Hershey, Norfolk bring hockey back to Verizon Center

Patrick McDermott

For one night only, pro hockey returns to the District of Columbia Thursday.

After nearly seven months of a plain cement floor at Verizon Center, the arena's crew this week began spraying thin layers of water on the surface to form ice. As the new ice was being put in place, the boards and glass were set up for the first time since the Capitals won Game 6 of their NHL Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the Rangers back on May 9.

Unfortunately, the glistening ice isn't being put down to mark the end of the NHL lockout, but is instead for Thursday's Washington AHL Showcase, set to pit Washington's top minor-league affiliate, the Hershey Bears, against the Norfolk Admirals in a regular-season American Hockey League match-up.

The game was scheduled well before the NHL lockout took effect in September, but the game offers local fans what other NHL fans in Buffalo and Montreal have gotten this fall: a taste of the game they're missing with North America's top pro league out of action. And the fans have responded to the lack of hockey in the area by selling out the Verizon Center, which promises one of the largest crowds for an AHL game held indoors in the league's history.

So, instead of Rocking the Red this week, Capitals fans will be looking to "Rock It in Chocolate," when the team of choice won't be wearing familiar red sweaters, but rather the white jerseys of the Bears.

For those who don't pay a lot of attention to the AHL, there are some minor differences between the leagues and there will be some familiar names on the Hershey roster.

The most notable Hershey Bear that fans will recognize is goaltender Braden Holtby, the only player who skated in the Game 6 win over the Rangers scheduled to take part in Thursday's contest.

There are a few other familiar names Capitals fans would know of on the Bears roster, including defenseman Dmitry Orlov -- who spent most of last season with Washington -- as well as fellow blueliner Tomas Kundratek, who played five games for the Capitals last season.

For the Bears, who have played in recent years at Pittsburgh's CONSOL Energy Center before the 2011 Winter Classic and outdoors at Philadelphia's Citizens' Bank Park after the 2012 Winter Classic, playing at the arena of their parent club will be special.

"You know that Braden Holtby and Dmitry Orlov are going to be there and Capitals fans are going to be there and cheer them on," says Hershey broadcaster Scott Stuccio, who will call the game for the Bears Radio Network and have his feed picked up by Sirius/XM.

"I love [the Verizon Center]. I've only been there twice, last season was the first two trips. I've been to the old Capital Centre, I've been to Landover, I've never been [to D.C.] before last year. To be there with what I feel will be three-quarters of the crowd backing the Bears, that's going to be fun, to be able to call a game in that building. Really looking forward to it."

Norfolk is technically the defending Calder Cup champions, becoming Virginia's first title-holder in the AHL's history last spring. However, the players who earned the rings have moved on to Syracuse with the Lightning's top prospects, as the Admirals re-affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks over the summer, and were given a whole different roster for their title defense.

The most notable rule change fans will notice Thursday is the hybrid icing that the AHL uses, as the league is experimenting with it for the NHL for as long as the lockout lasts. Under hybrid icing rules, the defenseman does not need to touch the puck on an icing call before the play is blown dead. This contrasts with the race to the puck NHL fans are used to.

Thursday's game marks a return of the league to Washington, as the old Washington Lions called Uline Arena in Northeast D.C. home for four seasons. The Lions only made the Calder Cup playoffs once in their history, qualifying in 1942, when they lost to the Cleveland Barons in the first round.

After going into hiatus during World War II, the Lions eventually left town to become the Cincinnati Mohawks after the 1948-49 season, and the area was without professional hockey until the Capitals were born as an NHL expansion franchise in 1974.

That doesn't mean the AHL hasn't played a few games in the area since. In 1979, the Bears played their only home game outside the state of Pennsylvania when they hosted the Philadelphia Firebirds at the old Capital Centre while Hersheypark Arena was used to house those displaced during the Three Mile Island nuclear plant evacuations.

The Bears and Firebirds skated to a 1-1 tie in the first part of an AHL-NHL doubleheader before the Capitals beat Los Angeles 6-2 in the nightcap.

There also was an AHL exhibition in Landover in October of 1986, as the old Baltimore Skipjacks battled the Binghamton Whalers just hours before Washington and Philadelphia played an exhibition game. The Skipjacks - then affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins - beat the Whalers, then paired with both the Capitals and Hartford Whalers, 4-2 in front of an estimated 2,500 fans.

In 1999, Washington was rumored to be looking to put an AHL team in Landover while the Cap Centre was still standing. With the Capitals playing downtown at MCI Center and an ECHL team named the Chesapeake IceBreakers based in Upper Marlboro, an AHL club in the aging arena never came to pass.

Although the Bears are expected to get a majority of the support in the crowd, since Capitals season-ticket holders have gotten dibs on tickets, Hershey technically is the road team as a Norfolk home date was used to make the event possible.

"The weirdest thing about it is it's Norfolk's home game - I can't get that out of my head," says Stuccio. "It's understandable that a team that leads the league in attendance doesn't want to give up a home game with its season-ticket base, that's the way it goes. But it'll be nice to shift to a neutral site and playing in an NHL building with all those Capitals fans behind us."

For fans who can't get to the game, the game also will be televised on Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, with former Bears (and current Capitals) radio voice John Walton on the call. It's the first time the Bears have been on the network since the 2010 Calder Cup Final.

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