Abe Pollin, the original owner of the Washington Capitals
and the builder of the Verizon Center, died Tuesday at age 85.
"Abe Pollin was a phenomenal person, a great man," said Milt Schmidt
, the first general manager and coach of the Capitals. "He was not only good to me but good to everyone he met. In 18 months of working for him, he never said a cross word."
Pollin's death was announced by his company, Washington Sports & Entertainment. Pollin, the NBA's longest-tenured owner, suffered from a rare brain disorder that impairs movement and balance. He had heart bypass surgery in 2005, six years after he sold the Capitals to current owner Ted Leonsis.
"We are all saddened by the news of Mr. Pollin's passing," Leonsis said. "We extend our deepest sympathies to Irene, Robert, Jimmy, the rest of the Pollin family and his many friends and join them, and all of Washington, in mourning a great man."
Pollin tried to run his pro sports teams like a family business. He bemoaned the runaway salaries of free agency and said it would have been difficult for him to keep the NBA's Washington Wizards if it weren't for the league's salary cap.
His Washington-area sports empire began when he purchased the Baltimore Bullets in 1964. He moved the Bullets to a new arena, the Capital Centre, he built in Landover, Md., northeast of Washington, in 1973. The Bullets, since renamed the Wizards, won the 1978 NBA title, defeating the Seattle SuperSonics, who defeated the Bullets in the final the next year.
After building the state-of-the-art Capital Centre, Pollin sought an NHL expansion franchise in 1974 and beat out contenders in Baltimore, Cleveland, Phoenix, San Juan and Mexico City. But the 1974-75 Washington Capitals
were the worst team in NHL history, finishing with an 8-67-5 record. Their road record of 0-39-1 also set a record.
Schmidt said that was a result of the rules of the expansion draft -- rules he protested but Pollin urged him to accept.
"I had an argument with NHL President Clarence Campbell about the rule that barred us from sending players we drafted from NHL clubs to the minors," Schmidt said. "I told Abe I was just trying to do what was right for the organization. He listened to me and then said he'd meet with President Campbell.
"After the meeting, he said, 'Let's go along with President Campbell and he'll do right by us as we go along.' That's how he put it to me. He never said do this or do that. It was always, 'Let's discuss it.'
"I was parting company with the Boston Bruins
, the Capitals had just been awarded their franchise and Boston Celtics General Manager "Red" Auerbach recommended me to Abe. We interviewed and Abe gave me the job. I'm so sorry to hear he died," Schmidt said. "The world of sports will miss the man."
Concerned about rising violence in the nation's capital, Pollin renamed the Bullets as the "Wizards" in 1997.
"Our slogan used to be 'Faster than a speeding bullet,' but that is no longer appropriate," Pollin said. A fan contest to name the team produced the name "Wizards."
Pollin moved his NHL and NBA teams downtown in 1997 when Washington Sports & Entertainment opened the MCI Center, now the Verizon Center. Pollin spent $200 million of his own money on the project which, along with the adjacent Gallery Place, has vividly transformed a skid-row area near the nation's most important government buildings.
"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. He was a man of commitment and principle and we all will miss him," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "The National Hockey League family sends sincere condolences to his loved ones."
Abe and Irene Pollin were listed as owners of the Verizon Center and the Wizards. Pollin was chairman, CEO and majority shareholder of Washington Sports & Entertainment. He sold the Capitals to a group headed by Leonsis, a minority partner in the Wizards, in 1999, after his sons, Robert and James, told him they didn't wish to be involved in sports-franchise ownership.
"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," Leonsis said. "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.
"My partners and I were proud to work with him and his family during the last 10 years and we are committed to continuing his tradition of building exciting, championship-caliber teams."
A native of Philadelphia, Pollin graduated from George Washington University in 1945 and joined his family construction business, then opened his own construction firm in 1957. He was named to the George Washington University School of Business Sports Executives Hall of Fame in March.
Pollin was equally well-known in Washington for his philanthropy and community involvement. He was awarded the Duke Ziebert Capital Achievement Award for his downtown revitalization efforts. Mayor Adrian Fenty named Dec. 3, 2007, as "Abe Pollin Day" and renamed F Street between 6th and 7th Streets NW as "Abe Pollin Way."
Irene Pollin worked as a psychiatric social worker and lecturer at Harvard University. She was instrumental in setting up the Medical Crisis Center at Washington Hospital Center and other medical facilities in the Washington area.
Abe and Irene Pollin created the Pollin Prize for Pediatric Research at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Together, they received an extensive array of awards from the medical community.
The Associated Press and staff writer John McGourty contributed to this story.