- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2011

When Michael Caggiano owned the Baltimore Bandits minor league hockey team in the mid-1990s, he received a letter from a woman who went to a game with her husband and two children.

She loved it, the letter said, but she’d never go back. That’s because her purse was stolen, her car was broken into and her 4- and 6-year-old kids were hassled by homeless people on the street.

Caggiano no longer has the letter, but it’s a fitting symbol of how the sport left Baltimore after decades of successful minor league teams because various issues ranging from the arena to money.

“I believe that there are lots of people who would have an interest in going to a Baltimore hockey game,” Caggiano said. “The issue was not whether or not there was fan interest. We would get fans into the building, but there were some structural issues that prevented us from hitting our stride.”

As the Washington Capitals visit Charm City for Tuesday’s Baltimore Hockey Classic preseason game against the Nashville Predators, much has changed — but still it appears unlikely that minor league hockey will return anytime soon.

Baltimore housed hockey dating to 1932 and the Orioles (Tri State Hockey League). Since then, the Blades (of the Eastern Hockey League and pro World Hockey Association), Clippers (EHL, Northeastern Hockey League, Southern Hockey League), Skipjacks (Atlantic Coast Hockey League, American Hockey League) and Bandits (AHL) came and went.

“Baltimore has a rich tradition of hockey — we had the Skipjacks and the Bandits,” Baltimore city council president Bernard C. “Jack” Young said.

Baltimore’s 1st Mariner Arena, which is the site of Tuesday night’s game, opened in 1962 with a hockey game. The Skipjacks were the longest-tenured AHL team in the city, playing there from 1982 to 1993 before leaving for Portland, Maine. For the next 12 years, the Portland Pirates were the Caps’ top minor league affiliate.

In 1995, the Bandits — an affiliate of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim — were founded to fill the void. Buzz was pretty good, and Caggiano (who bought the team in 1996) was optimistic that the team could draw fans, even if they were going to watch unfamiliar players such as Bobby Marshall, Pavel Trnka and Sean Pronger, the lesser-known brother of Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris.

But the “structural issues” that Caggiano referenced were hard to change. Above all else, 1st Mariner Arena also was the home of the Baltimore Spirit (now the Blast) indoor soccer team and could not make many Saturday nights from October to May available for the Bandits.

Caggiano pointed out that one Saturday night is probably worth four weeknights when it comes to drawing fans and making money.

“It’s like waterfront property — everybody wants Fridays and Saturdays,” 1st Mariner Arena general manager Frank Remesch said.

Trying to target families and hockey aficionados — many of whom resided in the Baltimore suburbs — Caggiano and the Bandits struggled with the placement of the arena, which was “less than desirable,” Remesch conceded, back in the mid-1990s before a substantial expansion of the Inner Harbor area.

With no local TV or radio deal, the Bandits relied on corporate sponsorship and ticket sales and fell deep in debt. Caggiano, who now serves as chief operating officer at an accounting firm in the District, said all he wanted to do was break even.

“I ran out of money,” he said. “After putting so much money into it and not seeing the good end to it, I just realized it was a zero sum game at this point.”

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