Friday, April 11, 2008

From zeros to heroes
Leonsis's rebuild pays off for Capitals

A year ago, almost to the day, I was sitting with Ted Leonsis in the Verizon Center's owner's suite, watching the final minutes of the Washington Capitals' 2006-07 season tick away.

That last game, a listless 2-0 loss to the Sabres, was a painful one. For one, Buffalo fans had packed the downtown D.C. rink to the brim, rooting their team to victory and the President's Trophy as hockey's top team.

On the Washington side, meanwhile, there wasn't much to root for. The Capitals were headed for just 28 wins on the season, the franchise's third-worst total in 25 years, and 27th spot in a 30-team league.

And on this Saturday afternoon last April, they were awful.

I knew they were awful. Leonsis knew they were awful. And the fans in the building, at least those wearing Capitals colours, knew it, too.

It was with that uncomfortable knowledge that we all watched the third period together.

I've only met Leonsis the once, but there were two things I realized right away: (a) this is one competitive guy and (b) I've just met the biggest Capitals fan in the world.

Even in a mean-nothing end of season game, you could see Leonsis wanted a win. He'd been an incredible success in new media — a giant, if you will — but in hockey, there was only failure, and it was all over the ice. It was in the seats and in the rafters and the media and elsewhere, and Leonsis hated it.

We talked about hockey, at least a little bit. I learned he's not all that much of a Crosby fan — "look at all those power-play points," he said when a graphic flashed on the scoreboard — Hart Trophy finalist or not.

"Penguin" is a dirty word in D.C.

But he loved chatting about the Capitals, his players, even the seemingly insignificant ones. John Erskine was a "monster" who had missed considerable time to injury. Chris Clark had had a cadaver's palette put into his face after a nasty puck to the mouth left him in need of a rebuild. Brian Sutherby suffered compartment syndrome in his hand. Milan Jurcina was a missing piece acquired near the deadline...

And on and on the stories went. Leonsis knew every tale behind every player, their strengths and weaknesses, where they'd been and where they were headed.

He was more optimistic than I was.

I remember thinking it funny that, when we talked about the media and new media, Leonsis said newspapers, where I make my living, were a dying industry. And here I was, wondering the same thing about hockey in Washington.

I called Leonsis shortly after my visit for a piece in The Hockey News. It was right in the thick of the NHL playoffs, but the Capitals owner was a little beside himself waiting for 2007-08 preparations to begin.

"How are things?" I asked.

"Slow," he said. "You know, when you’re not in the playoffs, you can’t really do anything until the season ends, so we’re just kinda sitting around and blogging away."

He also talked about his team, and while a lot of it sounded overly optimistic last spring, he was right in a lot of ways.

"We learned a lot about our team and we have a lot of young players who are now firmly established as a part of our core and they will continue to grow up together and only get better.

"This off-season we'll be adding to our team, first and foremost, one of our draft picks (Nicklas Backstrom). I also think we'll be looking for another centre and we need some help on defence and maybe another wing [the Caps eventually signed Michael Nylander, Tom Poti and Viktor Kozlov]. So when you look, if you have a core and you say you want to add another player that you drafted and then add three veteran players, that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do in a rebuild. You’re now plugging on top of the foundation either via trade or free agency new players — but your core is established.

"We’ve established a core for our team, so I’m hopeful we go into next season more mature, with more depth and with a young core that is maturing and that we can add to the team and compete for a playoff spot."

I asked if it had been frustrating watching the team struggle and rebuild without a winning season since 2002-03.

"No. It was much more frustrating to me having a veteran-laden team with lots of superstars and spending $57-million, losing $35-million a year and not making the playoffs. That was frustrating."

I also asked if there were any parallels between the way he was rebuilding the Capitals and the way he had helped AOL grow and reinvent itself.

"I do have confidence now that I know how to run start-ups and turnarounds, and the Caps were in turnaround [prelockout]," Leonsis said. "We weren’t achieving our goals. We had a team, on paper, that was very good and we were underachieving both on the ice and at the box office and we needed to fix that. The only way we could do that was by being a risk taker and saying 'what we’re doing isn’t working – let’s be honest with ourselves. We need to establish a new team identity and we need to have a core of players that grow up together and are battle tested together.'

"We were very fortunate to get Ovechkin in the draft, and Semin came over and he was a very young player and a top 10-12 goal scorer and will only get better and our young defencemen are starting to play ... they’re going to have their hard knocks but they’re good young players.

"There’s no shortcut for it."

Leonsis and I also talked about the fan base in Washington, and his interaction with them, something I witnessed in D.C. when he connected with the fans after the game. A big reason he has a blog and does things like respond to emails and post on message boards, he said, is a belief that even the owner needs to be more accessible.

Like the team on the ice, he was trying to grow a fan base in a market more than a few had written off.

"We need to be harder working and more innovative and more fan friendly," Leonsis said, referring to NHL ownership. "You need to establish an identity that’s separate and apart from what the team’s record is just that year. And we’re fortunate in that we’ve communicated.

"The fans were equally unhappy with our $57-million team not making the playoffs — [with us] blaming each other, having to fire coaches, you know they’d be mailing it in sometimes. Now, I believe the fans understand we are rebuilding because we want to win a Cup, and we couldn’t win a Cup with the team that we had. At the end of the day, that’s my clarifying thought — the core team that we had, while a good team, was not going to win a Cup. And it might have been better in wins and losses in the short term, but it was going to get older and less productive, and now we have a team that can be on an incline.

"We’re under the cap and we can add to [the roster], and we have hope that we can be very competitive and win the Cup. And that’s really why we did what we did and if given that opportunity again, I’d have to take that road because ultimately that’s what you’re trying to do as an owner is deliver a Cup to your fan base."

There's no Cup, not yet, but tonight the Capitals will play in their first postseason game in five years and there's more optimism surrounding the franchise than at any point in recent memory. This team may have been only two points from yet another playoff miss, but a series win over the Flyers would be Washington's first in a decade, and a sure sign that, yes, in fact, Leonsis's rebuild is working.

What a difference a year makes.

It's hard to believe.

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At 12:53 p.m., April 11, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

awesome story, you are good. hope he signs you up.

At 12:15 a.m., April 12, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article! I found it through Ted's blog and it's one of my favorites he's linked to. LET'S GO CAPS!!! --from a longtime Caps fan

At 7:09 p.m., April 12, 2008, Blogger Oiler Mag said...

Really good read, James. The Capitals story has even made the British national press -

Now that is progress!!


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