Ten years ago – and just nine days after playing the final hockey game at USAir Arena – the Washington Capitals moved downtown and played the first ever NHL game at their new arena in the heart of the District, MCI Center. Ten years and hundreds of games later, the name has changed (it’s Verizon Center now) and the area around the arena has been transformed into a vibrant hot spot, a must-visit part of the city’s downtown area.
“We decided we were going to build the best building in the world,” said Abe Pollin, then owner of the Capitals, at the arena’s grand opening. “We believe we have achieved that goal.”
“It’s definitely one of the top two buildings in the league right now, but if you pressed me, I really can’t think of a place I like better,” said left wing Steve Konowalchuk.
“We need to get some enthusiasm going for hockey here,” said Caps goaltender Bill Ranford at the time of the move. “I played in Edmonton and Boston, two big hockey towns, and the interest in hockey here is relatively disappointing. Hopefully the move will change all that.”
“I see the city suffering, getting a bad reputation locally, nationally and internationally,” declared Pollin. “I was in the unique position to do something about it.”
The arena took five years of planning and construction and cost $200 million to build, When it opened, the arena had a seating capacity of 20,600 for sporting events and concerts. These days, a crowd of 18,277 constitutes a sellout at Verizon Center.
Despite playing 18 of their first 28 games on the road in 1997-98, the Caps went into their MCI Center opener with a 14-10-4 record, fifth in the Eastern Conference and third in the Atlantic Division.
As was somewhat typical in those days, the Caps found themselves shorthanded as they prepared to celebrate the opening of their new building. Top scorer Peter Bondra was sidelined with a bruised ankle, and the Caps had only 16 healthy skaters at practice the day before their first game at MCI Center. Assistant coach Tim Hunter filled in and took a right wing spot on one of the lines, but only until he limped off with a bruised left leg sustained after he was struck by an errant puck.
“We’ll move people around and whatever works, works,” said Caps coach Ron Wilson. “We’ll start with Todd Krygier, it could be Richard Zednik up there, Kelly Miller, different people. We could even go with Joe Juneau back up there again, too. We’ll have to just roll with the punches and see what works in games.”
The game also marked the first time the Caps faced ex-Washington bench boss Bryan Murray as Florida’s head coach. Murray was the Panthers’ general manager at the time, but he took over the team’s bench duties about two weeks prior to the opening of the MCI Center.
On the day of the game, the Caps had their first ever morning skate at MCI. Then they went to a local hotel for some shut-eye. Players spent the afternoon at a downtown hotel after the skate ended. Most players lived in suburban Maryland in those days, far from the arena. Caps general manager George McPhee didn’t want to take any chances on any of his players getting stuck in traffic while driving to that first game.
With vice-president Al Gore and his wife Tipper in attendance, the Caps first took the ice at their new downtown arena against the Florida Panthers on a Friday night, Dec. 5, 1997.
Forty-two former Capitals were brought back for the event. They were dressed up in team sweaters with their familiar names and numbers, and introduced individually to great applause during the first intermission. The assemblage of alumni then skated a lap around the new ice sheet and waved to the capacity crowd of 19,740.
Bryan Watson, the irascible former Caps defenseman and proprietor of Bugsy’s in Alexandria (arguably the best hockey bar and pizza joint in the entire Eastern time zone), was among the alums.
“I think what Abe Pollin has done for the city of D.C. is really wonderful,” said Watson. “Now all we need is to win the Stanley Cup. There are no more excuses. This is the best building in the league.”
Florida’s Steve Washburn tallied the first ever goal in the building with assists from defensemen Paul Laus and Rhett Warrener. The goal came at 7:23 of the first period. The Caps might have been a bit nervous on the new sheet; they were outshot 11-2 in the opening frame.
Washington’s Richard Zednik netted the first Caps goal in the team’s new home, scoring with help from Konowalchuk and Jan Bulis at 12:16 of the second to tie the game. Chris Simon gave the Caps the lead with a power play goal early in the third, but Robert Svehla’s power play marker knotted the score and sent the game into overtime.
Three and a half minutes into the extra session, Washington’s Jeff Toms – a Capital for all of two weeks at the time – forced a Laus turnover at the Capitals blueline. He chipped the puck past the Florida defender, skated down the right side of the ice and into the attack zone with Dale Hunter to his left, and launched a shot that beat Panthers goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck.
“We got a bounce at the blueline and then I used my speed to beat Laus,” said Toms after the game. “Being picked up by Washington is the best thing that’s ever happened in my career.”
Toms’ goal came at 3:32 of overtime. Claimed off waivers from Tampa Bay some two weeks earlier, Toms had missed the previous two practices because he was back in Tampa collecting some of his belongings.
“He proved my practices don’t mean an damn thing,” said a happy Wilson after the game. “This is the best feeling in the world when you win in overtime – the other team doesn’t have a chance to tie it. It’s an exhilarating feeling.
“Jeff Toms has been really working hard since he’s been here, and to get rewarded like that the first night in this building is something he’ll always remember.”
“I really think it will have an impact,” said Murray of the new building. “You’re downtown. We’re staying in a hotel downtown. You get a chance to see the city, like visiting teams never did before. A lot of things are different for the players. I really think it’ll have a big impact. I definitely think people will perceive the Caps as something different now.”
Ten years down the road, Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig – the winning netminder that night – had some thoughts on that night and what has transpired in the area since.
“Overtime win against Florida,” Kolzig responded, when asked about the first game. “I think we came back to win. New building, sold out, it was an unbelievable atmosphere. All I remember is it was an overtime win against Florida.”
Kolzig remarked on how far the surrounding area has come in the last decade.
“I was hoping my car didn’t get stolen,” he joked. “The area was still shady. I know I didn’t stick around much for dinner after the game. To see how it’s been revitalized, it’s unbelievable. It’s like a mini Times Square now. I lived down there at Gallery Place two years ago and it was terrific. If I didn’t have a wife and kids, or even if I didn’t have kids, I would definitely live downtown. It’s a great area.”
Verizon Center is now a shining example of what a downtown sports complex can to for a city and a neighborhood.
“That started it,” Kolzig declares. “Obviously Abe Pollin had a vision and he probably single-handedly changed that whole area. And now with the renovations to the building, it’s even better.”
The Capitals spent nearly a quarter century in their original home, the Capital Centre (and later USAir Arena) in suburban Landover, Md. When the Capital Centre was built, it was during a time when the trend was to build stadiums and arenas in suburban areas. That trend reversed itself in the 1990s, and it was time for the Caps to move to the city that precedes their name.
“There’s no question,” says Kolzig. “The Caps Centre, as far as atmosphere goes, when the people were in there, there probably wasn’t a louder building in the league at the time. But in the middle of Landover, there wasn’t a whole lot going on around there. It was vital that we needed to get downtown. They wanted to get some more businesses on board and make it more of a corporate deal. I know a lot of season ticket holders weren’t overly thrilled when they decided to move downtown, but I think most people agree that the building is a lot better.
“Now, with the way that the area has been developed, it’s a great destination to go to on a weeknight or a weekend.”