Former Baltimore hockey stars ready for Capitals-Bruins game

On game nights like Tuesday, the televisions in Gary Rissling's restaurants show Washington Capitals' hockey contests. But he'd gladly tune in to watch a local team, should Baltimore one day get back on the ice.

"Can you imagine a rink built beside M&T Bank Stadium, with a team playing hockey in a tough Ravens' style?" said Rissling, of Monkton, a hard-nosed forward who played for the Skipjacks from 1982-87.


Owner of three Silver Spring Mining Company restaurants, he plans to attend Tuesday night's National Hockey League preseason game, dubbed the Baltimore Hockey Classic, between the Capitals and Boston Bruins at the Baltimore Arena (7 p.m.). But he's hungry for more.

"Not having an NHL team here is a huge empty," said Rissling, who hails from Canada. "We're the only city along I-95 that's been skipped."

He's not the only former Baltimore hockey player who settled here to miss the sport. Once a week, Yvon Labre leaves his Parkville home at 5 a.m. and drives to Annapolis, where the former Clippers defenseman plays a game of pick-up hockey with other oldtimers at the Naval Academy rink. Then Labre, 63, returns home to his job as a life insurance and securities agent.

He'd welcome a team in Baltimore, which hasn't had minor league hockey since the American Hockey League Bandits left in 1997. But Labre, who played for the Clippers in 1969-70, frets about the depth of the local fan base.

"A lot of teams have tried their hand here," he said, from the AHL Clippers (1962-76) to the Skipjacks (1982-93) and Bandits (1995-97). Baltimore also had the Blades, in the short-lived World Hockey Association, in 1975-76. All played their home games at the Baltimore Arena (nee Civic Center).

Hockey's roots harken back to 1933, when an Eastern League team called the Orioles played at Carlin's Iceland, off Liberty Heights Ave. in northwest Baltimore. Yet in 80 years, the city has never shown the urge to field an NHL team. In fact, when the Clippers christened the 10,000-seat Civic Center in their first home game in 1962, the game drew a crowd of 7,760.

"We should be able to support minor-league hockey — the Clippers drew pretty well, especially when Hershey played here," Labre said. "But this is a major-league town and, face it, the NHL would never come here without a new facility.

"If they built one, would people come? Two years ago, the Caps drew fairly well in the first [preseason] game they played here, but could that be consistent?"

Labre, who played for Washington's expansion team in 1974 and scored the Caps' first home goal, has seen support there rise dramatically.

"I went through some meager years there, when attendance was 7,000 or so. I thought I'd never see the day when they'd pack the building, but the last few years have proven me wrong," he said.

Forget the NHL and focus on a cozier venue, said Bennett Wolf, a bone-jarring defenseman.for the Skipjacks from 1982-85.

"In my day, we had a steady diet of 3,000 fans, game-in and game-out. It gave you an empty feeling at times," said Wolf, of Westminster, an engineering analyst for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. "I'd like to see a smaller rink that would seat 8,000 to 10,000, built up around Towson."

Much as he'd like one, a big-league team wouldn't fly here, said Gilles Boisvert, a goalie for the Clippers from 1963-70.

"The Capitals would never approve it, with Washington so close," he said. "You've probably got, what, 5,000 people from the Baltimore area going to their games now?"


Given the past, an AHL franchise would likely hold its own, said Boisvert, 80, of Cockeysville.

"There were times in the 1960s when the Clippers outdrew the [Baltimore] Bullets" of the NBA, he said. "We had a good core of about 4,000 fans, by God. Some followed us on the road, in buses, to Cleveland, Providence and even Quebec."

Staunch crowds they were, Boisvert said.

"I remember the fans, wearing hats and ties, cheering us from behind the chicken wire around the rink that protected them from the puck," he said. Plexiglass was not yet in vogue.

Fans remember Boisvert, as well. Twenty years ago, he said, he appeared in Baltimore traffic court to contest a ticket.

"The judge looked at my name, then at me and dismissed the case. 'I have good memories of you,' he said. 'You made me happy many times.' "