Ever since Bruce Boudreau took over as head coach of the Washington Capitals on the day after Thanksgiving 2007, the hockey news out of Washington, D.C. has been uniformly positive. There was the last year's late-season drive to make the playoffs, followed by an offseason filled with awards, a key to the city for Alex Ovechkin and elevated expectations going into the 2008-09 NHL season -- expectations that, thus far, have been fulfilled as the team surged to second place in the Eastern Conference.
But through it all there's been one minor, yet discordant note: the speedy attacking team was skating on one of the worst home ice surfaces in the NHL.
Granted, this story is nothing new. The first player to say something openly to the press was team captain Chris Clark, who had this to say all the way back during the 2007-08 season:
"There's a lot of ruts in the ice. It's soft. It's wet half the time. I could see a lot of injuries coming from the ice there. It could cost [players] their jobs."
"I've been trying to get it fixed. I've been going over the ice reports. I've been trying to tell them that it's [a problem]. But it's been three years since I've been here, and it's the worst in the league. It's tough to play on. Even guys on other teams say the same thing. When we're facing off, they say, 'How do you guys play on this?'"
That was more or less the same message that defenseman Tom Poti delivered, a comment I captured on video in the team's locker room:
The grumbling from the fan base got a whole lot more pronounced after the team lost its first round playoff series last season to the Philadelphia Flyers, where Philadelphia winger Daniel Briere had the following to say about how the ice helped his team keep up with the Caps:
The complaints spilled into the 2008-09 season, with both Clark and defenseman Shaone Morrisonn telling the Washington Post that they believed the poor ice at home contributed to groin injuries they both had suffered. That only egged on Caps blogs like The Red Skate and Japers' Rink, who quite rightly wondered out loud when and if the team was going to do anything about the problem -- which was right about the time that team owner Ted Leonsis addressed the issue:
"Another thing that favored us was the condition of the ice," he said. "It was so bad that it was tough for guys like Semin, Backstrom and Ovechkin to get anything going, the ice was so bad. That was another thing that went our way."
We are on the issue of ice quality as a deliverable to be world class in everything we do. We are trying to make it best it can be and best in the NHL but the ice isn't bad. The refs rank it after every game. If it was an issue, the media would write something about it. The league would be mandating that we improve the ice quality but it really isn't that big of an issue right now. I am not trying to skirt responsibility but it just irks me when these statements continue to be made without facts as a basis. Sorry. End of rant.
The "without facts as a basis," comment got under the skin of some of the locals, and the story went underground for a few more weeks -- that was until this past weekend, when Poti served up a quote that wasn't qualitatively different to what he had told the local press in December 2007:
"The ice was disgusting," Tom Poti said. "It's an embarrassment. it's why so many guys are hurt with groins....The puck is like a bouncy ball out there jumping around, banging around and it's tough to handle the puck when it's like that. I can't even imagine a guy like Alex Ovechkin on a decent sheet of ice how many goals he'd get and a guy like Mike Green as well. You look at the puck and it's just bouncing and rolling and flipping all over the place. The good thing that we have is it's the same for both teams."
And that comment was more than enough for the owner. In one of his regular postgame recaps at Ted's Take, Leonsis stressed that the team was working on the problem, and was considering eliminating on-ice activities between periods, something that would buy an extra "2-3 minutes," to help treat the ice. He also addressed the problems of maintaining the ice in a venue like Verizon Center that often has to accommodate both basketball and ice hockey on the same day -- a simple fact of life that makes building and maintaining a high-quality sheet something of a day-to-day challenge in a temperate climate like Washington's.
But while Leonsis promised that the team would make an effort to continue to address the problem, he didn't make any promises that he'd be able to fix anything in the short term. Like it or not, the control of Verizon Center still rests with Washington Sports and Entertainment, a holding company controlled by Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin. When it comes to issues like scheduling, it's Pollin and his team that hold all the cards -- and that includes the hand that controls the building's thermostat.
Every Monday morning The Ice Sheet will take a close look at everything that's happened in the NHL since Friday night at 5:00 PM -- or if need be, anything else the author wants to bleat about. To read them all, click here.