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Making Practice Perfect

Washington Capitals practices are free, open to the public, and right here in Arlington

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Washington Capitals goalie Jose Theodore (right) gives a fan his autograph after practice at Arlington’s Kettler Capitals Iceplex.

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With practices free and open to the public, Capitals fans can get up close and personal with stars like Alex Ovechkin, shown here listening to coaches during a recent practice.

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After finishing up with practice, Capitals forward Tomas Fleischmann takes time out to sign autographs for some of the fans that line the rink during the team’s free public practices.

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Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau talks with his team during a recent practice.

Lifelong Arlington resident Kevin Shea couldn’t help but crack a smile Monday morning as his two-year-old daughter Olivia tried to name her favorite Washington Capitals player. With the team’s practice under way in the background, Shea suggested well-known players like Alex Ovechkin and Sergei Federov for her to consider.

But it was telling that she excitedly screamed the name of back-up goaltender Simeon Varlomov, a player just called up from the minors last week.

“I’m breeding little hockey fans over here,” Shea joked while holding one-year-old son Bobby.

Like many around the area, Shea has increasingly taken advantage of a unique bargain associated with the opening of the Kettler Capitals Iceplex (KCI) in 2006. Unlike other local professional teams like the Redskins, Wizards, and Nationals that rarely open their doors to the public outside of games, anybody can simply come to Arlington and check out a Capitals practice free of charge.

Located on top of the Ballston Common Mall, about the only money involved with attending a session is the $1 parking fee.

<b>“I CAN’T BELIEVE</b> it’s open for everyone,” said Dean Foster, who along with wife Marilyn recently moved to Arlington from Weber City, Va., near the Tennessee border. The couple decided to take skating lessons at KCI and soon realized they were literally within feet of an NHL team.

“Other pro sports that I’ve been around, like spring training for baseball, it’s kind of closed. Here, through the season, it’s open for people to come and see for free, and it’s such a great facility. They’re the nicest guys, too.”

Although crowds are generally bigger on weekends, those making the trek to KCI will undoubtedly encounter an accommodating player or coach willing to sign autographs or just talk once practice ends. And since many of the Caps players call Arlington their home during the season to be close to where they work, the whole set-up has given everyone a chance to get to know their community a bit better.

“I think it’s good for the hockey around here,” said Capitals forward and Arlington resident Nicklas Backstrom, who originally hails from Sweden. “For us, it’s good too. Somebody is watching us and it’s always good to have somebody there.”

Caps defenseman Mike Green was born in Canada and remembers going to Calgary Flames practices as a kid and wondering when he would skate on the same rink as his idols. He appreciates the allure and the benefits that come from such an open and accessible atmosphere.

“It’s nice that fans can come and watch and see what we do on a daily basis,” said Green, who also lives in Arlington during the season. “Anytime anyone’s looking at you, you don’t want it to look like you aren’t working hard. So I think it does make you bring a little more energy to practice as well.”

<b>ADAM GREEN</b>, a Springfield resident of no relation, plays in a men’s hockey league in Fairfax and has been a fan of the game for years. Now that his son Miles is nearly two-years-old, Green has made a habit of coming out to practice about once a week.

When the pair walks through the door, he finds it refreshing that Miles will simply start shouting “Hockey, hockey.”

“It’s pretty hilarious,” said Green. “He really likes the action and honestly, I think his favorite part is just running up-and-down the stairs. … For me, it’s a great opportunity to see these players a foot away from you interacting outside the game environment.”

Shea likes taking his kids to KCI every Monday and Friday mornings whenever the team is in town because it’s a perfect outlet of energy. With lots of running room in the bleachers that line one side of the rink and plenty of action on the ice, Shea has started bringing friends and their families along with him.

“It’s kind of a good way to get out of the house when the weather is cold and there’s not much to do outdoors,” said Shea. “With unemployment being as high as it is, you’d figure this place would be packed.”

The Capitals begin their final homestand of the regular season this Friday and it continues through next Sunday. Most practice sessions are either at 10:30 or 11:00 a.m., but the team’s practice schedule is updated daily at www.washingtoncapitals.com.