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With an anvil-size fist raised to the gods of roughhousing, defenseman Adam Young squares up his enemy and tries to separate him from his jaw. The home crowd at Upper Marlboro’s Show Place Arena erupts in rapturous bloodlust, especially the children, many of whom dart from their seats and scramble down to the Plexiglas to press their noses closer to the scrum. Young’s follow-up swing is an errant haymaker, catching only the jersey of the Huntington Blizzard’s Marty Melnychuk, a scary-looking sonofabitch with a fresh black eye and ratty brown hair. The fighters, arms akimbo and aggression escalating, lock up in a violent bear hug and tumble to the ice like Rodan and Godzilla, their bodies bouncing and wheezing at impact. The nearest referee senses an opening and wades into the sweaty, cussing heap to untangle the pair. His timing, however, sucks, and soon the official goes down, too; the 1,000 or so onlookers grow even more frenzied at the rare sight of a zebra being dropped. Now three grown men are flailing about on the cold playing surface, and the game clock declares that only three minutes have passed in the first period. An early fight like this can mean only one thing: It’s going to be a long, fulfilling night at the icehouse.
The action is tougher to spot now that all the combatants are horizontal—a rabbit punch to the neck, a knee pad to the balls—and the fans begin making their way back to their seats with bored murmurs about who kicked whose ass. The booming house sound system, which punctuated the first punch with Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” segues into a sugar-sweet Barney song—They’re called please and thank you….They’re called the magic words. The two brawlers, perhaps sensing that they are no longer the main attraction, allow themselves to be pried apart and remanded to their respective penalty boxes for five minutes apiece.
It’s back to skating, but not for long. The Icebreakers, a first-year expansion team in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), will be involved in several more fights tonight, none wilder than the late six-man pigpile that will feature ice gladiator Melnychuk duking it out with just about everyone, including a few teammates who happen to get in his way. When one tangle is quieted, another erupts, and the crowd rains down hosannas and invective in equal parts. When the frosty cage match finally subsides, the refs are left to figure out how to fit six growling men into just two snug penalty boxes. Just in front of me, a dirty-faced, Dickensian youth wedged between his beer-bellied parents stands up and pleads gently, “Please spare some of them.”
With an ugly early record of 2 wins, 8 losses, and 3 ties, the young-in-every-way Icebreakers will have to consider tying Huntington, 7-3-0, a cliched step in the right direction. The score in the stands, however, is not as encouraging: A measly 1,000 fans, mostly blue-collar white folks from Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties—wearing a clean chamois to an Icebreakers match is considered a fashion statement—have showed up this evening. But considering that this is a Friday-night game, there should have been a helluva lot more people pulling their pickups into the Show Place Arena, which is plopped down on a dark stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue seven miles east of the Beltway. Chesapeake officials have tallied the number of fans for this particular game at “a little under 3,000,” apparently counting concession
hucksters, parking attendants, ticket takers, and
the employees at a nearby Taco Bell—then doubling the figure.
But blazing optimism in the face of grinding frustration is all part of the expansion drill. The ECHL, a 25-team conglomeration loosely linked with the NHL, is celebrating its 10th year of existence in 1997. The Icebreakers are a new outfit, still inching along in the early going like a kid whose ankles aren’t yet strong enough for skates. So far, not too many people know that the Icebreakers are out there in the P.G. County woods, and business has been lame. There is some light at the end of the long players’ tunnel, though: 80 percent of the squads in the ECHL, all of which are somehow affiliated with a major-league team, turn a profit. They make money mainly because the player salary cap is set at $200,000, a laughably low figure that wouldn’t keep Mario Lemieux in sticks for a season.
That low overhead doesn’t mean diddly if you can’t put butts in the seats, and winning more than two games in two months might help. Despite possessing an honest thirst for victory, the men of Chesapeake often play as if they have a bad case of pfiesteria. Power plays collapse after incessant fumbling of the puck, stupid penalties get whistled at the worst possible times, and defensemen screen their own goalie more often than they assist him. Compared with the often balletic grace and creative playmaking found in the NHL, teams in the ECHL look as if they’re playing underwater—until the gloves hit the ice and the knuckles take flight. Then things tend to pick up real good. It may not be the best way to play the game, but the blend of ice and fists has always, always been a reliable crowd pleaser. It’s what distinguishes hockey from other pastimes, no matter what kind of stiffs are playing.
