No one is predicting a Stanley Cup, and I’m not saying they should – this year. But what we have here is a team that will play fast, energetic, physical hockey every night. They’ll never give up, and they believe they are being overlooked by the prognosticators who don’t see them making the playoffs. I wouldn’t doubt this group.
We said we would build a team that you would get to watch grow before your eyes, and that’s exactly what George McPhee has done. We’ve all seen the criticism that we didn’t make a big splash in free agency. But that view overlooks the way our organization has evolved. We’ve had a 42% turnover from last season’s opening night roster to this year’s. I was sorry to see some of those players go, but the changes we have made have been sound, informed decisions from a hockey standpoint.
Our young players are taking on bigger and bigger roles. After 22 games with the Caps and a Calder Cup championship in Hershey, Mike Green
appears ready to bring his talents to Washington full-time, and we think he’ll be a good one for a long time. Kris Beech, Jakub Klepis and Boyd Gordon – also Calder Cup winners – impressed in camp, and they’ll have the opportunity to play important minutes early on.
Even more significant than the arrival of these players, however, is the growth of guys we threw into the fire a year ago. Shaone Morrisonn was highly regarded before last season began, but untested. Now we know what he can do – and so do opposing teams’ top forwards, who have to face him every night. Brooks Laich
started the year in Hershey, played 73 games for the Caps before returning to the Bears and helping them win the AHL championship. Matt Pettinger and Brian Sutherby are similar stories, players who were a little bit unknown, but produced career highs on offense.
That’s not to say we didn’t make additions this summer – as you can tell by our roster turnover, we certainly did. A couple of the most exciting ones are returnees in Alexander Semin
and Richard Zednik. Anyone around for the ’98 playoff run knows about Zed’s propensity to score big goals. Meanwhile, Semin seems to have the puck on a string. He’s a bigger, more poised player than when we last saw him. Those two will add a lot of offense.
Defenseman Brian Pothier is another addition who figures to help us offensively – not to mention on the penalty kill. Simply put, he’s going to play a lot. Brian’s smooth skating and smart decisions remind me a bit of Calle Johansson, which is a big compliment in these parts.
How could we talk about additions without mentioning Donald Brashear? He’s a fascinating person – soft spoken off the ice, almost to the point where you have to strain to hear him. But if he speaks softly, as the saying goes, he carries a big stick – and the rest of the league knows it.
Since we made calculated, strategic additions, we think we found players who will fit well within the new NHL, our system and most importantly our locker room. We’ve also maintained our flexibility under the salary cap. I’m, quite frankly, surprised to see so many teams dancing near the cap as the season opens in Year 2 of the new NHL. Some already have been forced to do some creative juggling just to get a team on the ice. Others had to say goodbye to good players just because they were due for a raise. We feel strongly that our flexibility under the cap will help in the long run, whether it allows us to add an important piece to the puzzle or simply keep the most important pieces from falling off the table. As we have stressed, we want our core players to grow up together, but we also must be prepared to pay them when they grow up. After their entry-level contracts expire, we need to be financially positioned to keep them. We want to ensure we have the ability to make the best possible hockey decision.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few more of our returning players, especially the ones who have done so much to create the culture in our locker room. These guys will do anything for one another, and there’s no better example of that than Ben Clymer. We signed Ben to a three-year deal after he put up career numbers at right wing last year, then asked him to move back to defense, where he played when he broke into the league. Not only was he happy to do it, but he’s also been outstanding, leading our team in scoring in the preseason. Others who helped mold the locker room atmosphere were Matt Bradley, Steve Eminger, Jamie Heward, Brian Muir – all of whom played 60-plus games for us last year – and Rico Fata. Not many of our players had a better post-Olympic performance than goalie Brent Johnson, who’s a perfect complement to Olie Kolzig.
Dainius Zubrus has come back this year as more of a leader than ever. A year ago we were marveling at his ability and willingness to help make Alex Ovechkin
comfortable in his new surroundings, and now Dainius is doing some of the same for Alexander Semin
. Plus, Dainius was a point-per-game player for the second half of last season, which would be a remarkable pace if he can pick up where he left off.
Dainius and Alex go hand-in-hand, and you can count me as one of the millions of hockey fans who can’t wait to see what Alex does for an encore. He strikes me as more confident – more sure of himself – this year, but still the energetic, fun-loving kid we got to know last season. There are a lot of expectations on Alex, and I hope people don’t panic if he goes a couple games without a goal. I’ve got a hunch we won’t see many stretches like that.
That brings me to the leaders in our locker room – Chris Clark and Olie Kolzig. In many ways, they are opposites: one is the forward from Connecticut who joined us just last year. The other, a goalie from Canada, by way of Germany and South Africa, who has been with the organization for more than half its existence. But they are consistent in their dedication to the game, their quiet leadership and their devotion to their teammates. They are perfect representatives of what we want the Washington Capitals to be.
Ultimately, we want the Capitals to be a team that competes for the Cup, year-in and year-out. To do that, you need quality people as well as quality players. That’s been a focus for George McPhee and his staff, and when you spend a little time around our players, it’s abundantly clear. Their loyalty to each other and the Washington, D.C., community is impressive. You can see that at events like our recent charity golf tournament or just by visiting practices at the Ashburn Ice House.
