Alexander Ovechkin, at right in red, takes a shot during a short-ice scrimmage at the end of a Washington Capitals practice. The team's practices at the MedStar Capitals Iceplex are free and open to the public. (Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post)

Last week, I arrived at the MedStar Capitals Iceplex in Arlington 15 minutes before the Washington Capitals' practice was scheduled to begin. I wandered into the main rink, where winger Tom Wilson, recovering from a concussion, was practicing with the Capitals' two goalies and a pair of defensemen at one end of the ice. There were only a few other people in the bleachers. I felt like I shouldn’t be there — as if I was spying on the Stanley Cup champions' private workout and could be kicked out at any moment. I wondered when the coach on the ice was going to turn around and yell at me to leave.

Except that didn’t happen. And it never happens: Unique among the city’s major professional sports franchises, the Capitals welcome the public to every single practice session throughout the season. For free. Considering that seats along the glass at Capital One Arena cost hundreds of dollars each, this is the best way for hockey fans to get close enough to marvel at Alex Ovechkin’s wrist shot or Evgeny Kuznetsov’s speed, and maybe get a selfie with their hero.

The team goes through two different workouts at the Iceplex, which sits atop the Ballston Quarter parking garage, depending on circumstances. Bleachers run the length of one side of the rink, letting fans press their noses up against the glass or climb up a few rows for a better overall view. Morning skates, held when the team has a game at Capital One Arena the same night, can last about 30 minutes and are for stretching legs and working on rushes and situational drills.

Full practices, generally held the morning after a home game or on a day off, are more intense affairs. In addition to the morning skate, these feature an extra session of drills, such as five-on-five battles between top lines or competitive scrimmages on “short ice,” which means two goals in a smaller area. (Practices also sometimes move between the Iceplex’s two rinks, allowing for different vantage points.) If timing allows, the full practice is the one fans want to attend; the calendar on the Capitals' website notes what kind of practice will be held, as well as the starting time.

For fans accustomed to watching the team from the cheap seats at Capital One, it’s exciting to be close enough to hear the “ping” of an errant shot striking the post, or the thwack of a puck hitting the goalie’s pads. The atmosphere is casual, with players yelling, applauding and chirping at one another as if there wasn’t a crowd watching. T.J. Oshie might casually flip a puck up toward the rafters and try to catch it on the blade of his stick. Off the ice, fans gather in groups and change seats to follow favorite players. At a recent practice, a couple of children held signs reading “It’s my birthday!” (Players flipped them pucks as presents.)

Reporter Isabelle Khurshudyan, who covers the Capitals for The Post, uses practices as a way to spot whether lines or defensive pairings have changed, but, she says, “practices can also reveal what the team feels it needs to work on. Maybe if the penalty kill isn’t doing so well, there will be some extra time spent on that. If the Caps lose in a shootout the night before, they might be practicing that the next day.”

No matter which format practice takes, there are a few things first-timers should know. The first two lines of forwards, known as the top six, wear red jerseys and skate together, while the third and fourth lines wear white. Defenders always wear blue. Unfortunately, jerseys don't have numbers on them — look for the small digits on the back of a player's helmet. The rink itself, which can be accessed by elevators from the parking garage or inside the mall, includes a small cafe and a well-stocked team shop.

When practice ends, fans flock to the opposite side of the rink to try to get autographs from players leaving the ice. Last week, Oshie was very accommodating, signing posters and posing for a stream of selfies. “Chances are better on a practice day than a game day,” Khurshudyan says. “Jakub Vrana likes to stay on the ice longer than anyone else, and if you’re still waiting for him when he gets off, he’ll often oblige some photo and autograph requests.”

MedStar Capitals Iceplex: 627 N. Glebe Rd., Suite 800, Arlington. Practice times vary, but morning skates typically begin at 10:15 a.m. Upcoming sessions include morning skates at 10:15 a.m. on Dec. 21 and 27 and full practices at 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 28 and noon on Dec. 30. (Dates and times are subject to change.)