On a recent skate down memory lane, Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau stopped for a few seconds to think of the perfect adjectives to describe the die hard hockey fans who wore out their vocal cords and rattled the Plexiglas at the Baltimore Arena during the spring of 1985.
"There weren't a lot of them, but they were … boisterous and fabulous," said Boudreau, who was then a 30-year-old forward who helped the Baltimore Skipjacks advance to the 1984-85 American Hockey League finals. "My memories from Baltimore were nothing but tremendous."
Less than a decade later, in 1993, the Skipjacks left for Portland, Maine. The Baltimore Bandits played two seasons here, but the Baltimore Arena Zamboni was parked for good when they moved to Cincinnati in 1997. Now, 14 years later, professional hockey returns to Baltimore on Tuesday night when the Capitals host the Nashville Predators in the inaugural Baltimore Hockey Classic.
The event — a preseason game for the two National Hockey League teams but a showcase for the city of Baltimore — will serve a homecoming of sorts for both head coaches.
Boudreau, who has coached the Capitals since 2007, scored seven goals and added 16 assists in 32 games, including postseason, in that brief stop in Baltimore during his circuitous playing career. Meanwhile, his Predators counterpart, Barry Trotz, coached the Skipjacks in their final season in Baltimore before leading the team to the Calder Cup — the AHL championship — in its first year in Portland.
"Coaching in Baltimore was great," said Trotz, who has been the coach of the Predators since 1998-99, which was Nashville's inaugural season. "When I started, Camden Yards had just come about. It was a neat time in Baltimore with the way the Inner Harbor grew. I'm really looking forward to getting back there … to see some good friends and the city, how it's grown."
Boudreau, who has steered the Capitals to four straight Southeast Division titles, said he has fond off-ice memories from his time in Baltimore, too.
"I used to love going out at the Inner Harbor every night," he said with a mischievous chuckle.
Thousands of local hockey fans — including still-loyal supporters of the Baltimore Clippers, Skipjacks and Bandits — will descend on downtown Tuesday night to watch two playoff teams from a year ago face off at 1st Mariner Arena. The game, which starts at 7 p.m., was 95 percent sold out as of Monday, according to Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who worked with the Capitals and arena officials to organize the Baltimore Hockey Classic.
"It's going to be fun," said Capitals captain and two-time NHL Most Valuable Player Alex Ovechkin, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Camden Yards before Friday's game between the Orioles and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. "[Baltimore fans] have to drive to D.C. [to] watch our games, so we're going to come here and show them [our] new team and how we're going to play."
The Capitals have been one of the NHL's most exciting teams since Ovechkin entered the league in the 2005-06 season. A year ago, Boudreau asked the Capitals to adopt a defensive-minded approach, and they finished fourth in the NHL in goals against. Still, there may be nothing more exciting in hockey than Ovechkin blazing down the left wing and taking on a defender 1-on-1.
Though it's only an exhibition, fans should be treated to an exciting game. The Predators have made the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons and they are anchored by defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber and star goaltender Pekka Rinne.
"We're a team that goes after you and hunts you down," Trotz said of the Predators, who have thrived playing his blue-collar brand of hockey.
City officials are hopeful that a positive response to the Baltimore Hockey Classic will help attract a professional basketball or hockey team to the city. Trotz, who said that fans of the Skipjacks still contact him today, said he could envision a scenario in which a minor-league hockey team would thrive in Baltimore. But that scenario includes a new arena.
"A minor-league team in Baltimore? Absolutely, with the right facility and the right ownership," he said. "The No. 1 thing is if you had the right-sized arena. … What the Caps have done in the way they have grown their fan base, not just in the D.C. area, but through Baltimore and through Maryland and Delaware, [it shows that people in Baltimore] are passionate about the sport."
And Baltimore gets a chance to show it Tuesday when the puck drops in the city for the first since 1997.
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