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Playing in Baltimore can expand team reach

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 21, 2011

BALTIMORE | Tuesday night was not just another exhibition game for the Washington Capitals. Usually, the first game of the preseason is a chance for veteran NHL players to get up to speed after a summer away and for younger guys to impress coaches and fight for roster spots.

Perhaps it was just another game like that for the visiting Nashville Predators, but for the Caps, the "Baltimore Hockey Classic" was a chance to showcase the highest level of the game to fans who might not ordinarily get to see it - and perhaps enhance an already-growing fan base.

"I think it's really important in that you can tell the Washington Capital brand is expanding and that hockey itself in the D.C. area and beyond is really becoming relevant," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "And the people in Baltimore are sort of clamoring for the game as well as we are."

Ticket sales were strong - beyond 95 percent capacity a week before faceoff, according to officials. Many had to pay full season-ticket prices for the game at the 11,000-plus-seat 1st Mariner Arena, which hadn't hosted professional hockey since 1997.

So the objective, general manager George McPhee said, was to perform well and "go up to Baltimore on a Tuesday night in the preseason against a nonconference team and sell the building out."

With this likely being as highly anticipated a preseason game as the Caps could put on the schedule, they didn't scrimp on the star power. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner, Mike Green and Michal Neuvirth were in the lineup.

The NHL requires teams to dress eight "veterans" for preseason games, but the Caps brought their headliners because of the greater significance of this game.

"I think we owe it to everybody to put a pretty good team on," Boudreau said. "When we go to Columbus [Wednesday night] we're going to put a pretty good lineup together. I think we always owe it to paying people to put a good lineup out there. We're trying to do that all the time."

Of course, putting star players on the ice couldn't hurt trying to impress the Charm City faithful.

"I definitely think it helps," Alzner said. "When you don't play in a city - ever - and you finally do get to play a game there, you want to see those guys that everybody talks about. That's definitely a big draw."

Assistant coach Bob Woods pointed out guys were fighting for spots, such as 20-year-old center Cody Eakin, who was on the third line Tuesday night. Also, the Caps wanted to ice a competitive lineup because the Predators brought goalie Pekka Rinne, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy last season.

The grander implications of the game - beyond the economic boon for Baltimore and the novelty of playing close to home but not at Verizon Center - go beyond the result.

"Who knows? We might have a future Baltimore city school kid grow up to be a Washington Capital," Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said.

Young said last week that he would like the city to host annual preseason Caps games and, if everything goes smoothly, a regular-season game.

That might be far-fetched, given the limited facilities available at 1st Mariner Arena. But Boudreau, who played a season with the Baltimore Skipjacks of the American Hockey League, hopes this game sparks some hockey fever there.

"Well, to the city, I'm hoping there's somebody out there that says, 'You know what, this could be a pretty cool hockey town again' - 15 years since hockey was here - and embraces it and says, 'Let's get hockey back in Baltimore,' " he said. "Hopefully somebody's out there that's willing to take that shot."

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