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Ten Years After

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Last Tuesday (May 12) marked the 10th anniversary of the day Ted Leonsis was announced as the new majority owner of the Washington Capitals. Just as those 10 years have been marked by their share of highs and lows, so were Monday and Wednesday, the days immediately preceding and following that anniversary.

On Monday, the Caps won their first overtime playoff game in more than eight years when David Steckel deflected a shot past Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The goal not only ended a streak of postseason overtime futility for the Capitals, but it also evened the best-of-seven series between the two teams and forced a deciding Game 7 back in Washington on Wednesday.

Game 7 was the 96th game the Caps played in 2008-09, and it might also have been the poorest. Ten terrible minutes of hockey – probably the worst 10 minutes the Caps have played consecutively in a couple of years – put Washington into a 4-0 hole by the third minute of the second period. That hole was one the Caps had no hope of digging out of against a team as good as the Penguins were in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

As the lights dim on another hockey season here in the District, that last anticlimactic game stands out, and it will for a while. That’s the nature of sports. But it shouldn’t. The Capitals moved forward in 2008-09 in so many ways, and there is still plenty of upside to that movement in the years ahead. It’s also worth looking back at how far the Caps have come in the 10 years since Leonsis took over the team’s majority ownership.

The 1998-99 Capitals suffered a team record 511 man games lost to injury and managed just 68 points a year after advancing to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in franchise history.

Less than a month after that season ended, word came out that Abe Pollin had sold the Capitals to a group headed by Leonsis. Pollin had owned the Caps for a quarter-century, and the team had just finished its first season in its new downtown D.C. home, then known as the MCI Center.

An article in the May 13, 1999, edition of The Wall Street Journal noted that Leonsis and Co. had agreed to pay more than $200 million for the Capitals and a minority interest in the NBA’s Washington Wizards and “other sports properties in the nation’s capital.”

The WSJ piece noted that later in that same month, the NFL was expected to approve the $800 million sale of the Washington Redskins to a group headed by 34-year-old advertising and communications executive Daniel Snyder.

“I’ve always loved sports, and this is a dream come true,” said Leonsis at the press conference to announce the transaction. “I went to [Pollin] and said, ‘However you feel comfortable, I’m yours. Tell me how you want to do this.’ And this is the deal he structured.”

After learning that his two sons were not interested in following in his footsteps as owners of the local sports franchises, Pollin opted to sell. Part of his motivation was making sure the Redskins’ sale fiasco would not happen with the Caps.

“First, we did not want a repeat of the mess the Redskins went through with their transaction,” said Pollin, referring to the difficulty the team had with its sale before Snyder stepped in. “These are precious assets, and we wanted to preserve them for the community.

“This franchise means an awful lot to me,” said Pollin in the May 13, 1999 issue of The Washington Times. “I gave birth to it. I nurtured it. I absolutely need to find the right person to tend this, and that person is Ted.”

History shows that Pollin made a wise choice.

As noted earlier, there were lots of ups and downs along the way. There was a bit of a learning curve. Leonsis urged Caps GM George McPhee to engineer a trade for Penguins star Jaromir Jagr, an ill-fated trade and subsequent contract extension that set the Caps back. But through it all, Leonsis has been up front and out front, for better or for worse.

Hinting at a new era of ownership accountability and accessibility, Leonsis, then an executive with AOL, noted that the Internet company would “have nothing to do with this professionally, except you can use it to email me.”

Leonsis also hinted at a brave new world for the local hockey team, which sometimes got lost in the shuffle as far as media coverage and fan interest in the D.C. area.

“I understand the power of marketing,” said Leonsis, “and we will do everything in our power to make Capitals hockey a real happening in this town.”

A decade later, it is plain to see the Capitals have come a long way off the ice. And with one of the game’s brightest stars in Alex Ovechkin and a solid core of young and exciting complementary players, the Caps are also well-positioned for future success on the ice.

The Caps set a franchise record for attendance and for sellouts in 2008-09, and the Verizon Center will be jammed to the rafters for all 41 regular-season home games next season, too. The Capitals’ high-energy style has captured the imagination of the local fan base, no easy feat in these recessionary times.

Washington has a nucleus of exciting and talented young players, led of course by Ovechkin. Ovechkin won a second straight Maurice Richard Trophy in 2008-09 and finished second in the race for the Art Ross Trophy. He is a finalist for the Hart Trophy and the Lester B. Pearson Award as well.

Recent first-rounders Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom and Simeon Varlamov have also had NHL success, and they helped the Caps win their first playoff series of the Leonsis era this spring, a come-from-behind triumph in the first round over the New York Rangers.

The Caps have traveled a long and interesting road to get to where they are now, with plenty of heartbreak and heart-pounding excitement along the way. Leonsis inherited a group of about 2,300 season ticket holders a decade ago, and the Caps have increased that number to the point where the rolls of season subscribers are being capped so that some individual game tickets will remain for sale.

“My first thought was, ‘How are we going to fill all these seats?’” said Leonsis, as Pollin guided him through a tour of the new downtown arena. “The heart of everything you do is the consumer. I want every player, coach and employee to think like a fan. I want [front office personnel] to understand the tickets are expensive. We have to give a lot of value. We’re very focused on putting a great and entertaining product on the ice and to do the right thing and do it in the right way as Mr. Pollin has. We’re very committed to bringing excellence to this organization.

“We’re very personally committed to the community and bringing this great city championships. You can’t go into any endeavor without wanting to be the best. We want to focus on building the Capitals into winners. The Caps have done quite well with 15 of [the past] 17 years in the playoffs, but they haven’t gotten through to the finish line.”

A decade and tens of thousands of emails from fans later, Leonsis and the Caps are still striving for that finish line, but they’re also poised as a perennial contender for the Stanley Cup for years to come.

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