- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

It was only for little more than an hour yesterday, but for that brief span there was hockey again at Piney Orchard Ice Arena.

More than 50 fans turned out on a workday morning to see the Portland (Maine) Pirates of the American Hockey League practice. It was the first time professional players had used the ice since the Washington Capitals last practiced there in April 2004.

“I drove for an hour and 20 minutes to get here but it was worth it,” said a fan from Ashburn, Va., who said he normally would have been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. “Being here and seeing these guys makes me realize even more how much I miss not having hockey.”

The labor dispute that has consumed the NHL is in its sixth month with no end in sight. The owners locked the players out on Sept.15 and the season was officially canceled on Feb. 16. There have been three meetings between the two sides since the cancellation, including one yesterday in which the league presented the union with two proposals. The players said they would study the offers and get back to management.

Players have scattered throughout North America and Europe to find places to play and stay in shape. Some went to Europe for a brief period before returning to play in the AHL or spend time with their families.

“This whole thing has been like uncharted waters,” said Caps right wing Brian Willsie, who played briefly for a team in Slovenia before joining the Pirates in December. “I didn’t know what to expect coming in but it’s nice to have a place to play. I spent a lot of time in the American League before I came [to Washington], so I was used to that. But having no National League, that’s definitely a weird feeling.”

The Pirates were en route to Norfolk, where they play a pair of games starting tonight before two games against teams in Pennsylvania. Portland got off to a great start this season with a lineup loaded with the guts of future Capitals teams but stumbled after a dozen games to fall far out of playoff contention. The club has won eight of its last 10 and is driving to make up lost ground.

“We’re playing really well right now, concentrating on what we have to do to make the playoffs,” Willsie said. “We don’t talk too much about the NHL thing ” we haven’t talked about it at all since the season was canceled.”

“As a hockey fan, it’s odd coming home at night and there’s no game on TV so it’s different in that regard,” said Pirates coach Tim Army, a former Caps assistant. “But it’s turning out to be just another season for us. It’s strange because there’s no [personnel] movement between us and the Caps that you’d normally have but it hasn’t changed our focus, getting guys ready for the NHL.”

Former Cap Peter Bondra attended the practice with his two sons. The right wing was traded to Ottawa toward the end of the 2003-04 season but still lives in the area. He was one of the players who briefly went to Europe but returned when it was obvious there would be no settlement.

Asked if he was anxious for play to resume, he simply nodded. His silence said it all.

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