July 25, 2014

Baltimore Hockey “Classic” needs safety revamp before returning

Like a lot of things in life, the Baltimore Hockey Classic is a great idea in theory. The Washington Capitals, looking to expand their market, play a game in a city 45 miles north against another NHL team to promote their players and team, make a few bucks, and potentially earn new fans for a lifetime.

Unfortunately, like a lot of things in life, things don’t always go as well as planned.

The Baltimore Civic Center – excuse me, First Mariner Arena – is not an ideal setting for an NHL hockey game. Actually, it’s not really an ideal setting for most things. The building is ancient in terms of downtown sports/music arenas. Built in 1961 and opened in 1962, the arena has been host to the NBA (Baltimore Bullets), ABA, WHA, AHL, indoor pro lacrosse and now even the Lingerie Football League.

It’s in a great location a short distance from the Inner Harbor. There are plenty of things about the idea of playing a Caps preseason game that are good.

Except, you  know, the actual game-playing part.

Two years ago when the Caps tried this, the ice was so bad it ended up more like a swimming pool. The ice was so soft that by the third period large pools of water had collected in several places on the rink, and the ruts were so deep that passing was more like trying to skip a rock across a lake.

Tuesday night, the Caps tried it again against the Boston Bruins. Sure, it was cute that Braden Holtby and Tuukka Rask sat next to each other on bar stools in one of the corners, as there isn’t enough room on the benches for backup goalies, after they were taken out after early action.

But we saw just how evident the First Mariner Arena is ill-equipped to host a game of this nature. Early in the game, a stanchion that held up sections of glass fell out and interrupted play. As if that wasn’t dangerous enough, later Alex Ovechkin and a Bruins player collided into the boards on a routine play, and the glass came out, narrowly missing the players, and fell to the ice, breaking and halting play once again.

Occasionally in league play, a section of glass will become dislodged or even fall. But this type of situation is now a pattern at the Baltimore arena.

“I just try to get the hit and I miss it,” Ovechkin said. “I hit the glass and it just crashes. I don’t know if I’m too strong or glass not that strong.”

“Watching the replay, that was very scary,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said. “I think that’s what happens when you don’t play in a building for a while. But it didn’t happen again, so good for that.”

Combined with the condition of the ice – “not that good” Ovechkin said — the arena is woefully inadequate to host this type of event. They had two years from the last time they tried it (2012′s “Classic” was cancelled due to the lockout) to get things right with regards to player safety, and the Baltimore Arena came up with another failing grade.

If the Caps want to continue this event, they and the league are going to have to put some serious effort and attention into the planning, preparation and physical performance of the arena. It’s only been through sheer luck that no one has been seriously injured at one of these games.

I’m all for spreading the game and the team as far as they can take it. Shoot, they should probably play a preseason game in Richmond while they’re at it. But until they can absolutely ensure the playing surface and rink hardware is as safe and effective as a game at Verizon Center, they should abandon this “Classic”.

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