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Admirals to play before 18,000 tonight in D.C.
Admirals to play before 18,000 tonight in D.C.

Washington Capitals fans have been clamoring to see the team's top prospects.

Youth hockey groups have been waiting to get wide swaths of seats at the Verizon Center.

And because of the NHL lockout, hockey fans in Washington have been pining to see anything that involves pucks, sticks and skates.

All those eyes add up, in this case to one of the biggest American Hockey League crowds in the organization's history.

When the Norfolk Admirals face the Hershey Bears in the Washington AHL Showcase tonight, they will play in front of one of the 12 biggest crowds in AHL history. Outside of a few single standing-room-only tickets, organizers said the Verizon Center had sold out its 18,506 tickets by Wednesday night, a number that would rank 11th all-time.

"Modestly, we hoped to get between 10,000 and 12,000," said Capitals assistant general manager Don Fishman, who organized the game. "It's a testament to Washington that we're now a hockey city. The novelty factor boosted sales initially. The lockout boosted it over the top."

The game was scheduled long before the NHL lockout became a reality, but the lack of hockey has taken the game from unique experience into a larger event.

Comcast SportsNet will broadcast the game, media attention has increased and tickets that are normally affordable are listed on the website StubHub for as high as $109.

The attendance will top the 14,926 that watched the Admirals visit the Chicago Wolves in 2003 as the most-attended game in Admirals history.

"It's a big market halfway between Norfolk and Hershey," said Admirals general manager Joe Gregory, who helped set up the game. "A market that size, I didn't think 18,000 was unreasonable.??

The AHL has played three games in NHL arenas this season, with attendances ranging from 10,926 in Buffalo to 18,582 in Montreal. NHL teams, particularly Philadelphia and Montreal, bring in their affiliates regularly. Washington hasn't hosted its affiliate since 1979, however.

Norfolk center Chris Wagner is one of the Admirals most looking forward to the experience. He played high school hockey in a small town in Massachusetts and his college hockey at Colgate in a 2,600-seat venue.

The biggest crowd he believes he's played in front of came earlier this year, when the Admirals visited Hershey and played in front of just more than 10,000 fans.

"I've played in a few NHL rinks, but nothing close to full," Wagner said. "You go out, you look up, it's going to be cool. My dad tried to buy tickets last week, and he said the lower bowl was pretty much full, and the upper was filling up too.

"It's kinda crazy. People wanna watch hockey."

Fishman said Washington season-ticket holders have been asking for an AHL game for five years and he began working heavily on the idea last fall. Those season-ticket holders purchased 11,000 tickets during preseason sales, well before the lockout was certain.

The Capitals, who practice at a facility in Arlington, hope to be the NHL team of choice for Virginians, so the Admirals became a logical opponent.

Gregory said the Admirals have a handful of season-ticket holders in the Richmond area and he hopes the game will help promote the team in the northern part of the state.

Hershey, with an average attendance of 8,976 fans this year, was reluctant to surrender a home game, but Norfolk was not. With an average attendance of 4,281 so far, the Admirals were willing to give up a game, especially one played during the middle of the week.

Fishman locked in a rare open date at the Verizon Center - one where the Capitals, Wizards or Georgetown Hoyas weren't scheduled to play and no concert was being held - and set the stage for a strangely sought-after minor-league ticket.

"Most of us were still hoping there'd be an NHL season until Sept. 15, but I know at that point, sales were pretty good," Fishman said. "Obviously, it worked out great. I hope it goes well. I hope it can become a regular thing."

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