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  MCI Center Ain't All That
by Meredith Martini, Correspondent

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally ran in the Lost Issue, but is being reprinted for the good of all)

OK, so they opened the brand spanking new MCI Center while squawking at length about how wonderful, terrific and modern it would be. Turns out they didn't even learn anything from the primary delay in constructing the building, but we'll get back to that.

MCI Center
MCI Center opening night
by Meredith Martini

Opening night for the Capitals at the MCI Center was a decided disappointment. President Clinton didn't show; the best the Caps could get was VP Al Gore and isn't that just emblematic of the Capitals' existence? The game was announced as a sellout; that announcement is an organic by-product of a male member of the cattle family. Seventy-five, maybe eighty percent capacity. For opening night. The first game. The one you'll be telling people you went to...supposedly anyway.

That is, if you can prove you went, which I'll have trouble with since someone with enough money to pay for a $60 ticket was too cheap to buy a $5 program and instead opted to steal my Inaugural Game program while I visited the admittedly very nice women's room.

And while granted NHL hockey is a darned expensive pastime, this is ridiculous. The cheap seats consisted of two rows at the top of the building, maybe a couple hundred seats, for $19. The next four rows? $30. The rest of the upper deck? $40. $40 dollars to sit several stories above the ice and see tiny, distant figures scoot about the ice surface. Who are they kidding?

The game itself? That is, what could be seen from the last row of the building? "Unexciting," noted 15-year season ticket holder Ginger Connolly. "The Capitals didn't play with much, well, the first period they were pretty unexciting, they picked up a little in the third period."

And Connolly is very clear as to what she thinks of the new digs: "I do NOT like the MCI Arena!" she states emphatically. "Poor planning, very bad for the physically challenged, lots of obstructed view, bad elevators. I'm very unimpressed by the new arena."

She wasn't alone in her opinion, either. The scoreboard was unreadable from the 'cheap' seats and the telescreen was not exactly high quality. "When you're watching that screen, don't you feel like you're watching somebody's home movie?" asks Barbara Parker.

"They look like 8mm home movies," concurs her husband, Bruce. "I've seen pucks that I thought should have been icing that stopped in the middle of the faceoff circles on the way down. I'm ready to go back to USAirways Arena or Capital Center or whatever they want to call it."

Oh yeah, that last row of the entire building? It's six floors up. That's accessible seating. For real.

A lawsuit by the Paralyzed Veterans of America held up building construction for several months as the PVA succeeded in proving the building as designed would be quite unfriendly to those with disabilities. Although that lawsuit remains in active litigation, Washington Sports and The Washington Post both announced the suit had been settled. And despite that and several other similar suits filed prior to the building's opening, not only were two of the 'accessible' areas completely inaccessible but that's where the Capitals opted to put their longtime accessible seating season ticket holders, including Connolly and the Parkers.

Thus Barbara, who is confined to a wheelchair while she recuperates from surgery, had just barely enough room for her chair...and saw absolutely nothing each time the able-bodied fans in front of her moved, which was often. They routinely crawled over her for a shortcut to the bathroom. Furthermore, the ledge which was deemed 'accessible' had no rail or edge to prevent her from rolling right off the landing and down 20 rows. "When you're in a wheelchair and it's fifteen minutes before game time, all you see are bodies," she frets. "I haven't seen anything of this arena yet, and I can only see half the game because...of the people sitting in front of me."

The aforementioned bad elevators? Programmed to favor the club level uber alles. The Parkers weren't permitted to use the elevators before or after the game; beats us how they're supposed to get the sixth floor. Even Peter Bondra couldn't get into the elevator. A 15-minute wait just to get into the elevator meant no food or drink during the game, not that one could afford it. ($6.50 for a beer. That should sober up a few people in more ways than one.) And Bruce Parker didn't have a chair to sit in until after numerous complaints were issued to management.

Meanwhile, other longtime users of accessible seating at the USAir Arena found themselves expected to squeeze past 20 seated people without falling over the next row of seats. Not easy when you move well; severe arthritis and it's impossible, as Cliff and Nancy Odom discovered. They were too distressed over the situation to comment. After the game it was found another section of physically challenged fans were facing an identical situation on the other end of the press area. Real top of the line planning.

Management wasn't done with these folks yet either; the escalators were shut down at the end of the game and the elevators limited to those headed down from the club level. Use the stairs or sleep in the building. Or win the lottery, since the MCI Center is clearly intended only for persons of like financial means.

Most of the people assigned 'accessible' seating for the game are now in the process of filing complaints with the Department of Justice, among other organizations. Does complaining help? Barbara Parker called the MCI Center's accessible seating director prior to the next game there to ask if any progress was being made on the complaints: she reports the seating director told her "you get what you pay for" and hung up on her.

And if overall attendance is any indication, able-bodied people don't think much of the place either; by the third game in the building, actual attendance was down to about 7,500. Even the paid numbers aren't half the capacity.

If the MCI Center is the future of hockey arenas, well...you know, Hershey is a nice place. Chesapeake has possibilities. The Capitals don't.

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