By most measures, the inaugural Baltimore Hockey Classic at 1st Mariner Arena was a success.
The game brought in a sellout crowd. Many of the announced 11,082 fans got into the action, wearing either the Washington Capitals’ red or jerseys from the departed Baltimore Clippers, Skipjacks or Bandits. And organizers say the event was a hit financially.
But Tuesday night’s ice hockey showcase was missing one key ingredient: quality ice.
Puddles formed on the ice during the Capitals' 2-0 preseason loss to the Nashville Predators. By the second period, they were visible even to fans in the upper deck, because of the bright lights shining down from above the scoreboard. When players made sharp cuts on the soft ice, water sprayed instead of ice shavings. Players fell, their passes lacked zip and goalies slid out of their nets while making saves.
Frank Remesch, general manager of 1st Mariner Arena, said Wednesday that the issues stemmed from humid outside air entering the arena before the game, raising the temperate inside to above 70 degrees.
He added that the machinery arena staff used to keep the ice frozen was functioning properly Tuesday. After the game, he called experts to have them come check out the equipment on Wednesday morning.
"We should have done a more proactive job as a building of looking at the forecast and thinking this through," said Remesch, who estimated that 75 to 80 percent of the paid attendees were from the Baltimore market. "We got caught up in the fan experience, making sure the building was spit-shined and the Capitals were happy … and all those things. We dropped the ball on that. It's as simple as that."
Outside of Baltimore, the main storyline was the slushy ice conditions that affected the quality of play in the NHL preseason game. Afterward, several players acknowledged they were worried about safety.
"The ice was soft, but it's over," Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin said. "So thank God nobody got hurt."
It was the first professional hockey game at 1st Mariner Arena since the minor-league Baltimore Bandits left town in 1997.
"It's been a long time since we made hockey ice in the building," Remesch said.
Arena workers started flooding the rink and freezing the ice Sept. 12.
"It's the same way we do it for 'Disney on Ice,'" Remesch said, except for the lines, logos and face-off dots, which were painted under the ice by workers from the Capitals. "They did an absolutely phenomenal job. The ice looked incredible."
The Baltimore Charm of the Lingerie Football League had a game at the arena Friday. Their playing surface was laid on the ice beforehand and pulled up Saturday so the ice could be cleaned for Tuesday's event.Though he admitted that the ice was "terrible," as far as ticket sales and fan experience, Remesch said, "I don't know where it would do better."
The Baltimore Hockey Classic was the first hockey game that Dave Wayne, 23, of Essex had attended.
"Our seats were in the upper level," he said Wednesday, "so it probably took me a little longer than others to fully notice the meltdown."
But the conditions inside the arena didn't ruin the experience for him.
"[It was] money well spent and I will do it again if we get another crack at it," Wayne said.
Dave Stevenson, 24, of Reisterstown, said he could see the condition of the ice impacting play.
"It definitely affected watching the game," he said. "I could definitely tell that the players were more careful and cautious than usual, and the pauses to fix the ice got annoying. Outside of the bad ice, I had a terrific time at the game."
Remesch believes the ice issues can easily be avoided if the Capitals return to 1st Mariner Arena for another preseason game next September — and he is optimistic that they will.
To get the arena as cool as possible, he plans to "just totally crank the air conditioning down" in the lower 60s and schedule all deliveries prior to the day of the event. Having the Zambonis do a dry cut between periods instead of spreading water to form a new layer of ice will also be a consideration.
"The good news is that it can absolutely be fixed," Remesch said.
But will the Capitals be willing to come back to Baltimore for an exhibition game next year?
According to a source who was close to the negotiations for Tuesday's game, "talks will begin in the coming days, and a decision should be made in the coming months" about a 2012 exhibition at 1st Mariner.
Arena officials and sponsors are already discussing multi-year deals for the Baltimore Hockey Classic.
"Looking at my business, I can't tell you how many times I had Bruce Springsteen on the books and lost him," Remesch said. "I hate talking about the future. But honestly, if I were a betting man, I would say that the Caps will absolutely come back. I still have to prove it to them that we can do this here in Baltimore."