Most of the 18 dressed players on the Icebreakers are ECHL veterans, a mix of broken-down punks and journeymen desperate to hang onto their only viable skill. They may complain about the condition of the ice or the edge on their skates, but you won’t hear them beefing about the $300-500 a week they earn, or the smelly buses, or even the budget hotels. The majority of them know that a few minutes of ice time, however devoid of glory, will always trump wrapping burritos at that damn Taco Bell.
There are ladders available to higher ground, one-way routes to more money and more fame, but they are rarely used. Four Icebreakers recently signed contracts with either the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Colorado Avalanche of the NHL, but these men find themselves mired in professional hockey’s basement for instruction and maturing—not exactly the life of luxury they envisioned when they inked the dotted line. The chance of their ever starring in the big leagues—or even wearing an NHL uniform—is about the same as that of a puck standing on edge when dropped onto freshly Zambonied ice. Most of these guys are headed the other way; former NHL draftees, each a hockey star roughly since birth, they are now in the ECHL for good—whether they want to believe it or not.
Hockey rewards youth and talent over experience, and thanks to the strong instructional leagues in Canada and the powerhouse programs at American colleges like Dartmouth, Boston University, and the University of Minnesota, the best players either head right to the NHL or get a cup of coffee in the AHL or IHL before crossing the magic line. The remainder, those hundreds of guys who are just a bit too slow, too small, or too often injured to make a living in the NHL—well, they come straight on down to this bruiser’s paradise.
If the ECHL experience sounds like hell frozen over, sure, that’s part of it. But there’s something about playing a game on a field of ice that cements people in ways other sports can’t. Hockey is different, elite in its own brown-bag way. And the Icebreakers are no exception. Yes, they’re brand new and going nowhere fast, but every one of the 1,000 or so faithful who show up for the Huntington game knows he’s watching a team. Not a very good team, but a team nonetheless.
After being officially accepted into the ECHL this year, the Icebreakers have somehow managed to turn a bunch of strangers and near-strangers, from intern press officers to backup goalies, into a close-knit family. Everyone here has something to prove. Failure floats above their heads like rumbling rain clouds, but damn if they’re not gonna dance in the downpour. Everybody wears a bright shit-eating grin right next to the chip on his shoulder: a small-time owner looking for big-time respect among the Pollins and Angeloses, a head coach wanting to shake a goonery-ridden NHL history, a bunch of skaters who perennially see consecutive hat tricks right around the corner, and, of course, a Zamboni driver intent on motoring his way to a unique and profitable career.
Dressed in a decent three-piece suit and flashing animated eyes, Mike Caggiano leans over his dinner of gravy-slathered roast beef, buttery corn, and wild rice and prepares to dig in. But what could have been a sloppy feast turns out to be a clean, efficient devouring, with neither a greasy smear on the lips nor a wayward kernel on the chin. The owner of the Chesapeake Icebreakers hasn’t even started babbling about his brand-new toy, but I already recognize his ability to deal with a mess.
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On Feb. 27, 1997, the 40-year-old Caggiano, a handsome, dark-featured man who struts with the air of someone with $500 in his wallet at all times, ponied up $1.5 million in franchise fees and was given official approval from ECHL directors to go ahead with the building of the Icebreakers. With the first game scheduled for Oct. 17 against the Peoria Rivermen, Caggiano had just six months to find a venue, a coach, some players, some ice, a Zamboni, some front-office staffers, and what seemed like 2,000 other necessities that make up a sports franchise. But Caggiano handled it all with confidence to spare. All the man needs now are some fans and some wins.
“This is a businessman’s sport,” Caggiano says after swallowing another forkful of beef, corn, and rice. “If you know hockey, and you know how to run a business, you can be successful….It’s fun. I mean, I really do enjoy this. I’m a hands-on owner, but in minor-league sports, you have to be. It’s like, if you own a Ferrari, you let someone else work on it, but when you mow the lawn, you do it yourself.”
