all week.
A reliable source has placed Pollin's hockey losses for this season at $3 million. He has put the team up for sale, but there has been no visible reaction, principally because a club owned by outsiders and paying rent to Pollin without concessions and television revenue would have no chance of success.
A stumbling block to any shift of the Capitals, except as part of a complete sellout of the Centre and its tenants, is the $20 million bond from the Equitable Life Assurance Society of America that constitutes permanent financing for the Centre. Pollin has said before that neither the Capitals nor the Bullets, the professional basketball team, could be shifted without defaulting on the loan.
The source for the reported merger and shift to the Meadowlands claimed that the bondholder could be satisfied by introduction of an indoor soccer team, with 26 winter dates, and an expanded Georgetown home schedule of about 15 dates, which were not considered at the time of the loan.
However, Ziegler said it was both his feeling and the feeling around the NHL that "Washington can be one of the star franchises in this league. It's a viable franchise as far as entertainment, attendance and area, but unfortunately it has never had a playoff game in the building. Colorado has been a problem for the league, but I don't consider Washington in the same context.
"There is a concern, certainly, when Abe Pollin has expressed himself that the burden of both basketball and hockey is such that he is considering selling the hockey team. Once you reach that position, there has to be concern.
"Any merger of teams is emotional, and moves you into an area of competitive problems. The transfer of one franchise to the Meadowlands is difficult. Moving out of two markets to one in the middle of three other teams doubles the problems. It would be a Herculean task."
Of a possible merger with Washington, Gilbert said, "I checked that out. It was something we talked over without arriving at any solution. But the possibility of moving the merged teams to the Meadowlands was never discussed."
Gilbert told Terry Frei of the Denver Post to "stock up on souvenirs tomorrow (Saturday) night, because unless something sudden happens, that'll be it."
The Rockies close out the season at home tonight against Calgary. Gilbert has asked permission to move the Colorado club to the Meadowlands, but there has been opposition, particularly from Philadelphia, and unanimous consent is necessary. The NHL is scheduled to convene May 3 for further discussion of the Rockies' situation.
The New York Rangers have an option for a move to the Meadowlands, but that expires April 22, and it seems certain that the Rangers will sign a long-term agreement to remain at Madison Square Garden.
The Meadowlands has a waiting list of more than 6,000 for hockey tickets when it finally gets a team. An arena spokesman said that the controlling New Jersey Stadium Authority would probably be content with movement toward a franchise, at least for one more year, but that a lawsuit was likely unless the NHL permitted a franchise to locate there in the near future.
Under NHL territorial regulations, New Jersey does not exist, because the Philadelphia, New York and Hartford franchises effectively wipe out the state. But the Meadowlands drew 18,116 for a one-shot exhibition game, and even Pollin has been quoted as saying, "It will certainly get an NHL franchise in a few years."
Mergers of weak NHL franchises have been advocated because of the success of the Cleveland-Minnesota union in 1978, turning two weak teams into one strong one. However, accomplishment of that merger required two years and involved considerable expense and legal difficulties, prompting several NHL officials to vow they would never try it again.
An acquaintance of Pollin called the possibility of a complete sellout of the Centre "a possibility and a likelihood," considering Pollin's age and frustration with the Capitals and Bullets. But he also said that Pollin's asking price would have to be reduced considerably before that could be accomplished.
Pollin is trying to assemble a cable television package that would include the Bullets, Capitals, Orioles, Georgetown basketball and an indoor soccer team, Blast. He is also seeking the cable franchise for Montgomery County. These ventures would tend to discount any immediate disposition of the teams or the Centre.