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Remembering the Cap Centre, 15 Years Later

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15 years ago this month, the Capitals played their final game at their first home. Ted Starkey remembers.

Dale Hunter's winning goal in Game 7 of the 1988 Patrick Division semifinal was one of the most memorable moments in Cap Centre history
Dale Hunter's winning goal in Game 7 of the 1988 Patrick Division semifinal was one of the most memorable moments in Cap Centre history
Claus Andersen

For years, it was be a familiar sight as you drove north along the Beltway in Prince George's County, a large white potato-chip roof on a brown building nestled in a sea of asphalt in Landover.

15 years ago this month, the Washington Capitals played their final game in Maryland, as the team played the first portion of the 1997-98 campaign at the then-rechristened US Airways Arena before moving into their current digs in Chinatown in December.

From 1974 to 1997, the Capital Centre was the team's first home, and although it opened as one of the most modern arenas in the country, the first to feature in-game replays on the large projection screen above center ice and with luxury sky boxes up top in the walls of the facility - it quickly became outdated and only lasted 23 years before the pull for modern downtown arenas finally lured the team into the District of Columbia.

The exterior of the building resembled a saddle, a brown building with a light roof that curved with wires holding the tension along the top. Inside, instead of being in tiers like most of today's arenas, the floor was essentially buried into the ground, with the quality of your seat determined by its color. The reds were the cheap seats above ground level, up the stairs, and away from the action, while the blues were the ones underneath, downstairs and toward the ice.

Nearly everyone who fought Beltway traffic to get to the Cap Centre had to pull into one of the large parking lots - Metro didn't run near the building so those without cars had to hail a cab - walk into one of the four patriotically-named entrances - Capitol, Eagle, Liberty Bell or Stars and Stripes - and mill around the concourse to get to their seats.

"At the Capital Centre, almost everyone came in the same concourse - there were a few sky suites - basically 18,000 people milled around and you'd see them on the concourse milling around between periods," the team's longtime radio voice, Ron Weber, remembered. "At the Verizon Center, as soon as you walk in the door, it's 'Where are your tickets, you either go here or here or here. It's like the old cruise ships ... the riff raff don't associate with the higher ups."

The setup also meant television and radio booths were also in the middle of the stands, as tables were set up at various portals fans used to reach their sections. It meant fans were in on the action, and it spawned some unique traditions - most notably an old Home Team Sports microphone picking up a whooping noise directed at former Caps defenseman Larry Murphy - something that has stuck to various visiting players to this day.

The most striking feature of the Capital Centre itself was its jet black interior, meant to highlight the action on the floor, but also creating a rather strange environment that no amount of light seemingly could brighten.

Ed Frankovic, who worked for the club during its Landover days, noted that today's most popular Capitals marketing slogan would be nearly impossible to pull off at the Cap Centre.

"The biggest problem it was just so dark there," he said. "The Verizon Center, the lighting is much better.

"The Capitals used to do 'white-outs' for the playoffs because it was just so dark, and it helped brighten the building up. The Caps have the great game experience now with 'Rock the Red' - you couldn't do that at the Capital Centre because it's just too dark."

The building had other quirks - notably the decibel meter in two corners that lit up when a threshold was reached - and although there was some effort to modernize it, the age of the suburban arena quickly gave way to urban centers and it went from one of the most modern arenas to an outdated venue very quickly.

For an NHL fan, the Capital Centre offered some memorable events - the 1981 NHL All-Star Game, the Easter Epic loss to the Islanders in 1987, the team's lone Patrick Division playoff title in 1990 - but none still resonate like the 1988 Patrick Division Semi-Final Game 7 against Philadelphia.

"The highlight is the overtime goal by Dale Hunter on the pass by Larry Murphy," Weber recalled. "My words that I just blurted out, 'Washington lives to play again!'"

The highlight, which was made into a "History Will Be Made..." ad by the NHL in 2011, shows the white-clad arena celebrating the end of years of playoff frustration with white shirts and white towels, and pulls back to see the light amongst the darkness of the building.