Just a few months ago, Caggiano, who made most of his money running a temp agency and eventually selling it to Robert Half International, actually owned two hockey teams, but he sold the AHL Baltimore Bandits to a Cincinnati businessman in April. (they’re now the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks.) He fled Charm City because of what has become an owner’s common complaint: He didn’t like his location, the decrepit, Abe Pollin-owned Baltimore Arena, which is in a part of the harbor town a bit too far from the comforts of Camden Yards. But after realizing that a new venue was never going to materialize, he packed up and moved on to the Icebreakers, just like that. He signed a 10-year lease with the 1994-vintage Show Place Arena (also known as the Prince George’s Equestrian Center) and has an option for 10 more. The arena’s capacity is 5,800, a relatively small sporting establishment, but it’s a good place for hockey. Even when only a smattering of enthusiasts pushes through the turnstiles, the Show Place Arena feels like the Taj Mahal.
In 10 years of owning sports teams (he financed the New York Yankee affiliate Prince William Cannons from 1987-90), Caggiano has learned the owner’s game well. He treats members of his staff with equal parts respect and compassion, but when he doesn’t care for something, he wants it changed—now. He dedicates almost all his waking hours to the survival of the team (which, Caggiano speculates, is worth “between $2 million and $3 million…probably closer to three”). But a trio of franchises in only 10 years is a worrisome statistic, and no one would be shocked if a few years down the line Caggiano wound up owning a team in one of the sports universe’s four major kingdoms. While the game he plays best involves net margins and revenues per patron, the owner claims that the team itself—the players, the coaches, the future championships—is where he’s putting both his money and heart. But his 10 years of experience in the front office aren’t going to put any pucks in the net. And Caggiano knows it.
“I think winning is important on any level of sports. I want to win. Having said that, it’s hard to win with an expansion franchise. None of our guys have played together. But that’s not an excuse,” Caggiano says. “It’s important to be competitive to bring people in. They saw a great game, and it was close. What we don’t want to happen is a blowout. We want to show the fans that we’re one of the best teams in the league.”
I suggest, in a quiet and polite way, that the Icebreakers’ tendency to stink up the joint might get under an owner’s skin—you know, create a few sleepless nights. Maybe even make him consider some early changes. “We’ll be selling out the place come January,” Caggiano says, wiping his chin and pushing the plate away. I want to believe him. I really do.
Up until this season, Christopher John Nilan, the Icebreakers’ head coach, was third on the NHL’s all-time penalty minutes list. He’d probably beat the shit out of me for mentioning that dubious distinction in this first biographical breath, but you can’t avoid the fact that in 13 years and 688 games he accumulated 3,043 minutes in the bad-boy box. That’s a helluva lot of time to sit on your ass and contemplate the error of your ways.
But since he retired after the 1991-92 season, Nilan, who earned the nickname “Knuckles” during stays with Montreal, Boston, and the New York Rangers, has been trying to put the way of the warrior behind him. Nilan gets real quiet when you mention his days pummeling people silly in the NHL—but even his tired sighs are enough to make you crap your drawers. Thanks to a current corps of pros who seem to be in it for the blood, he has been bumped to fifth all-time in penalties. Nilan doesn’t have a lot to say about his shrinking legacy: “I don’t even fucking know, and I don’t care.”
For a man with a pugilistic reputation so large, Nilan is surprisingly small, a compact playground bully who made up for his height with an unmatched temper. His fingers splay out like so many Ballpark Franks, and his (excuse me, coach) knuckles appear permanently swollen. He has a thin, Boston smile, on a mug so beaten up over the years that the brutality permanently plastered on his face is somehow sweet. And it’s all topped off with a stare that could melt ice and the otherwise brave men who play on it.
“[In the NHL], I fought the stigma of being a dummy and a fighter,” Nilan says with a vocal wince that betrays embarrassment. “I was not your typical goon. I was a tough hockey player, bottom line.”
