The Madison Capitols were stuck between two extremes.
The Dane County Coliseum, home for their first three United States Hockey League seasons, was too big for the kind of crowds they were drawing.
Bob Suter’s Capitol Ice Arena, their home rink last season, was too small for their liking and for the preferences of the league.
There was no Goldilocks “just right” fit available in the Madison area, so the Capitols set out to make one for themselves. They tore out interior walls, built vertically and replaced seating at Cap Ice in an effort to squeeze everything they could out of the Middleton venue.
The $2 million renovation isn’t quite complete, but the show must go on tonight when the Capitols play their home opener against the Chicago Steel.
When the team held an open house last week, president Andrew Joudrey was a little disappointed when he heard from some fans that were in the building for the first time.
“I wanted them to have seen what we had last year,” he said. “You can’t find a bad seat in the arena. The one other thing we like is that everything is open. So when you’re in a suite, you’re not removed from it. You can hear what’s going on. You’re right on top of it.”
The Capitols retrofitted mezzanine space into seven suites. They removed the old, wooden bleachers and replaced them with metal ones that have seat backs ready to be attached.
The most noticeable change when you enter the arena is the addition of a 300-capacity beer garden above the east goal. It features its own seating section, standing area and bar.
Instead of barely being able to fit 1,300 people in Cap Ice under the old configuration, the Capitols see the capacity at around 2,500 when all of the seating is in place next month. Rows on the north side of the rink by the team benches still have to be constructed.
“I think the atmosphere is going to be awesome,” Capitols owner and Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter said. “You get 2,000 fans in here, it’s going to be rocking. It’ll be fun.”
The Capitols averaged 809 fans per home game last season; the USHL regular-season average was 2,323. Over three years at the Coliseum, their average announced crowd was 2,490 in a venue that seats around 8,000.
“We liked it there. They were great hosts,” Suter said. “But the venue was huge. The angles of the seating weren’t good. This is going to be a junior rink atmosphere.”
The changes, which include a video board and a reconstructed Capitols locker room and weight room, are the first phase of the team’s plans for the arena. Suter and his team have kicked around the idea of pushing out the exterior wall on the opposite side of the rink from the new beer garden to expand seating and build new locker rooms for the rink’s youth teams.
On the ice, the Capitols are hoping to have a bigger, tougher team this season after finishing eighth in the nine-team USHL Eastern Conference last season at 23-33-2-2.
They lost their first three games before emerging with a shootout victory over Team USA last Saturday.
Coach Garrett Suter said before the season his team wasn’t tough to play against last year.
“I think we changed that a lot with even the top-end guys that are coming in this year that’ll play on our top two lines,” he said.
“They’re big and they’re strong and they’re physical guys. They dictate the play down low the same way that other guys have done against us when we had a smaller (defense) corps the last couple years, too.”
The team markets itself to a variety of audiences, but Joudrey said he considers the primary consumer to be families looking for affordable entertainment that “keeps you off your phone or away from a TV.”
There’s more space for them, and now the team has to fill it up.
“I believe that if people come in, they’re going to enjoy themselves and see that it’s a lot better viewing experience than it was in the past,” Joudrey said.