Even for D.C. sports fans who came of age, like me, in the 1970’s, it’s getting harder to remember that the Centre was once a jewel in the crown of sports venues. Or, as a cheesy marketing campaign once described it, "That's Centre-Tainment."
aaa "Pollin's Palace on the Prairie"
Prince George’s County wasn’t even the first choice of owner Abe Pollin. As Paul Schwartzman wrote in a 2002 Washington Post retrospective, “He favored the District, but Mayor Walter Washington couldn't find the right spot.
"So Pollin ventured east to Landover, and, despite opposition from environmentalists, settled on 75 acres of parkland just outside the Capital Beltway. For 15 months, construction crews worked feverishly to erect the arena, which got its name when Pollin's wife, Irene, blurted out, 'How 'bout the Capital Centre?'"
Capital Centre buzzed with innovation at its 1973 opening. As noted in the Post article, “The new arena boasted state-of-the-art features including computerized ticketing,
skyboxes and a four-sided Telscreen that flashed replays and video.”
“Abe Pollin’s Palace on the Prairie,” was the reverent description by broadcaster Ron Weber. “The magnificent arena in the county” was the less lyrical, though equally admiring review by Star columnist Morris Siegel in 1977.
Knight GamesAnother pro hockey team wanted to be first to call Capital Centre home.
The brand spanking new arena by the Beltway opened in December, 1973. Just weeks later, Joe Schwartz purchased the Jersey Knights of the World Hockey Association.
Schwartz tried unsuccessfully to transfer the Knights to his hometown of Baltimore, according to The Sun. He then expressed interest in moving the team to Capital Centre to finish the '73-'74 season. Remember, the new Capitals wouldn't hit the ice for several months.
The Knights clearly wished to vacate their current Arena in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The ice sloped, there was only one locker room... you get the idea.
Nothing came of the relocation idea, though. It's hard to imagine that Abe Pollin or the NHL would want in-house competition for the expansion Caps. Instead, the Knights moved to San Diego, playing three more WHA seasons as the Mariners.
First Hometown GoalThis Washington Post photo is from the first regular season home game in Caps history, on October 15, 1974. Yvon Labre scores on Rogie Vachon at 4:35 of the 2nd period, as the Caps and L.A. Kings tie, 1-1.
Vachon said afterward, "They look plenty good to me. They worked like hell."
If it seemed like time flew by, that's because the clock didn't always stop when play did. A computer glitch caused about 90 seconds to be lost.
All 8,093 fans who attended on opening night received the certificate at right. It says the bearer "attended the first regular season National Hockey League game ever played in the Washington area," concluding, "With Sincere Appreciation For Your Support," signed by "Abe Pollin, President" and "Milt Schmidt, General Manager."
Ice Ice BabyHockey Ice is particular. It fancies expensive machines to keep it cold. Hockey Ice hates when basketball games, horse shows and circuses are performed on top of it.
Consider this manic Centre scheduling in 1975: Ice Capades Sunday, Metallica show Monday, Capitals game Tuesday!
Between the special paint from the ice show, and the mayhem inflicted on the arena by the heavy metal concert, the hockey game was delayed two hours, finishing after midnight.
At least the Caps won the game, 7-4 over the Rangers, improving their record to 5-45-5.
At right is Richard Darcey's Post photo before the game, as a scraping machine and manual labor desperately try to shape the ice into skateable condition.
Now you know why Hockey Ice had a frosty (actually slushy) relationship with Capital Centre. Dan Steinberg's "Sports Bog" at washingtonpost.com. got the scoop from no less an authority than Rod Langway.
"You get the heat down here and the humidity, the ice just turns to slush," said the Hall of Famer. "We didn't have the technology and air-conditioning units that they have now.
"And also, how many millions of dollars did Abe (Pollin) lose before he started making money? I mean, he wasn't gonna put a new air-conditioning unit in just for the ice."
Steinberg found corroboration by combing back issues of the Post. During a 1979 game, Toronto coach Roger Nielson worried the thin ice "might go right down to the cement." In 1985, "Officials used ice shavings and carbon dioxide to fill a big hole in front of the Capitals' bench."
"The ice was terrible," said defenseman Scott Stevens. "It's hot compared to other rinks, you sweat more and you lose more fluid. It's cooler in other rinks and it makes it easier to play."
Dark DaysBy the late 1990's, as the renamed US Airways Arena prepared to shut its doors, there were few kind words. One Canadian journalist wrote, “No one will miss it. It's the darkest rink in the league and it is located in the middle of nowhere.”
Both visiting and home athletes surely agreed with Post columnist Tony Kornheiser, who called the place a “Dungeon.”
I read once that the black interior and dim lighting was an attempt to create a theatre-like setting; if so, it failed to appreciate the energy that sports stadiums are supposed to create.
Yet it was Kornheiser – known for pouring salt into the wounds of the body Capital – who came to the arena’s defense at its closing. “For 24 years that building made this area big league.”
And that’s really the point. I got to cheer when Dennis Maruk scored his 60th goal – a longtime team record.
I saw Wes Unseld’s tip-in with 12 seconds left for the Bullets, beating the 76ers in an Eastern Conference Final. I saw Billy Joel in concert, Ringling Brothers, and even a Sci-Fi convention.
(My invitation to the Presidential Inauguration Gala apparently got lost in the mail.)
This is the corner view at US Airways Arena during the final home game for the Capitals before moving downtown.
It's November 26, 1997, and Montreal is the opponent, just as they were for the first preseason game here in 1974.
Upper Left: Peter Bondra scores, but the Canadiens win, 6-5.
Lower Left: Rod Langway has his jersey retired to the cheers of a sellout crowd.
Later, Langway tells the Washington Post, "The fans went nuts, the goose bumps went through. I know that now I will always be remembered as long as they have hockey in D.C."
EpilogueIronically, back in ’77, Siegel wrote, “The vision of a sports complex downtown is still bogged down by red tape. If they are really serious about getting it built, they ought to turn it over to Pollin.” 20 years later, that’s just what happened, signaling the end for the Centre.
Well, to be precise, there still is a structure in Landover called the Capital Centre. Except that now it looks like the picture to the left.
If it’s OK, though, when someone speaks of the “Entertainment Complex” in P.G. County, to me it will always mean the arena with the red and blue seats. Contrary to much of what was said and written as it closed, Capital Centre will be missed. Certainly for the memories contained inside, and even for the structure itself, affectionately referred to by my sister as “The Potato Chip.”
The Capital Centre is Imploded on December 15, 2002