However, as the 1990s arrived, talk that team owner Abe Pollin would move the Capitals and Bullets downtown got serious, and eventually a deal was struck for the Gallery Place location. In anticipation of the move downtown, the team ditched the red-white-and-blue color scheme in 1995, adopting a blue-bronze-and-white look, and on Nov. 26, 1997, before the final game in Landover, the club honored one of the best players to wear the old colors by raising Rod Langway's No. 5 to the rafters for the final game.

In the arena's final years, it didn't get the permanent repairs it needed - the roof would leak on the press box - and was showing its age by the team's final game there.

Adam Oates, who was traded to the Capitals nine months before the final game in Landover, didn't mince words when asked his memories of the old building.

"It was terrible," he said. "I hated playing in it when I was on the other team, Thank God I only had to play in it for a [few] month[s]. Dark and slow. Let's get out of here!"

But for Weber - and other fans who had grown up watching games in the building - it carried a bit more nostalgia.

"It was a temple to me," Weber said. "Even though Adam spoke disparagingly about it - probably because he was a visitor most of the time - but I watched every game that they played there for 23 years and we're talking over 1,000 games."

Weber recalled getting a flood of memories as the arena was being torn down in 2002, five years after the Bullets and Capitals had left. The arena had hosted assorted concerts and indoor lacrosse in the intervening years before it was eventually razed to make room for a shopping center.

"One of the saddest moments of my life, a couple of years after they moved downtown, I went to a Redskins game, and the guy who invited me to go with him parked across the Beltway and walked over [to FedEx Field], and here we are, and I'm looking at a half-torn down Capital Centre," he said. "They had taken the ends out, but the sides still remained. The seats were gone, but you could see the concrete tiers.

"Speaking of tears, they were coming out of my eyes. His deal is we got there 10 or 10:30, morning for a 1 p.m. game and read the Sunday paper and walk over. So I'm sitting there looking at the building with all these memories. I loved the place even though there were some things wrong for it."

Frankovic initially thought the team moving downtown was a mistake.

"I was bummed that they were moving downtown," he recalled. "At the time it didn't seem like the right move, a total marketing move, but you have to remember the traffic getting into the Capital Centre was bad and it was getting outdated very quickly. ... The ice was bad there - although it's not any better at Verizon Center with the Metro underneath - but the idea was you got the Virginia fans and who could get into the city ... In hindsight, it was the right move."

The Capitals enjoyed some success downtown that they hadn't had in Landover. They reached the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season at then-MCI Center, and of course, now regularly sell out Verizon Center, something that they didn't do quite as often in Landover.

"The best thing that happened is we moved downtown, and the first year with the Caps, we ended up going to the Finals," Oates recalled. "It was George's first year, and Ron Wilson came in, and we had a very successful year and went to the Finals. We played great, a new building, and then Ted took over, a lot of positive things.'

"It is hard to believe, and in some ways, it feels like yesterday," Frankovic said, "Working for David Poile and whatever coach he had and working for the team and Dale Hunter was playing, they just traded for Oates. It's amazing that Olie Kolzig wasn't the starting goalie back then, he played a few games, but he wasn't the guy yet. He was just starting to be the man when they went down to Verizon Center - maybe the better lighting helped Olie."

The move changed the franchise and the fan base. The Capitals moved away from their suburban Maryland core to a more corporate base that enhanced the team's profile in Virginia as well. The game experience also has changed, thanks to the new fan base and the new core of the franchise.

"In other ways, it feels like it's been 30 years ago since it's such a different atmosphere. It's a better building with the lighting and Ovechkin has made it different down there."

Today, a rather unremarkable strip mall now occupies the land the Cap Centre used to stand on across the highway from FedEx Field. But it set down the roots of the franchise and created a unique environment that lives on in memories of longtime Caps fans and in some of the traditions of the new building downtown.