Break away and check out a hockey game

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore hockey fans haven't had their own professional team since the Bandits of the East Coast Hockey League - one of six teams to come and go here since 1933 - disbanded in 1999. But that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of college and professional action for local puck maniacs to witness in person.

For the well-heeled connoisseur, there are always the National Hockey League's Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. The Caps, currently in last place in the Southeast Division, nonetheless boast stalwart netminder Olaf "Olie the Goalie" Kolzig and one of the league's most explosive players and top scorers, rookie forward Alex Ovechkin. They play their home games at the MCI Center in Washington, including a 3 p.m. tilt against the Florida Panthers tomorrow.

The Flyers, with their rich tradition and division-leading lineup - including the NHL's top goal scorer, Simon Gagne, and top playmaker Peter Forsberg - play to packed houses at Philly's Wachovia Center.

But if NHL ticket prices - $20 to $225 for the Caps, $20 to $170 for the Flyers - chill your enthusiasm, there's still plenty of affordable, if less intense, hockey competition closer to home.

The Naval Academy's club team, for instance, may not offer scholarships, but like other college squads in the area, draws players from top junior and prep-school programs around the country. Navy has been playing at one of the area's historic rinks, Dahlgren Hall on the school's Annapolis campus, for more than 30 years. Led by senior goalie Ryan Dobie and junior scorer Chris Schnappinger, the 2005-2006 Midshipmen are looking for a second straight appearance in the East Coast Hockey Association's playoffs. Other teams include first-place Rhode Island, Duquesne, Villanova and Navy's archrival, Towson University, which plays its home schedule at Mount Pleasant Ice Arena at Northern Parkway and Hillen Road.

With its 10-7 record, Navy seems a good bet, and the team has a chance to show off its gritty style at the 28th annual Crab Pot Tournament at Dahlgren Hall on Feb. 4 and 5. Towson, meanwhile, boasts two of the league's top 12 scorers - seniors Troy Mansilla and Chad Sillery - but at 3-8-1, faces a more difficult task in making the postseason.

Attendance at home games for both teams is free. Go online to usna.edu/NavyHockey and pages.towson.edu/mstevens/WWW for complete schedules, rosters and more.

The University of Maryland (www.terphockey.umd.edu/) and University of Maryland, Baltimore County (umbcicehockey.com) also have club teams that charge no admission. The Terps, struggling at 4-13 overall this year, feature local talent such as junior forward Craig Vaughan, a Calvert Hall graduate, and senior forward Steve Ghent, an alum of the DeMatha High program, and play their home games at the Ice Gardens rink in Laurel.

UMBC, based at Odenton's Piney Orchard Ice Arena, is 4-6-1 in the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Hockey Association, competing against such clubs as Temple, Lafayette and first-place Wagner College. Evan Gwinn, a freshman defenseman from Odenton, and Dan Bartock of Bowie skate alongside teammates from programs in Boston, Philadelphia and upstate New York.

For a steep jump in talent level, try the American Hockey League, a professional circuit just below the NHL, which has two teams within driving distance: the Hershey (Pa.) Bears, an affiliate of the Capitals, and the Philadelphia Phantoms, who like their parent Flyers team play at the Wachovia Center. Both have rich hockey traditions.

Ninety miles to the north, the Bears - the oldest professional organization in the region - began their AHL life in 1938. The team won its first of eight Calder Cup titles in 1947, and until 2002 occupied the building in which the original Bears played. This year's top scorer, Eric Fehr of Manitoba, Canada, has led the Bears to a 22-7 record thus far and likely playoff success. An average of nearly 8,000 fans pay between $15 and $21 apiece for tickets at the team's new Giant Center. See hersheypa.com/events/hershey_bears/ for more information.

The Phantoms (phantomshockey.com), celebrating their 10th year, captured last year's Calder Cup before a Wachovia Center crowd of more than 20,000. This year, they're 14-18 and currently bringing up the rear - largely because last year's team was so successful. Nine starters now anchor the roster of the NHL Flyers. Tickets go for between $14 and $33.

Fans of the club college game need to act more quickly - local teams hold playoffs in mid-February. The AHL and NHL will still be playing through mid-April, with playoff action to follow. But at least Baltimore fans won't have to wait until Charm City's next pro team comes along.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Hockey happenings

A sampling of games, from college to pro:

Saturday

Towson University Tigers vs. West Virginia, 5:15 p.m., Mount Pleasant Ice Arena. 410-444-1888 (pages.towson.edu/mstevens/WWW)

Sunday

Washington Capitals vs. Florida Panthers, 3 p.m., MCI Center, Washington. 202-266-CAPS (washingtoncaps.com)

Philadelphia Phantoms vs. Lowell Lock Monsters, 5:05 p.m., Wachovia Center, Philadelphia (phantomshockey.com)

Tuesday

Capitals vs. Chicago Blackhawks, 7 p.m., MCI Center. 202-266-CAPS (washingtoncaps.com)

Friday

University of Maryland vs. Siena College, 8 p.m., The Gardens Ice House, Laurel. 301-953-0100 (www.terphockey.umd.edu/)

Jan. 14-15

Hershey Bears vs. Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins, 7 p.m. Jan. 14, and vs. Norfolk Admirals, 5 p.m. Jan. 15, Giant Center, Hershey, Pa. 717-534-3380 (hersheypa.com/events/hershey_bears)

Ahead

Jan. 27:

UMBC vs. University of Pennsylvania, 8:10 p.m., Piney Orchard Ice Arena, Odenton (umbcicehockey.com)

Feb. 4-5:

28th annual Crab Pot Tournament, Dahlgren Hall, U.S. Naval Academy Campus, Annapolis (usna.edu/NavyHockey)

Feb. 17-19:

Eastern Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, Dahlgren Hall, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis (usna.edu/NavyHockey)

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