Fifteen 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. Fifteen years and hundreds of games later, the name has changed (it’s Verizon Center now) and so has the area surrounding the arena.
After spending a quarter of a century in their suburban Maryland birthplace, the late Abe Pollin decided it was time to move the Capitals and the Wizards downtown and into a state-of-the-art facility.
“We decided we were going to build the best building in the world,” said Pollin, then the owner of the Capitals. “We believe we have achieved that goal.
“I see the city suffering, getting a bad reputation locally, nationally and internationally. I was in the unique position to do something about it.”
The arena took about 26 months to construct, and when it opened, the arena had a seating capacity of 20,600 for sporting events and concerts. These days, a crowd of 18,506 constitutes a sellout for an NHL game at Verizon Center.
Most Caps players believed the move was overdue.
“There’s no question,” recalled Caps goalie Olie Kolzig, years later. “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.”
With then 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.
Typically, 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,” shrugged Caps coach Ron Wilson before the game. “We’ll start with Todd Krygier; it could be Richard Zednik up there, Kelly Miller, different people. We could even go with Joé Juneau back up there again, too. We’ll have to just roll with the punches and see what works in games.”
Despite playing 18 of their first 28 games on the road, the Caps went in within a 14-10-4 record, fifth in the Eastern Conference and third in the Atlantic Division.
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.
Florida’s Steve Washburn scored the first goal in the new barn, beating Caps goalie Olie Kolzig at 7:23 of the first period. Less than five minutes later, Caps winger Richard Zednik drew the Caps even with the first Washington goal on F St. Zednik had help from Steve Konowalchuk and Jan Bulis.
Chris Simon gave Washington a 2-1 lead on a power play early in the third period, Joé Juneau and Phil Housley assisting. But just under four minutes later, Florida’s Robert Svehla evened the score on a Panthers power play.
The first game in Verizon Center history was settled in overtime when journeyman winger Jeff Toms – plucked off waivers from Tampa Bay just weeks earlier – tallied on a breakaway to send the capacity crowd of 19,740 home happy.
“We got a bounce at the blueline and then I used my speed to beat [Florida defenseman Paul] Laus,” said Toms. “Being picked up by Washington is the best thing that’s ever happened in my career.”
Toms scored at 3:32 of overtime. “He proved my practices don’t mean a damn thing,” said Wilson of Toms’ game-winner. “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.”
It was the second overtime win in as many games for the Capitals; they won their previous contest on a Juneau goal in the extra session against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
For the team’s first game in the District, Caps players skated at MCI Center and then spent the afternoon napping at a downtown hotel. General manager George McPhee didn’t want anyone getting stuck in traffic.
The reviews were positive from players and coaches alike.
“I really think it will have an impact,” said Murray. “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.”
“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 Konowalchuk.
Years later, Kolzig reflected on the difference in the surrounding area in 1997 vs. the nightlife destination spot it has become.
“I was hoping my car didn’t get stolen,” he said. “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 [for a season] 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.”
Forty-two former Capitals were brought back for the opening night 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 crowd.
Bryan Watson, the irascible former Caps defenseman and proprietor of Bugsy’s in Alexandria (almost certainly 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. Now all we need is to win the Stanley Cup. There are no more excuses. This is the best building in the league.”