Reporting David Elfin
Other than the Redskins, who were heading towards their first playoff berth in 26 years under new coach George Allen, Washington was a sport wasteland in the fall of 1971. The Senators had just bolted for Texas, leaving us without a baseball team for the first time in 89 years. The nation’s capital wasn’t represented in the NBA or the NHL. College sports were humdrum or small-time.
Abe Pollin, a Washingtonian construction magnate who owned the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets, wanted to move his winning franchise closer to home, but the area’s only large indoor venue was the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House, which lacked air conditioning.
“Abe went to D.C., Fairfax and Montgomery, but none of them would build an arena so he built his own in Prince George’s,” said Jerry Sachs, who ran the building for Pollin. “We built it right by the Beltway because that was becoming suburbia’s Main Street.”
In just 15 months, Capital Centre came to life on former farmland in Landover. With a distinctive curved roof that resembled a potato chip, Capital Centre was one of the first arenas with luxury boxes (Sky Suites), a video scoreboard (Telscreen) and computerized ticketing. Public address announcer Marv Brooks’ booming voice and Tiny, the Bullets’ dachshund mascot, were also fixtures.
Needing a second anchor tenant, Pollin, who knew nothing about hockey, applied at the last minute for an NHL expansion franchise and was rewarded with the Capitals, who began skating in 1974.
“When I first came into the league with Buffalo [in 1987], I loved playing at Cap Centre because the shape of its roof reminded me of my hometown rink in Sweden, but it was so dark that you almost needed a headlamp to see the puck,” said Calle Johansson, who called the building home as a steady Caps defenseman from 1989-97. “Also, the ice wasn’t quite white. It was bluish. And the boards were slow so you wouldn’t get that much bounce off them which meant you always had to play the puck in the corners. You had to really think at Cap Centre.”
Over the years, every major rock act, among them the Stones, Elton John and the Boss, played Cap Centre which also put on horse shows, boat shows, plant shows, ice skating extravaganzas, pre-inaugural galas, an inaugural parade (hastily arranged because of frigid weather in 1985 without the absent Pollin’s knowledge), motocross, championship boxing bouts, tennis tournaments and indoor lacrosse’s Maryland Arrows. A dispute with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey even prompted Pollin to start his own four-ring (yes, four-ring) circus.
“We’d try anything,” Sachs said with a chuckle.
The Bullets and Caps both called Cap Centre home until they moved into Pollin’s new downtown building, MCI (now Verizon) Center in December 1997. Just five years later, a year shy of its 30th anniversary, Pollin’s former palace was imploded. But its demise couldn’t erase the memories that had been made there.
The Bullets reached the playoffs during 13 of their first 15 seasons at Cap Centre. Led by Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, they upset the powerful Philadelphia 76ers in Game 6 to win the 1978 Eastern Conference finals before crushing Seattle in Game 6 of the finals en route to win their only NBA title on the road as The Fat Lady finally sang That came three years after they had lost both home games while being swept by underdog Golden State in the finals.
“We had some great moments at Cap Centre, especially the games against the Knicks and it was really loud when we played Buffalo in the playoffs in ’75,” recalled Phil Chenier, a standout Bullets guard from 1971-79. “A lot of strange things happened in that Golden State series. After we beat Boston, we had to wait a week for the Golden State-Chicago series to finish. We got pretty tired of practicing against each other and there were a couple of fights. Then there were scheduling problems [because Cap Centre had booked a rodeo for mid-May] so even though we had home court advantage, Game 2 was played out West. We lost the first game at the wire and the same thing happened in the second game. They had the momentum and just kept it going.”
It took the Caps eight years to even qualify for postseason, but that began a string of 14 straight playoff years, most notably 1988, when Dale Hunter stunned Philadelphia with a Game 7 overtime goal, and 1990 when they upset New Jersey and the New York Rangers to reach the conference finals for the first time. But Cap Centre was also where the Islanders’ Pat LaFontaine (early on Easter Sunday in 1987) and the Penguins’ Petr Nedved (in 1996) broke Washington hearts with goals that ended four-overtime marathons.
“The game I remember the most was the long one when we lost to Pittsburgh in the playoffs,” Johansson recalled. “We played so long that they closed the concession stands and brought the food down to us. Guys were dehydrated and needed energy. It was bad to lose that one. But there were good memories, too, like the playoff game that [defensive-minded captain Rod Langway] won with a wrist shot in overtime [against the Rangers in 1990]. You never thought in a million years that Rod would score that goal, but it was such a great feeling because he had meant so much to the Caps for so many years.”
Cap Centre meant so much to so many for so many years so it’s hard to fathom that it has been a decade since it was reduced to dust. Sachs, of course, was emotional as he watched his baby imploded.
“Having been there when the first spade was put into the ground and to see it all disappear …,” he said. “I was grateful for having been a part of it all.”
Chenier wasn’t on hand, but he took it hard, too.
“We left for MCI Center the year the Bullets’ name was changing to Wizards,” noted Chenier, then and now analyzing the team’s games on television. “It was like we lost our identity, a part of our history.”
Johansson, who’s in his first year as a Caps assistant coach, had a different regret when he heard the news in Sweden.
“I kick myself for not taking a souvenir from the Cap Centre,” he said. “When you’re in the middle of it, you think the building will always be there. I made a point to drive by when I came back here a few years later. It was a weird feeling that it was gone and was just a parking lot.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin