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  At Long Last, a Capital City

By William Gildea
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 1997; Page B8

As incongruous as it might seem, because its players come from such Canadian outposts as Flin Flon and South Porcupine and the deceptively bucolic-sounding Floral, ice hockey is very much a city game. It’s been that way since the National Hockey League operated for decades until the late ’60s with its so-called Original Six teams — the big teams were located in the big cities that Canadian boys dreamed of reaching from dots on maps of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Oh, to be in Saskatoon — for some, it was on the way to the hockey shrines of Toronto and Montreal.

Tonight the other "city game," as opposed to the more familiar one of basketball, finally arrives in downtown Washington when the Capitals will play Florida in the new MCI Center. A 24-year hockey warmup in Landover will be ended. Former Washington defenseman Yvon Labre, whose Capitals sweater will be raised to the new rafters tonight along with Rod Langway’s, remembers growing up on ice in Sudbury, Ont., and packing excitedly at the age of 16 to Toronto to stay and play junior hockey. He was on his way to the NHL. "Every kid dreamed of playing in the NHL," he said, "and that meant going to the big cities."

Chicago Stadium, Detroit’s Olympia, Boston Garden, Madison Square Garden in New York, Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and the Forum in Montreal were all downtown, and while all of those historic six teams with the exception of Toronto now play in newer arenas, the ice has been moved only a matter of blocks. While the NHL has expanded across the map, in places as different as Pittsburgh and Tampa, it’s a downtown game. From Inglewood, Calif., where they now play, the Los Angeles Kings sooner or later will be heading to a downtown arena, just as from Landover come the Capitals.

William Faulkner thrilled to the speed of the game when he walked in off Manhattan’s streets and was introduced to hockey in 1955 at the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue. Montreal and the Rangers were going at it; Maurice "Rocket" Richard mesmerized Faulkner, who wrote up the experience of being "an innocent at rinkside" for Sports Illustrated. He found the swift motion of the players "bizarre and paradoxical like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools," and sensed the presence of boys in the crowd "panting for the hour when they would be Richard or Geoffrion."

Jacques Plante, who tended goal for the Rangers after he had minded the nets in Montreal, lived for a time on West 71st Street and used to teach neighborhood kids on roller skates how to use a goaltender’s stick. He twirled the oversized lumber as if it were a baton. "He was an enigmatic guy but he loved the kids," said John Halligan, a friend of Plante’s and former Rangers’ publicist. "It’s one of my great hockey memories, seeing him on the streets teaching kids."

The Capitals are late arriving to the city. Young players have been at it for years at Fort Dupont in Southeast. In New York, the NHL has been active in "Ice Hockey in Harlem," a corporate-sponsored activity combining academics with the game. You ask, when did city streets ever produce an NHL star? Look no further than Joe Mullen, the highest-scoring American ever and future Hall of Famer. He and his brother, Brian, who also played on several NHL teams, grew up in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, on West 49th Street between Ninth and Tenth avenues.

"We played in the schoolyard on roller skates," said Brian Mullen. "We lived on the fifth floor of a five-story apartment. Our dad worked on the ice crew at the Garden. He used to bring home broken sticks. Everybody in the neighborhood, it seemed, worked at the Garden, as ushers or whatever. Every day after school we’d put on all our stuff and go downstairs in full gear."

There must have been 30 kids playing one day when a car came to a stop and the driver got out. He could see the boys were playing hockey, but their feet weren’t in his view and he didn’t think there was ice there. He approached, and some of the kids looked over. It was Emile "The Cat" Francis, then the Rangers coach.

Because of his discovery of inner-city hockey, Francis helped found New York City’s Metropolitan Junior Hockey League. "If it weren’t for that," said Brian Mullen, "Joey and I would never have made the NHL."

Playing the game on small wheels in city streets is hardly more of an adaptation than that required by Canadian country boys, of times past and even now, wanting for equipment. Frozen dung has worked as a puck.

"As a kid, the only equipment I had were skates and a stick," Gordie Howe, from Floral, Saskatchewan, is quoted in "Fischlers’ Ice Hockey Encyclopedia." "I took magazines and mail order catalogues, stuck ’em in my socks and had shin pads. I tied them together with rubber bands made from inner tubes. We played with tennis balls instead of a puck. The ball would get so hard from the cold we’d have to get new ones all the time. A woman next door used to warm them up in an oven for us."

Howe was big and strong, but surprisingly timid when it was time to leave home for the big cities. But that’s where he had to go because that’s where the real hockey action was. So he went.

"I owned this cottage for a while in Arden, Ontario, way up, above Highway 7," said Labre. "It was still like it was when I was growing up. You play outside. You put up lights and boards and pour in the water and freeze the ground. Where I grew up, there were 24 outdoor rinks and two indoor rinks. I was a teenager before I got inside."

There are two fine places to play in hockey, indoors, and in the city.

Welcome, Capitals.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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