PHILADELPHIA | The names on the backs of the jerseys didn’t say “Ovechkin” or “Pronger.” The skill level wasn’t as high as those kinds of guys, either.
But lots of fans – over 11,000 – looked past those little details Thursday to give the annual rookie game between the Capitals and Flyers an NHL feel. The crowd was so impressive that when Philadelphia general manager Paul Holmgren was asked to assess the talent he saw, he went in another direction.
“I think the fans were great, showing up in numbers like that for the rookie game,” he said.
That’s not what the reporter meant – but this Thursday afternoon in September – sandwiched between two halves of a Phillies-Marlins doubleheader across the street provided a tantalizing taste of October hockey.
It had all the trappings of what it’ll be like when the Caps (the big boys) play at Wells Fargo Center Oct. 22 – from the pregame video and light show to the orange-clad fans.
“The Flyers did a great job with it – from Lauren Hart singing the national anthem to the video scoreboard to just the dressing rooms and everything,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I just thought it was first-class all the way.”
For many of the rookies in the game, it was a rare chance to play in front of a huge crowd of NHL fans in a pro arena. Stan Galiev called it awesome to have “crazy fans” around – though he meant it in a more complimentary way.
When asked what it meant for players to get this opportunity, Boudreau put himself in their skates.
“I thought, ‘Geez, man, if I was 20 years old, what an environment this would’ve been. I thought it was so cool,” he said. “I know if it was me and I still had junior or college eligibility or if I was a free agent, I’d be sitting there going, ‘Man, this is what I want to do. I’m going to do what it takes to see if I could get up here one day.’ ”
This game was so real that fans even took to taunting Caps goalie Brandon Anderson with derisive “Anderson” chants in the third period. Flyers center Brayden Schenn (considered one of the top prospects in the world) compared it to hockey in Canada.
And though this was just a rookie game, it was an experience for guys like Taylor Stefishen.
“That was kind of my first experience wearing an NHL jersey in an NHL building, and obviously it was a great feeling.,” he said. “You live your childhood dream, kind of, even though it’s just an exhibition game.”
Previous incarnations of this game were played at the Flyers’ SkateZone in Voorhees, N.J., and at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington. This kind of crowd would’ve gone against any fire code ever written if held at one of those places. Again, it was free as long as fans registered for tickets.
Naturally, Thursday’s turnout lends the question of whether next year’s event will move to Verizon Center. That doesn’t need to be decided yet, but it seems like another chance to grow the game in the District.