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Historical Road Trip: The Many Barns of the NHL

Take a ride on the wayback machine for a survey of the many rinks that have played host to the Caps over the years

John Davidson Guards The Net Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

Tonight the Caps will make their way to “the world’s most famous arena” [insert eyeroll... here] for the first time this season to take on the Rangers. With a visit to such a historical sports landmark on the schedule, it seems fitting to check in with our resident historian and friend of the site, Glenn Dreyfuss, for some more info on rinks ‘round the League...

The place where the Caps played their very first game, Madison Square Garden, is the only building to remain an NHL rink to the present day. Between a 6-3 loss to the Rangers on October 9, 1974, and a 3-2 shootout victory last March 3rd, Washington has skated 111 regular-season games at MSG. If they win on tonight’s trip to Broadway, it’ll be their 50th at the Garden all time, with nine ties.

Most non-fancy of stats: the Garden is one of the 31 NHL rinks in which the Capitals with compete during the 2019-20 season. What may surprise you is that over the course of their history, they’ve played regular-season games at 39 additional arenas (not counting outdoor venues).

More curious are the mostly forgotten venues where the Capitals played only a handful of times, and some, just once. McNichols Sports Arena in Denver holds a distinction as the only place in which the Caps played two different teams representing the same city. Washington skated a dozen games against the Rockies at McNichols between 1976-1982, and four games versus the Avalanche from 1995-99.

Richfield Coliseum outside Cleveland also qualifies as a two-opponent venue, sort of. It was home to the Cleveland Barons for two seasons, 1976-78. The Capitals played five times there, winning two. Opening night in 1977 drew 10,253 for a 4-2 Cleveland victory. But if you don’t remember why the Barons folded, consider that the combined attendance of the other Caps-Barons games – 5,209; 3,774; 3,842; 4,193 – wouldn’t have added up to one sellout in Richfield.

The Caps did return to the Coliseum a sixth time. In ’92-’93 and ‘93-‘94, the NHL expanded its regular season to 84 games, so every club could participate in two neutral-site contests. With the Barons long dissolved, the Flyers provided the opposition before 8,312 northern Ohio hockey fans on February 2, 1994. The Caps prevailed 5-2, snapping a tie with third period scores from Pat Peake, Steve Konowalchuk, and Todd Krygier. In the other neutral-site games, Washington beat Chicago 4-1 at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis (11/3/92, attendance 8,792), downed Detroit 4-2 at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee (3/16/93, 9,836), and fell to the Rangers 7-5 at Halifax Metro Centre in Canada (3/9/94, 9,200).

Washington performed a couple more solo shows, when the opponent chose to farm out a home game to nearby cities. On March 20, 1994, Tampa Bay hosted a game before 8,809 at the Orlando Arena, and it wasn’t the happiest place on Earth. The teams combined for seven misconduct penalties and other assorted mayhem, while Caps goalie Don Beaupre pitched a 23-save shutout in a 3-0 victory.

On October 26, 2005, the Sabres, Capitals and 8,552 hockey fans gathered inside Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, NY, 74 miles east of Buffalo. Skating 5-on-3 early in the third period, Jamie Heward scored the game winner, assisted by a rookie playing his 10th NHL game named A. Ovechkin. So, the next time someone asks – which would likely be the first time – the Washington Capitals are undefeated all-time in Orlando, Rochester, Indianapolis and Milwaukee.

Hartford Whalers v Washington Capitals
The Caps and Whalers clash at the Springfield Civic Center
Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

When the Whalers joined the NHL as part of 1979’s WHA merger, they were stashing their stuff at a friend’s place. Accumulated snow had collapsed the roof of their home rink in Hartford, and while repairs were completed, 22 home dates had to be relocated to the Springfield, Mass. Civic Center. That’s where the Caps played their first two road games against “Hartford.” The teams split, with the Whalers winning 5-4 on December 19, 1979. The Caps exacted revenge by a 6-3 score on January 4, 1980.