Nilan is like the bar fighter who used to be so damn good that nobody bothers to try him anymore. When a group of Nilan’s buddies showed up for a recent Icebreakers game, they bragged about owning a bootleg videotape that contains 90 minutes of Nilan’s greatest scraps; supposedly, the coach doesn’t lose a single one. “We’re trying to get our hands on it,” Icebreakers marketing intern Rich Wolf chuckles with a goofy grin. “I gotta see that.”
Nilan has proved himself a man to be reckoned with when words turn to blows; now he must venture on with words alone. The fact that he wears a sport coat and stays on the bench hasn’t transformed him entirely—at least not yet. Usually cool-headed behind his players, Nilan just recently took the A Train to Psychotown. While the Icebreakers were losing an away game against the Raleigh Icecaps that would have made their record a disheartening ECHL-worst 3-10-5, a referee called a fighting penalty on Chesapeake’s Petri Gynther, a 24-year-old straight out of the University of Denver. Nilan refused to let the game continue until an official explained the controversial call. The referee, apparently not aware that Nilan could punch a hole through his sternum, called two bench minors on the infuriated coach, which resulted in an automatic rejection. When Nilan refused to leave the bench—and there sure as shit wasn’t anyone in the house willing to move him—the Icebreakers were forced to forfeit the game. The ECHL later overturned the forfeit, but Nilan was suspended by the league for 5 games.
“To develop this hockey team, I can’t go on and do what I did as a player,” Nilan explains. “The only time I get really pissed off is when we take stupid penalties…the stupid shit. I’m not a huge rah-rah guy, but come game time I like to show positives. However, there is a time when you have to be firm with them.” Something tells me Nilan’s definition of “firm” is closer to Bobby Knight’s than yours or mine.
In 1995, Nilan was given his first chance at coaching experience as an assistant for the big-league New Jersey Devils. Under the tutelage of the legendary Jacques Demers, Nilan learned enough to decide he was indeed capable of running a squad. But after the season, Nilan was let go. Other NHL teams clamored for his assistant services, but he wasn’t budging. In his mind, a tightly sealed mechanism that neither hems nor haws, he was ready to man the helm.
“I didn’t want to be an assistant coach,” he says. “[Being an assistant under Demers] was a positive experience, but I felt the best place to be was down here. It’s a great proving ground for me.” Nilan wants to win, and he wants to win now. “I don’t use the excuse of an expansion team. I don’t use excuses. With a group like this, it’s gonna take time. Fighting comes easy to a lot of these guys, but playing hockey, that’s the hard part. Discipline—going to the net, taking a beating—that’s tough….But we’re getting there. I see a lot of good things on our end.”
Anyone wanna argue with that?
With the start of tonight’s game against Toledo just a few minutes away, the growling inflatable bear head decides to act up. The bear noggin is Caggiano’s fan-friendly brainchild, a short tunnel the Icebreakers skate through upon introduction. Up close, it is something to behold: think Underdog with a bad case of mange and a head full of rabies. When the house lights go down, strobe lights pop in the bear’s jaws and a hard-working fog machine turns the ice into an outtake from a nasty Alaskan nightmare. But the handful of men in charge of lugging the beast onto the ice are losing the battle this evening.
When the beast is eventually tamed, wrangled, and depuffed, it’s time for the national anthem. The young woman chosen for tonight’s patriotic singing duties has arrived with a gaggle of anxious workmates. She’s all nervous smiles as she tightly clutches the wireless microphone and prepares for her time in the spotlight. Once cued, she beams at Old Glory and takes a big breath. Unfortunately, when the music starts, the singing doesn’t—the Icebreakers’ sound men have been having trouble lately getting the wireless to work. The poor girl’s face cramps up in mortification as the tune carries on without her. Somehow, the woman next to her signing the lyrics for the hearing impaired manages to be louder. It’s cringe-inducing, a real squirmer, and the anthem has never seemed longer. But the crowd is chock-full of genuine patriots, good sports who decide to assist the singer in her effort to shout above the silence. By the time the bombs are bursting in air, tonight’s fans are crooning at the top of their lungs. It’s lovely in its own creaky way.
