Slushy ice and slow hockey: Another reminder that Baltimore needs a new arena

Tuesday night's "Baltimore Hockey Classic" at the municipal dump we call an arena was great except for one thing: The game was played on water instead of ice. Apparently, the people responsible for it couldn't get the ice to set, either because the freezer system beneath the surface is old and flawed or because someone forgot to turn on the A/C in First Mariner Arena. And laying down too much water when they resurfaced the ice between periods of the game didn't help, either.

The result was slow hockey that made eyes glaze within five minutes.

The ice was so wet, the puck got soggy.

The refs could have given two-minute penalties for splashing.

Players for both the Washington Capitals and the Nashville Predators appeared to be treading water half the time.

It was so wet, the goalies should have worn floaties.

But do you know what the greatest hockey player in the world, Alexander Mikhaylovich Ovechkin, said about all this? "It is what it is."

Yes, indeed, Baltimore's downtown arena is what it is — and what it is, is no longer amusing. The place doesn't even have that thing called "character." I can love a dump that has character. Nothing worse than a dump without character.

It's a 50-year-old cavern that everybody says was obsolete the day it opened.

And yet, the arena does very well; it's profitable despite itself. Thousands of people go there for all sorts of events because they have no choice. It's the only arena we have.

It's way out of date; it needs to be replaced. It's a boring building that does little to generate energy for the area around it. People from the city and the suburbs drive to it, use it and leave. There are few restaurants or bars nearby. The streets are gloomy. To Caps fans used to visiting the Verizon Center for games, and arriving early or staying late to have dinner or cocktails in what has become a ridiculously busy part of Washington, downtown Baltimore's west side looks bleak.

So I'm all for the new arena as proposed earlier this year by the Greater Baltimore Committee — not just because the one we have is a dump but because a new one would be a destination with amenities and with the power to generate energy on the streets around it. The plan to include a new, 18,500-seat arena in an expanded Baltimore Convention Center makes a lot of sense; it gives the region a new space for sports and big entertainment and makes the convention center more attractive for large meetings.

I'm assuming, of course, that the U.S. economy is going to come back someday, and I realize that's a big assumption. But if we don't plan future projects, they won't be ready when the time is right. Besides, hundreds of millions in private capital already has been pledged for a new arena with a hotel on top of it. The pledge is contingent on taxpayer commitment to a convention center expansion, but such projects don't happen without government bonds.

Is Baltimore a hockey town? People sneer and say "no" without ever thinking about it. In fact, the city was a decent minor-league hockey town in the time of the Clippers and the Skipjacks, despite the mediocrity of the arena. The last time we had a professional team, the Bandits in the mid-1990s, they had lousy dates for home games — Wednesday nights (later, some Friday nights) and Sunday afternoons. Hockey season starts in the fall, so you can imagine what the Bandits' attendance was after the Ravens started playing football here in 1996. And football season runs deep into December and, with playoffs, January. No wonder the Bandits left town after the 1997 season.

Tuesday night, despite the slushy ice conditions, there were thousands of Caps fans in the old arena, but also a lot of men, women and kids from the Baltimore hockey scene, some old enough to remember the Clippers and 'Jacks, and even the Bandits. They would love to have a home team to root for again — as long as their games could be played on Saturday nights in a new arena, on ice that's hard and cold and fast.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR 88.1 FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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