For more than a decade, Baltimore-area hockey fans have watched for free as the Washington Capitals practiced at the Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton.
But that opportunity will soon be gone.
In May 2006, the Capitals plan to move to a newer, larger facility to be built atop the Ballston Common Mall parking garage in Arlington, Va.
The local county board there approved money for the $42.8 million project last week.
The Capitals had openly contemplated the move for years, with team officials saying they wanted to be closer to their fans and to practice in a state-of-the-art complex.
The team has practiced in Anne Arundel County's Piney Orchard Ice Arena since 1991, though players have not appeared this fall because of a protracted labor dispute that has shut down the National Hockey League.
Team officials celebrated the impending move even as the hockey season neared cancellation last week.
"Not only will it provide a great home for our hockey team and bring us closer to our fan base," Capitals president Dick Patrick said in a statement, "but it will also be an amazing, multiple-use complex for the community while benefiting local business and commerce."
The owners of the Piney Orchard rink in western Anne Arundel said they were not surprised to hear the Capitals are leaving after the 2005-2006 season.
"It was just a matter of time," said Jim Renner, a co-owner of the rink. "They notified us years ago that they were looking at this."
Renner said he and his partners examined ways to keep the team but said, "We couldn't afford to do what they wanted on our own."
He added that the rink would miss the professional team but said he has plans to make up lost revenue by expanding youth hockey and figure skating programs.
"Always when you lose business, it has an impact, but we've been preparing for this," Renner said.
Waving the white flag
Anne Arundel officials expressed similar sentiments. County Executive Janet S. Owens met with team officials several years ago, hoping to convince them to stay.
But she and county officials quickly concluded they could not compete with Arlington's plans for a major, publicly funded facility.
"Arlington is really building them a showplace and not charging them a cent for it," said William Badger, Anne Arundel's director of economic development. "We couldn't really compete with that kind of incentive, so we waved the white flag of surrender."
Badger said the loss would not have a great economic impact on the county, noting that the team's practices did not draw large crowds and did not draw new businesses to the surrounding area.
The Capitals began practicing at Piney Orchard 13 years ago, because the rink was close to the team's former arena, the Capital Centre (later the US Airways Arena), in Landover.
But when the Capitals moved to the downtown MCI Center in 1999, officials began searching for a new practice site.
Arlington became the leading candidate with its proposal to build a two-rink facility on top of a seven-story garage at Ballston Common.
The complex would not only include more practice space but would feature Capitals emblems pasted across a prominent building in a busy area.
The Piney Orchard rink, by contrast, is not located in a major commercial area and features only a small sign designating it as the team's practice facility.
Many players live in nearby Davidsonville, but the team focuses its promotional efforts more on Washington and its immediate suburbs such as Arlington.
"We'll hate like heck to see them go, but from a management standpoint, it's certainly an understandable move," Renner said.