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Stanley Cup Final

Capitals owner basks in glow of first Stanley Cup championship

Washington 'so ready for a winner' after numerous disappointments, Leonsis says

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- Basking in the glow of the Washington Capitals winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 43-season history Thursday, owner Ted Leonsis kept bringing the conversation back to the city his team represents.

"I can't overstress how important delivering this to Washington, D.C. is," Leonsis said following the Cup-clinching 4-3 win against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. "Washington, D.C. gets a bad reputation, or a different reputation, and this is so good. There's nothing negative about this. It's only uplifting and I'm proud to have been able to do this for our community."

Before Thursday, Washington hadn't celebrated a major professional sports championship since the Redskins won the Super Bowl at the end of the 1991 NFL season. The Capitals were the first of the city's four major pro teams -- the Redskins, Nationals (MLB) and Wizards (NBA) -- to reach their league's final four since the Capitals made their only previous Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998.

 

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That season, they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. This time, they rebounded after losing 6-4 in Game 1 with four consecutive victories to win the best-of-7 series. They came back from down 3-2 entering the third period in Game 5 to finish off the Golden Knights.

Next up: a Stanley Cup parade and a summer of celebrations.

"It's going to be crazy," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "I can't wait to see pictures of how they celebrated when we won it."

Leonsis, 61, purchased the Capitals from Abe Pollin in 1999. His vision for the team and the city has been realized in the 13 seasons since Alex Ovechkin, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NHL Draft, joined the Capitals in 2005-06. It reached its pinnacle during the Stanley Cup run.

Free tickets to a Game 5 viewing party at Capital One Arena on Thursday sold out online in minutes. Thousands of fans not fortunate enough to get tickets filled the streets surrounding the arena to watch the game on large video screens.

Almost all of them were dressed in Capitals red.

"It's exactly what I envisioned," Leonsis said. "I knew our community was so ready for a winner and a good-news story. We honestly did this for our fans. This first Stanley Cup was for our fans, for the love, the patience, the support they showed. I'm sure when time was running out, they were just going crazy, and I can't wait for the next week to be back home and just bask in the joy that everyone's feeling right now."

The road to the first championship since the Capitals entered the NHL in 1974 had more than a few bumps. The Capitals missed the playoffs in Ovechkin's first two seasons, then gradually improved, qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in six consecutive seasons. But they could not get past the second round.

After Washington missed the playoffs in 2013-14, Leonsis made the difficult decision to fire general manager George McPhee. Now GM of the first-year Golden Knights, McPhee spent 17 years with the Capitals and built most of the core of the Cup-winning team.

On May 27, 2014, the Capitals introduced Brian MacLellan as McPhee's replacement and Barry Trotz as their new coach. Together, they helped bring a championship to Washington.

"George McPhee is one of the historically great GMs," Leonsis said. "[It was] very hard to make a move there. Look at what he's built here. This is an unbelievable organization literally overnight. But Brian just took us to that next step. Barry's an unbelievable coach. They all have that ticket punched now, and I couldn't be happier for them."

Video: Hradek and Melrose discuss the Capitals' Cup victory

Leonsis took a risk when he signed Ovechkin to a 13-year, $124 million contract extension Jan. 10, 2008. It was the first $100 million contract in NHL history.

Leonsis recalled earlier this season getting at a phone call after the contract was announced from then-NBA commissioner David Stern.

"Boy, you are going to live to regret this," Leonsis said Stern told him.

Leonsis' response? "Time will tell."

It's worked out pretty well. The Capitals won the Stanley Cup, and Ovechkin, their captain, was voted the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs.

"He told me one day we're going to win, before my first year and before my first game," Ovechkin said. "We waited so long. We waited 13 years to get the Cup. It's something special."

The bond between Leonsis and Ovechkin was evident during the on-ice celebration Thursday. Ovechkin gave Leonsis such a powerful hug that he lifted him off the ice.

Ovechkin later brought the Cup to Leonsis so he could have his turn lifting it over his head.

"We have a very special relationship because we were pretty bad, and when I first met him I said, 'We're in this together, right?'" Leonsis said. "And he gave me a hug and I felt every step of the way that we're in it together, and I'm really proud of him."

Leonsis said he never lost faith that his vision of the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup would be realized. But he's not finished thinking big.

"I don't want us to be self-satisfied," Leonsis said. "We have a great team. We had a great mix of young players and vets. I'll enjoy it for a couple of days, and then I'll start to lose sleep over what we have to do to do it again next year."

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