Maryland has no official National Hockey League team, but some Anne Arundel and Howard County residents have adopted their own.
At Odenton's Piney Orchard Ice Arena, where the Washington Capitals practice, a loyal and growing corps of fans is appearing daily to cheer on a team advancing far further in the National Hockey League playoffs than anyone predicted.
The fans come to support their hometown team, not Washington's.
"A lot of people here think of MCI Center as just the rink that they play in," said Amy Carver, the arena's business manager, "that [the Capitals'] home rink is the one that they practice in."
Carver said the number of fans -- from areas near the arena and parts of Washington -- has been going up in recent weeks and the arena has been fielding many more calls from people asking about Capitals' practices.
During the hourlong morning skate sessions, fans sit in the stands, hugging their knees in the brisk air, snapping pictures of their favorites and optimistically discussing how the Capitals will fare in the Eastern Conference finals series that begins tomorrow.
On weekends, when children's leagues have practices and games at the arena, Carver said, dozens of extra fans watch the Capitals.
The people who come are a hodgepodge of die-hard fans, young women attracted to the players, and mothers toting children in youth leagues who aspire to hockey greatness.
Yesterday, the fans began trickling in shortly after 10 a.m., staking out spots far from each other, settling in with coffee and popcorn, staring quietly in awe as the Capitals raced around, passed the puck and shot.
Kicking back high up in the stands with a Gatorade in hand, Ben DeCraene, 26, a sporting goods store manager from Columbia, said he loves getting a close look at his favorite team.
"It's cool because you see their different personalities as opposed to real games, when they have their game faces on," he said. "Here, you see how they interact with each other, who gets along with who. For example, nobody on the team seems to like [left wing] Chris Simon. He's mean to them, but he's also always the first one to flip pucks up to the kids on the stands."
Rita Rose, who took her 5-year-old son and three young friends to practice yesterday, lives in Crofton and said many in her community support the Capitals because they know them personally. She said about 10 Capitals players and their families live in Crofton.
"You see them at community functions -- some of them have small children, so they interact with the community. We know that they're just nice, normal people," Rose said. "We really hope they'll go all the way."
Others come to the practices for economic reasons.
"I've sat this close before, but it's probably $125 to sit in the front at MCI Center," said John Evans, 31, a grocery store manager who made the 40-minute drive from his home in Burke, Va., for the first time yesterday.
He wasn't the only fan looking to be near a Capital. Angela Hollowak, 18, and Jill Weaver, 19, both of Arnold, sat close to the boards, sighing and grabbing each other every time defenseman Brendan Witt skated by.
"There he is!" Hollowak gasped. "Doesn't he look SO good?"
The pair said they go to practices almost every Thursday -- even though Weaver has a 10: 15 biology class at Anne Arundel Community College -- and have asked Witt out to dinner several times.
"He says yes but then he never does it," Hollowak said.
After practice, the players went over to the fans to sign jerseys, pictures and pucks, but Witt ignored the excited pair calling to him.
"I have no idea who they are," he said later, looking a little confused. "But I think it's great that fans show up to practice."
The Capitals are in the market for a new practice arena closer to Washington. Odenton was convenient when the team began practicing there in 1991 because their games were played in Landover. With the move to Washington's MCI Center this season, however, Odenton has became a commute.
The thrill of watching champion-caliber hockey practices in Odenton could be short-lived.
Pub Date: 5/22/98