The Whalers abandoned Connecticut for North Carolina in 1997, but again had to crash on a friend’s couch. The rechristened Hurricanes’ new arena in Raleigh wouldn’t be ready for two years, so the team played “home” games 75 miles to the west at the Greensboro Coliseum. (Yes, the Greensboro Coliseum best known as host of the ACC Basketball Tournament.) The Caps prevailed on their first three skates down Tobacco Road, but not without a struggle: Steve Konowalchuk’s goal with four minutes left squeaked out a 2-1 win (12/20/97); Peter Bondra’s 50th goal secured a 4-3 win (4/18/98); Kelly Miller scored nine seconds into overtime for a 3-2 victory (1/16/99). Goalie Martin Brochu’s NHL debut was also the Caps’ farewell to Greensboro on April 14, 1999. If Brochu was excited, he was the only one, as Washington fell meekly, 3-0.

A half-dozen other temporary homes welcomed the Caps:

  • Stampede Corral, Calgary – Known for its extra-high boards, three-tier player benches and 7,424 seat capacity, the Corral was already 30 years old when the Flames moved from Atlanta in 1980. The Caps went 2-3 in five games there. The final meeting, February 24, 1983, has historic importance; powered by an Alan Haworth hat trick, the Caps won 4-2, officially securing the franchise’s first playoff berth.
  • Cow Palace, San Francisco – Beginning in 1941 the Cow Palace, like the Corral, hosted rodeos and stock shows. 50 years later, the new San Jose Sharks called it home for two seasons. Washington won both its games there; a 4-3 win on February 16, 1993, contributed to the Sharks’ 71-loss season, four more than the Caps when they were an expansion team.
  • Civic Centre, Ottawa – The Centre was wedged under the sloping stands of the adjacent football stadium, with the limited-seating side nicknamed “The Asylum.” Goalie Don Beaupre beat the expansion Senators 4-3 in 1992, one of three Caps victories there. After being traded to Ottawa, Beaupre tied the Caps 5-5 in a 1995 game. The Sens beat the Caps once, 6-5, on a three-goal, third period rally.
  • Expo Hall and Thunderdome, TampaSports Illustrated derided the Lightning’s first of two temporary homes as “a can of Spam covered with aluminum siding.” The Caps visited the Florida State Fairgrounds site and beat the expansion Lightning 5-3, on January 17, 1993. Frowning on an arena too small to keep a Zamboni inside, Tampa relocated at the other extreme, the future home of the MLB Devil Rays. Washington won their first four games at the Thunderdome, plus one tie. Most notable about their lone defeat, 1-0 on March 10, 1996, was the attendance at the rink/ballpark: 21,323.
  • America West Arena, Phoenix – Much as Islanders fans have suffered at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, America West was also built for the NBA. So when the Jets first flew south and became the Coyotes in 1996, they played in an arena with thousands of obstructed-view seats. The Caps were obstructed too, going 1-3-2 in six games.

Our final arena tour stops require a mighty pull on the wayback machine lever, all the way to the first two Capitals seasons. Kansas City’s Kemper Arena and the Oakland Coliseum hosted Washington a combined nine times, including the legendary “Stanley Can” game played against the Seals on March 28, 1975. The expansion Caps had lost their first 37 road contests, including the previous two visits to Oakland. But following a 5-3 victory to snap the streak, joyous Caps took a trash can from the dressing room and skated a lap around the vacant rink. Another road victory, 4-2 in late January, 1976 would be the Caps’ last visit to the East Bay, as the Seals bolted for Cleveland after the season.

Washington won just one of four contests in K.C. against its 1974 expansion twins. But the 5-1 loss to the Scouts at Kemper on February 7, 1976 deserves special mention. You see, that’s the last regular-season Scouts victory, ever. Kansas City went winless in its last 27 games, breaking the NHL winless-games record of 25 set earlier the same season by the Capitals. The Scouts didn’t win again until the following October, but by then they’d moved to Denver as the Colorado Rockies.