Any mention of Ashburn is sure to bring up questions about our new facility in Ballston, so let me give you an update on where we stand. The new Capitals Ice Center is truly going to be one of the best training and practice facilities in the country. If everything goes as planned, we hope to open our doors in early November. As you know, I’m a firm believer in creating various touchpoints for our fans, and our Ballston facility – with easy access via Rt. 66 and Metro – is central to our mission. Practices will continue to be open to the public and free of charge. We hope you come to the rink, enjoy the Ballston Commons Mall and explore Arlington’s various offerings.
One thing we expect Ballston to do for us is to generate more media coverage of the Capitals. I think we have made some strides, especially nationally – Alex Ovechkin
was the focal point of NHL preview articles in Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, USA Today and The Hockey News. But in general we still struggle, at least somewhat, with local coverage. There are a number of reasons for this, and we’ve all heard them – it’s a Redskins town, it’s a transient town, it’s not a hockey town. There are flaws to each of these theories, but it’s the last one that I take the most exception to. Washington is much more of a hockey town than people give it credit for – a quick look at my inbox shows that. Kids throughout our area are playing hockey; they (and their parents, usually) love their Caps. USA Hockey figures show a 97% increase in area youth hockey participation between 1995-96 and 2005-06.
And I think we are beginning to make headway as it relates to local media coverage. We had a great turnout at our media day earlier this week (50 people representing 20 media outlets), and Alex will be the cover story of an upcoming edition of the Washington Post Sunday Magazine. A dynamic presence like Alex helps, of course, and as we improve, the coverage will naturally get better. We’re also counting on the increased commitment of our broadcast partners. Comcast SportsNet
and WTEM SportsTalk 980
broadcast our games, and both have made it clear that they will devote increased resources to Capitals coverage. For example, Comcast did an outstanding “behind-the-scenes” show recently in which Al Koken followed George McPhee and his staff at the NHL draft. Al was the only member of the Washington media in Vancouver that weekend, and got some great stuff – I hope you had a chance to see it. SportsNet also is exploring a special Hockey Night in Washington presentation and hopes to rollout some interesting in-game elements. SportsTalk will employ a new pregame show and carry weekly interviews on the Brian Mitchell and John Thompson shows as well as cross promoting the Caps on its FM sister stations.
In addition to the support we receive from CSN and ST980, we will use a combination of traditional and nontraditional media to promote the team. We will continue to be seen and heard in traditional outlets, such as the Washington Post, Washington Times, Express, Examiner, City Paper, Washington Business Journal, Roll Call, the New York Times locally and Yellow Book. On the radio side, we relied heavily on the research we conducted last year and have targeted stations and formats that were identified by our fans, such as DC101, SportsTalk 980, Big 100, Classic Rock 94.7, Mix 107.3 and Hot 99.5. From a cable television perspective, we will continue with our great Comcast SportsNet partnership, but we’ll also utilize local spots on ESPN and ESPN2. This year we also will have an outdoor advertising presence, primarily bus backs and Metro posters and banners. We continue to be active online with washingtonpost.com and used its database for email blasts. I’d also like to thank the Greater Washington Sports Alliance, who has sent an opening night promotional flyer to its constituency.
During the summer we had an interesting and unique cross-promotional relationship with the Washington Nationals and Mark Lerner, one of my friends and partners in Lincoln Holdings. The Nats even invited our players to batting practice, where Jamie Heward hit a home run. Later Alex threw out the first pitch, and our guys stuck around on the concourse to sign autographs for more than an hour. Thanks Mark, and when we reciprocate, I can’t wait to see how the Nats players skate. (QuickTime 7 Video Link
I also want to thank all those who organized and recently participated in our Caps Care Classic golf tournament. Every year we seem to raise the fund-raising bar a little higher, and this year’s contributions approached $240,000 with proceeds benefiting Children’s National Medical Center, Athletes Against Autism and Caps Charities. And who would have believed that Alex, who has never played a round of golf in his life, would get a hole in one. Checkout WashingtonCaps.com for highlights. (QuickTime 7 Video Link
I know many of you go to WashingtonCaps.com for your hockey news. In addition to Mike Vogel’s editorial, hopefully you have seen
his new blog, Dump and Chase
, as well as mine, Ted’s Take
. We certainly understand the importance blogging plays in today’s world of new media and have worked with bloggers and the NHL in developing media credential guidelines aimed at embracing the bloggersphere.
We’ve also invested in our business infrastructure, hiring Mike Humes as chief sales officer and Tim McDermott as chief marketing officer. Mike comes to us after stints with the Seattle Supersonics and Columbus Blue Jackets, while Tim has worked in the NFL, most recently with the Philadelphia Eagles. So we will continue to grow our business and our fan base, and we also look to our valued plan holders as a fantastic resource to help introduce new fans to our game.
More than anything, of course, I hope you have a chance to see the Capitals sometime soon at Verizon Center. There were a lot of must-see moments last season, and as our team grows and improves, those will only increase. I hope you’ll join us for the excitement, and if you are attending Saturday night’s game, be prepared for an exciting, new opening night show as well as an entertaining game-opening video and a host of unique in-game features.
We are looking forward to picking up where we left off last year after the Olympic break – a team that played hard and was hard to play against – each and every night. We have leadership. We have quality players and quality young men. We have speed. We have grit. We have tremendous goaltending. And we have the most exciting player in the league.
Hope to see you opening night at Verizon Center.