Abe Pollin, who brought the NHL to Washington and built the downtown arena the Capitals call home, passed away Tuesday at the age of 85.
“Mr. Pollin was a model philanthropist, an icon in the sports world and the individual responsible for founding the Capitals and bringing an NBA championship to our city,” Capitals chairman and majority owner Ted Leonsis said in a statement
. “He was the catalyst in building a fabulous downtown arena that revitalized the surrounding area. Anyone walking down 7th Street, seeing the throngs of excited fans, the host of popular restaurants, hotels and nightspots, can attest to the lasting legacy of Mr. Pollin’s deep commitment to D.C.”
As Leonsis notes, Pollin will be remembered as a philanthropist and one of the people who created Washington, D.C., as we know it today. Capitals fans in particular will remember Pollin as the man who brought to life both the franchise and its home rink. Without Pollin’s vision, there would not be an NHL team in Washington.
A builder by trade, Pollin began building his sports empire in 1964 when he purchased the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets, now the Washington Wizards. Pollin was the NBA’s longest-standing owner at the time of his death.
Pollin wanted to move the Bullets nearer to his hometown of D.C. in the early 1970s, but he needed a second tenant for his proposed facility. The need for a co-tenant spurred his successful pursuit of an NHL franchise.
Pollin’s bid to bring the NHL to Washington was a long shot at best; Las Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy the Greek set his chances of getting a team at 600-to-1. But Pollin would not be denied. He traveled the continent to visit NHL owners and make the case for his hometown of Washington.
In May 1972 the NHL Finance Committee convened to review applications and make its recommendations. With 10 different ownership groups in the running, the committee opted to take a few days to more carefully consider the options before proceeding. Pollin and his associates descended upon Montreal and began to lobby around the clock for the Washington cause.
Pollin’s pitch was persuasive. On the fourth ballot franchises were awarded to Washington and Kansas City. His Capitals team took the ice in 1974, bringing pro hockey back to the District after an absence of 15 years. It took a quantum leap of faith to believe the league would award a team to an area that had been without the pro game for son long, but Pollin never wavered.
After more than two decades at the Pollin-built Capital Centre, the Capitals began play at Verizon Center – then MCI Center – in December 1997. The new downtown building was a state-of-the-art venue when it opened for business.
“We decided we were going to build the best building in the world,” Pollin told Inside Edge Magazine in December 1997. “We believe we have achieved that goal.”
Pollin’s downtown multi-sport arena revitalized an entire downtrodden area of the city for blocks in every direction. Not only that, the arena was constructed with some $200 million of Pollin’s own money. That was a refreshing change in an era when it was commonplace for pro sports franchise owners to threaten to move teams out of town as a means of getting taxpayer dollars to build new edifices.
Pollin was driven by civic pride.
“I see the city suffering, getting a bad reputation locally, nationally and internationally,” said Pollin, shortly after the building opened. “ I was in the unique position to do something about it.”
Less than two years after the MCI Center opened, Pollin sold the Capitals and a share of the Wizards, the building and the local Ticketmaster franchise to a group headed by Leonsis. Leonsis and his Lincoln Holdings LLC group have retained ownership of the Caps for the last decade, and they added the WNBA’s Washington Mystics to their sports portfolio in 2005.
"Abe Pollin always wanted the best for his teams, for the fans and for Washington -- and all of those passions combined to create the arena that revitalized the entire downtown community,” says NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “He was a man of commitment and principle and we all will miss him. The National Hockey League family sends sincere condolences to his loved ones."
Lincoln Holdings has the exclusive right to purchase Pollin’s share of the Wizards, Verizon Center and the area’s Ticketmaster franchise. That will come in time; as Leonsis notes, today the Capitals – and the entire city – fondly remember a fallen icon.
“My partners and I were proud to work with him and his family during the last ten years and we are committed to continuing his tradition of building exciting, championship-caliber teams,” Leonsis said. “When Lincoln Holdings bought the Capitals and a substantial percentage of Washington Sports & Entertainment from Mr. Pollin in 1999, he gave us the exclusive right to purchase the remaining portion of the Wizards, Verizon Center and the local Ticketmaster franchise. That agreement established an orderly process for conducting that transaction and it is our intention to follow that process. Now is not the time, however, to discuss that subject; our focus now should be on mourning a great man who has done so much for our city.”