The Icebreakers’ 23-year-old left wing, team captain Billy Pierce, takes all this in without changing expression. He’s unfairly good-looking, a chiseled chunk of man who turns every head, male and female, as he hobbles around the Show Place. Just last year, Pierce was starring at talent-rich BU. His NHL stock was soaring. Even before heading to college, Pierce, who had played for the prestigious Massachusetts private school Lawrence Academy, had already signed with the Colorado Avalanche. He had yet to crack a college chemistry book, and already his future was glowing like a bright, distant star.
But as quickly as the going got good, life got complicated for Pierce. The Avalanche, amid the team’s everyday wheeling and dealing, dropped his rights just after he finished BU, leaving him a free agent. He headed for Chesapeake, hoping that the team’s affiliation with Colorado would boomerang him back to the NHL.
The limp tells the rest of the story: Pierce’s dreams are on injured reserved. After just a few games with the Icebreakers, he broke his right foot and was forced to watch the action, not to mention the wayward inflatable head, from the club seats. Pierce has youth on his side, but every injury in a player’s career is noted by prospective teams, whether they’re the Huntington Blizzard or the Washington Capitals. And it’s hard to get a general manger’s attention when you’re dressed in civilian clothes and eating from the free buffet. Still, hockey is the only meal ticket Pierce knows, and he’s confident he’ll be back on the ice in no time, heading onward and upward.
“When you play in a different league, the game alters a bit, but hockey is hockey,” he says. “College hockey seemed a bit faster; guys had no fear.” In the ECHL, Pierce says with a smile, the game is a lot more, well, physical. Rarely a fighter during his university days, Pierce learned the philosophy of the East Coast almost immediately. In his first game as an Icebreaker, after getting slashed in the legs by a Peoria defenseman, he dropped the gloves and kicked some ass. Killed or be killed.
Through it all, he has maintained an obsessive eye on the ultimate objective. “Right now, I’m just focusing on doing well,” Pierce says confidently, giving no thought to a long, sad life in the ECHL. “If I get called up to the AHL or IHL, that’s great. I don’t want to look too far ahead. If it happens, it happens.” Then he leans back in his seat and smiles that killer grin: “Heck, beats working for a couple of years.”
Born on April 16, 1969, Derek Clancey lives at the other end of the hockey pipe dream spectrum. He’s considered the grandpa of the squad, someone young guns like Pierce can look up to and study. In Slap Shot terms, he’s Paul Newman. He has also been the Icebreakers’ most productive skater, scoring six goals and dishing 12 assists in just 16 games. The rather small center, an ECHL lifer, handles a hockey stick the way B.B. King plays Lucille, making the inanimate object take on a life of its own.
“You gotta keep going,” Clancey says, sounding much like the veteran as he piles up cliche on cliche. “We just have to keep rolling with the punches. All but one game we’ve stepped up to play. I think we’re getting better.”
Clancey, the 1991 Canadian University Player of the Year at the University of Prince Edward Island, is listed as a player/assistant coach, but for the time being, his sole duty is making sure this team doesn’t become a laughingstock. At 28, however, he isn’t planning on keeping the skates tied forever. “At the first opportunity, I’d like to move into a full-time coaching position,” Clancey says, before adding the obligatory, “I’m just doing this to get my foot in the door.”
If Pierce is the future and Clancey is the past, then Phil Milbourne, who does just about everything for the Icebreakers short of steaming the weenies, is the man in the middle. The head hockey coach at nearby Spaulding High School in Millersville, Md., Milbourne is mainly a defenseman, “but they got me playing everywhere.” After unsuccessfully trying out for the Icebreakers, the Annapolis native, who had excelled at every level of the junior leagues, impressed Nilan so much that he was called back for part-time duties. And with so many fights resulting in so many injuries, Milbourne has seen more action than he ever imagined.
“I can walk into the locker room and say hi, and the players say hi to me,” Milbourne says excitedly, his voice exuding pure joy just from suiting up in an Icebreakers uniform. “These guys have already established themselves and are gonna move on. But my goal is to play in the National Hockey League, too. That’s the dream of any kid who laces ’em up.”
