25 years ago, the Washington Capitals and the Washington Wizards moved into the MCI Center, their new downtown home, located at the corner of 7th Street and F Street in Northwest DC. Prior to that, both teams resided at the Capital Centre (later renamed U.S. Air Arena) in Landover, Maryland.
Abe Pollin, then-owner of both the Capitals and Wizards, felt the Capital Centre was becoming outdated, especially in comparison to the newer arenas that the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens built at that time. During the summer of 1995, Pollin decided he would privately finance a $200 million facility. This new arena would house both the Capitals and the Bullets, who would ultimately be rebranded as the Wizards.
Building A New Home
It took just over two years to construct the facility. Several construction challenges arose during the process, which included the discovery of contaminated soil and asbestos at the site.
In addition, the Paralyzed Veterans of America filed a successful lawsuit to increase the number of seats for wheelchair-bound guests. MCI Communications Corp. helped ease some of Pollin’s financial burden by agreeing to a $44 million, 13-year deal for arena naming rights.
The first sports event held at MCI Center was on December 2, 1997, when the Washington Wizards hosted the Seattle Supersonics. In a historical quirk, the Supersonics were the very first team that faced the Bullets when they initially moved into the Capital Centre, a game that took place exactly 24 years earlier — on December 2, 1973, and was a Bullets win.
The Wizards beat the Supersonics 95-78 in their inaugural game at MCI Center. The next day, Pollin celebrated his 84th birthday with Mayor Anthony Williams, unveiling F Street between 6th and 7th streets NW as “Abe Pollin Way.”
Wes Johnson, the long-time public address announcer for the Capitals, was the announcer for that inaugural Wizards’ game. Johnson himself described the experience with the following words:
“25 years ago today I was the 1st PA Announcer to crack open a mic at the now Capital One Arena with the Washington Wizards. For 2.5 decades I’ve unleashed my voice in this building, 22 years with the Washington Capitals. It’s my home. What glorious times we’ve all shared. What glorious times to come.”
Photo: Wes Johnson
The Capitals played their first game at MCI Center three days later – on Friday, December 5, against the Florida Panthers. The game was a sellout. The audience included then-Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper.
42 former Capitals players were also in attendance. The players donned team sweaters with their familiar names and numbers and were introduced individually to great applause during the first intermission.
The 42 alumni then skated a lap around the new ice sheet and waved to the capacity crowd. Among the alumni was Bryan “Bugsy” Watson who then was the proprietor of a bar in Alexandria, Virginia called Bugsy’s.
For the game itself, the Caps found themselves shorthanded in personnel. Top scorer Peter Bondra was sidelined with a bruised ankle. Other injured players included Michal Pivonka, Mike Eagles, Yogi Svejkovsky, Andrei Nikolishin, and Pat Peake.
The Capitals’ head coach at the time was Ron Wilson, while the Panthers’ head coach was Bryan Murray who was a former head coach of the Capitals.
The Panthers scored first, with Steve Washburn scoring during the first period. However, Richard Zednik knotted the score at 1-1 with a second-period goal. Both teams traded power-play goals during the third period so the game was tied at 2 apiece and remained that way until the end of regulation.
Jess Toms, whom the Caps picked up on waivers two weeks earlier, scored the game-winner in overtime. inaugurating the building with a 3-2 win.
Photo: Doug Pensinger /Allsport
The Caps went on to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history but were swept in the series by a Detroit Red Wings squad winning its second consecutive Stanley Cup.
In 2006, MCI Center was renamed Verizon Center after Verizon bought MCI.
More memories were made inside that building during the next 25 years, including the rebuild leading to the “Rock the Red” era.
Rock The Red
Led by Alex Ovechkin, the team became a consistent playoff team although advancing past the second round was elusive. But they finally won the Stanley Cup in 2018 for the first time in franchise history.
In recent years, there has been a makeover of the arena to include upgraded seats, revamped concession stands, and a new state-of-the-art scoreboard.
The Capitals have now played longer there than at the Capital Center.
Happy anniversary to the new arena.
By Diane Doyle
Inaugural Game at MCI Center – Retro Recap – Florida Panthers @ Washington Capitals – December 5, 1997
Box Score for Game of 12/5/1997
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