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Hockey was on thin ice in Baltimore

- 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."

The "political winds" just didn't blow in the right direction for the Bandits, Caggiano said, as attempts to build a suburban arena were dismissed. Young blamed Caggiano and other owners, saying "it's their fault" minor league hockey never succeeded in Baltimore.

"You should ask the owner of the minor league teams now because 95 percent of the seats [sold for the Baltimore Hockey Classic]," Young said. "There must be some fan base in Baltimore."

And while Verizon Center revitalized the District's Chinatown neighborhood because of a strong Caps brand and the NHL, Caggiano believed 1st Mariner Arena wouldn't be the place to grow minor league hockey.

"I think that's why it hasn't worked in the past — you were trying to put a minor league product with a suburban following in an urban setting," he said. "It's like trying to take a hummer and drive an IndyCar race."

Caggiano, who acquired significant debt when buying the team, eventually gave up the dream of making it work, and the Bandits became the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. According to reports, he and the team lost $2 million in two seasons.

No one has attempted a serious foray into a full-time hockey team in Baltimore since.

And it might take a long shot for that to happen anytime soon. Aging 1st Mariner Arena, which has a capacity of 11,111, has drawn rave reviews for concerts — Billboard last year named it the top arena of its size (10,001-15,000) in the U.S. — but a hockey team wouldn't fit into the schedule, for the same reason the Bandits went west.

"It would probably be highly unlikely," Remesch said. "We were voted No. 1 because of the amount of money we made — concerts and other events. A minor league hockey team with 40 dates, I don't have weekends to give them. Without weekends, a minor league team won't make it."

The past seven years have been the most financially successful in 1st Mariner Arena's history, Remesch noted, because of such acts as Bruce Springsteen, Cirque du Soleil and Hannah Montana. Those sellouts are evidence that the area around the arena has improved, officials insisted, but Remesch admitted that if a hockey team made the arena home, he would love to add a scoreboard, update the locker rooms and fix up some "bells and whistles" around the place.

Caggiano's experiment with the Bandits didn't work out, but the former owner of minor league baseball's Potomac Cannons (now the Potomac Nationals) doesn't think Baltimore is a minor league hockey wasteland. It might take a new facility or renovations, but there's some hope it could work — even in a city with two major professional teams in the Orioles and Ravens.

"I believe Baltimore today is a different city," Caggiano said. "With the right amount of money to create a fan base, I believe Baltimore could support a minor league hockey team."

Philadelphia showed that minor league hockey could thrive in a major league town, thanks to a local connection, family atmosphere and cheap tickets to watch the Flyers of the future. Given that this game is a chance to expand and capitalize on large group of fans in Baltimore, Caggiano, Remesch and Young agreed that a team with a Caps connection could succeed.

One intriguing scenario would be if Caps owner Ted Leonsis wanted to bring a team to Baltimore — if only because he can pour tens of millions of dollars into a new arena or renovations and help build the kind of tradition started by the Clippers, Skipjacks and Bandits. But the Caps' strong affiliation with the Hershey Bears was the reason Leonsis gave when saying he's not considering trying to restart minor league hockey in Baltimore.

"We are ecstatic about our relationship with Hershey. I really can't imagine a better affiliation between a parent club and an affiliate," he said in an email to The Washington Times. "So from that perspective, I don't see us altering our relationship. And I haven't entertained the idea of purchasing a franchise in another league, such as the ECHL."

In a hypothetical sense, Remesch said "I would listen — in a New York minute I would listen to anything that man has to say, because he's been successful."

Issues regarding the Blast and concerts and Saturday nights wouldn't be hindrances if a team could get 6,000 to 7,000 fans a game for 40 dates a year.

"I would do that in a heartbeat," Remesch said.

There are no immediate plans to attempt minor league hockey again in Baltimore, and Young said that would be an issue for the mayor's office. But one man around the Caps with a connection to hockey in Baltimore doesn't have a theory for why a team hasn't been able to stick there.

"I think it's a great city, I really do," said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, who played for the Skipjacks in 1985. "I think hockey should be in the city."

For now, that's a one-night deal, and the hope for longer than that is more of a dream than a reality.

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