Milbourne, who just got engaged, can see the future clearly enough to know that this pro hockey thing might come and go: “No matter where I’ll be, I’ll be happy. That’s the most important thing. But it’ll definitely be in the game of hockey, whether it’s coach, assistant, or player.” He pauses for a second; then, allowing the dreamer to chime in, laughs, “But yeah, the NHL would be nice.”
When you look down the row of players’ wives and girlfriends, you don’t see profiles, you see hair. The person under each mound of teased and tresses seems to have mastered the art of watching the game and dishing the gossip simultaneously. They all cringe painfully when the Icebreakers are getting pounded; they explode with delight when something decent breaks the home team’s way. When a sultry, red-haired groupie with some serious chest enhancement teeters by on patent-leather boots, they shoot glances and lift eyebrows. Most of these ladies show up for every game, knowing full well that another tough loss will equal some very surly times back at the homestead.
Tonight, as the Icebreakers take on the Richmond Renegades, the women are in a particularly giddy mood. Maybe it’s because Thanksgiving is a little less than two weeks away, and private time during the season is a precious commodity. Or maybe it’s simply that Chesapeake is finally doing something besides getting its ass handed to it.
Sarah Armstrong, the girlfriend of Icebreakers right winger Justin Cardwell (Western Michigan University’s MVP last year), wags a well-manicured finger at beer man Perry Hahn, who peers over the ledge of the club level and smiles at the row of beauties.
“It’s a real transition for Justin,” says the blond Armstrong, 23, who traveled down here from Toronto (“Toronto, Canada,” she clarifies) to see her boyfriend play. Armstrong understands the game better than most fans; she delights in talking about her man’s puck-handling prowess. And she knows her way around a cliche: “New team, new players, new coach. Now it’s a job, instead of just going for a degree. But wherever you are, you want to play the best you possibly can.”
Armstrong and Cardwell have been dating for more than six years. Working for “an automotive company” up in the Great White North, she tries to visit her hockey player as often as she can, but time and money keep her across the border most of the time. “You have to remember,” Armstrong says softly, as much for herself as for those listening, “it’s only a six-month season.”
With a grubby blue baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, Rusty Barrett pops a fresh pinch of Skoal between cheek and gum and smiles up at his shiny silver livelihood. Seven years ago, the wiry Barrett, who murmurs his age as “late 20s,” quit his job at a moving business to pursue his lifelong dream job: Zamboni driver. Now Barrett has become a bit of a legend at the Show Place. When he drives his massive machine out onto the rink, the announcer bellows his name and the fans go wild. Rusty always doffs his lid and smiles. Some guys have all the luck.
Caggiano picked up the Icebreakers’ Zamboni—which is actually an Olympia Ice Resurfacing Machine, but that doesn’t sound half as cool—from the Hartford Whalers for $40,000. Sure, it was used, but according to the owner, it “only had a few hundred miles on it.” (A new Zamboni costs between $70,000 and $80,000.) Barrett, who also works at the Wells Ice Rink in College Park and the Garden Ice House in Laurel, applied for the Icebreakers job and was signed on immediately.
Ask Barrett about the workings of a Zamboni, and he’ll issue a brain-numbing 20-minute discourse on every little facet of the machine: combustion-chamber cleaners, shampoo engines, wash-water tanks, snow vents. If you were to take a Zamboni out on the highway, Barrett explains, you could probably get the behemoth up to about 9 or 10 miles per hour; an Olympia, on the other ho-hum hand, can only manage 6 to 7 mph. “This Olympia is a nice machine, don’t get me wrong,” Barrett leans in and whispers, “but I prefer a 500 Zamboni.” Hell, who doesn’t?
Not that the life of a Zamboni driver is one cool glide. In a game against Toledo, Rusty, perhaps concentrating too hard on the gaggle of girls who always want a free ride, ran out of gas. On the ice. In front of everyone. “The Toledo fans were yelling at me to go back to Zamboni driving school!” Barrett laughs, adjusting his ever-present headgear.
And the hockey players, especially when they’re losing, always blame the condition of the ice for their lousy play. A goalie for Richmond, after getting splashed with just a few drops of Zamboni runoff, waved his stick at Rusty and screamed, “Watch what the fuck you’re doing, asshole!”
