A History of Hockey in Washington.
Earlier today, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL officially announced the venue of the Winter Classic in Washington, D.C.. Nationals Stadium, home of the MLB's Washington Nationals will play host to the Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks on New Year's Day.
Not really exciting news. We knew this already.
The Washington Capitals also revealed their new Winter Classic jersey - and it is a gem.
At first glance, I wasn't impressed. I was expecting a better throwback to the early days of the Capitals. Maybe a Red version of the existing Winter Classic jersey from 2011. Maybe white pants to go with the 70's era Caps. Maybe even a sweet 'stache a'la Denny Maruk and Yvon Labre.
The more I looked at the jersey though, the more I fell in love with it. It's perfect. It highlights over 70 years of hockey in Washington.
70 years? Indeed.
Hockey has been very much a part of the Washington sports scene dating back to 1939 when the Washington Eagles, coached by Redvers MacKenzie, played in the Eastern Hockey League (EHL). The Eagles played at Riverside Stadium, located on the site where The Kennedy Center for Performing Arts now stands. Riverside Stadium was an outdoor rink with an artificial surface. The refrigeration for the ice came from the Christian Heirich Brewery located right across the street.
In three seasons, the Eagles played 186 games and finished with 102 wins, 67 losses and 17 ties, winning the 1940-41 EHL Championship before folding in 1942 when they lost a majority of their fan base to another local team: The Washington Lions.
The Washington Lions were a staple in D.C. from 1941 until 1957. They were originally founded as an AHL team, but disbanded during WWII. They were coached by Ivan "Ching" Johnson (who played with the New York Rangers and Americans), with help from Allan Shields (played for the Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Quakers, Americans, Montreal Maroons, and Boston Bruins) and Georges Mantha (played for the Montreal Canadiens).
In 1944, a different Washington Lions team was created to play in the EHL. This Lions team played for 4 seasons before folding in 1947. They were coached by Jack Riley (who played for the Baltimore Orioles Hockey Club and Baltimore Clippers), Max Bennett and Charles Good in three separate seasons. They played in the Uline Arena, later known as the Washington Coliseum, located in Northeast. Uline was built specifically for the 1941 Lions team which was owned by Miguel "Uncle Mike" Uline - who made a fortune in the ice business. It was placed on the National Historic Register after if fell into ruin and was used by Waste Management as a dumping ground. Plans to restore it are pending.
It didn't take long for the Lions to come back from the dead. In 1948, the AHL brought the Lions back for two seasons until they were eventually re-located to Ohio as the Cincinnati MoHawks.
However, the Washington Lions name persisted, and the team came back one last time in 1951 to the EHL and played until 1957 when they changed their name to the Washington Presidents. The Presidents, like the Lions, called Uline Arena home. They won the EHL Championship in 1957 under the guise of player/coach Steve Brklacich, who had success later on with the Johnstown Jets winning the EHL three years in a row.
The Presidents stuck around until 1960, and there was a lull in the hockey scene until 11 years later when the Washington Chiefs were formed. From 1971-1976, the Chiefs played as an Independent Team. They were coached by Ed Hickey, Murray Ball and Norbert "Nobby" Clarke. There isn't much information about the team, and I'd love to know more if anyone has knowledge on them.
In 1973, the brand new Capital Centre in Landover, MD was completed. It took the place of the then-outdated Uline and helped usher in a new era in Washington-area Ice Hockey: The Washington Capitals.
As a kid growing up in a Maryland suburb right outside DC, right down the street from the Caps Centre, it was magical. The hockey community was small at that time, and every knew each other. You couldn't walk the concourse of the Caps Centre without seeing 20 people you either played with or against. The players lived almost next door and, as kids, we grew up knowing a lot of them, were coached by them, and even played some pond hockey when it was cold enough.
We've been lucky enough to have seen some of the greatest all-time NHL players come through here: Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, Mike Gartner, Dale Hunter, Larry Murphy and Dino Ciccarelli, just to name a few. These guys are legends, and to have grown up watching them, and knowing them, is something that area fans will never forget.
I can still hear, every time a game comes on, the echoes of Mike Fornes and Al Koken on HTS cutting away to Jeff Rimer, father to HockeyBuzz's own Josh Rimer, as he interviewed the player of the game. And not many people know that one the Capitals broadcasters was none-other than Larry King (although he only did about 20 games or so).
It's different now that the team is in the center of DC. The players are not as intimate with the fans as they used to be unless it's a charity event, but that's all sports and that's just the way it is now. The players today do a lot for their communities, and hockey is still strong in certain parts of the state and into Virginia, where the Capitals now call home.
As everyone knows, the Caps were just awful the first few seasons, setting a record for most losses in a single season with 67 in their inaugural year - 1974.
40 years later, the Capitals are one of the best teams in the NHL. Although missing the playoffs last season for the first time in six years, they are an exciting team to watch and they have years of success ahead of them.
The Winter Classic should feel right at home here come New Year's Day, and the fans, new and old, will pack Nationals Stadium and there is no doubt the atmosphere will be one of the best the Classic has bared witness to.
Thanks for reading.
(Thanks to HockeyDB and The Washington Post)
More to come...
Follow me on Twitter: @_Mellin_