“Yeah, you really wanna get the ice right for the players,” Barrett says. “They’re kind of particular.” He rolls his eyes and whispers: “They’re used to having the red-carpet treatment.”
Nilan is pissed. Management has been promising to install a phone in the home team’s locker room since the beginning of the season, but players and assistant coaches—and the extremely grumpy leader—are still forced to climb the stadium steps and use the pay phone next to the concession stand. The lack of a well-placed communication device, added to the Icebreakers’ 2-9-5 record, has Nilan filling up the Show Place with enough salty invective to blow the roof off the joint.
The first-place Wheeling Nailers (11-7) are this evening’s foes, and for the first time in the team’s existence, a sense of desperation—enhanced by Nilan’s hollering—is creeping up and down the organization’s ranks. Tonight’s company line is that the Caps are playing their final game at nearby USAirways Arena; once Pollin’s pucksters head for Chinatown, suburban hockey fans unwilling to trek into the nation’s capital will have only one option to slake their jones. But each time an announcer or a player or the owner repeats this news, the level of confidence in his voices gets diffused by the unmistakable strain of doubt. Plain and simple, the people just aren’t coming to games, Caps or no Caps. In fact, the attendance lately seems to have dropped, especially at midweek contests, when the number of people on skates appears to swamp those in sneakers. The Icebreakers—as a team, as a franchise, as a dysfunctional family—need something good to happen.
The home team has advertised this evening as “Country Night,” and while every game features plenty of Alan Jackson and Sammy Kershaw twanging from the speakers, the big difference in this contest is that 20 boot-scootin’ patrons have gathered to set the world’s record—not that there actually is one—for the largest line dance on ice. But the hockey equivalent of the dizzy bat contest gets flushed when the dancers find out that they will actually have to step out onto the ice. The event is canceled, and the Icebreakers are left to use their sticks and skates to get things going.
Which is exactly what they do. Thanks to an early barrage of goals from Denny Felsner and Arturs Kupacs, the Icebreakers are able to run up a 5-3 lead. Even better, after the fifth goal, the fans are notified that if Chesapeake can manage a sixth score, a local Dunkin’ Donuts will reward everyone in attendance with a free bag of goodies. That does it. For almost the entire third period, the fans, fired up by the team’s polar bear mascot Frostbite, chant, “Doughnuts, Doughnuts, Doughnuts!” You don’t see much of that at the MCI Center.
As if life could get any better, the crowd is also treated to a load of first-rate bare-knuckle action. It begins, as always, with a couple of guys squaring off and warily measuring their distance. Waiting impatiently for the first shot, a young boy in a Scooby Doo hat and X-Men duds squirms out of his father’s hold, thrusts a fist into the air, and hollers, “Kick his butt!” The kid can’t be any older than 4, but his demand for violence ignites uproarious parental laughter from the section. If this were a sitcom—presumably a show on Fox—the action would freeze, the credits would roll, and a dirty tank top in front of the boob tube would pipe up for another round of Pabst. But this a minor-league hockey game, so Scooby’s folks reward the tyke with a pat on the head, then continue scanning the rows for beerman Hahn.
And lo and behold, to complete the perfect evening, the Icebreakers score that sixth goal and hang on for the rare victory, at home no less. As the scoreboard ticks off the game’s final seconds, everyone in the house starts whoopin’ and hollerin’ as if Barrett is about to present the Stanley Cup on the hood of his Zamboni.
In the locker room—which is really just a big room with benches—the air is buoyant with the pleasant smell of sweat and victory. Everyone is congratulating everyone else. Caggiano is pumping out handshakes at a rapid pace. Pierce hobbles in and gets hugs from staffers. Nilan cracks a grin that looks as if it must hurt (not that he actually senses pain). For the first time in a long time, the Icebreakers get to feel like winners. Away from the jubilant pillars of wet, naked men, Clancey, still in his uniform, leans against a wall and closes his eyes. This time, the cliche is offered to him: You’re getting too old for this shit, right? He surveys the happy surroundings, nods his head, and grins: “I think we’re going to be fine.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.