It's Over, for Now

The Washington Post's Mike Wise takes you behind the scenes of the Capital's 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Mike Wise
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ted Leonsis said he had been here before, the sudden end to a season looming as the puck dropped after three periods. "I was thinking I wish we weren't going to overtime," the principal owner of the Washington Capitals said in his unwashed red mesh Capitals jersey, outside the locker room of the team he patiently remade over almost five years.

The Tampa Bay Lightning pierced his and the franchise's heart in 2003, exposing overpaid and under-performing skaters who made Leonsis eventually back up the truck and start over.

Last night, when the NHL's greatest player and his young and old linemates could not hold off a Philadelphia team full of gumption and grit in an amplified Verizon Center, Leonsis was in a much different place.

Let's not sugarcoat the end. The finality crushed more than 18,000 on hand instantly. The moment Joffrey Lupul's putback 6 minutes 6 seconds into the extra period slid past Cristobal Huet and catapulted Philly over Washington, a hush of disbelief went over the building.

It's over? It's over.

For now.

Looking back, this was not a night to see how far they could go. The evening a Game 7 came to Verizon Center, this was the night to see how far they have come -- the night to see a blueprint for bedlam, how an owner stuck to his stingy plan to gradually refurbish the Capitals and how it paid off amid the noise and applause at the end of a seven-game struggle that ended with the Flyers going to the second round.

"We are very young," Alexander Semin said through a Russian interpreter. "Everything was done -- the management did everything possible -- for the rebuild to be over."

On the night his team found its way into the Stanley Cup playoffs, after a season-ending run that was as grueling as it was galvanizing, Leonsis blew kisses from his suite to the fans, the red-clad legions who read the principal owner's blog with skepticism, his annual letters to ticket holders promising a good future but guaranteeing nothing in the present.

For three years and counting, he never once said, "Wait till next year," and falsely sold hope like so many literally in-the-red owners do in American sports. "Wait" became a complete sentence, no matter how much it might cost Leonsis at the gate, in television revenue and red-mesh jersey sales.

"I don't believe in quick fixes," said Leonsis, who once did, giving too much money and having too much belief in Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang and the ability to buy a Stanley Cup. "I tried that one before. . . . So there are no quick fixes."

Rich men, especially the in-crowd of the Internet generation -- and, Leonsis, the former vice chairman of America Online, was certainly that -- are used to getting what they want when they want it, patience be damned. But he checked himself, time and again, ensuring the rebuild and not impulsively falling for the idea of a reload, the way Daniel Snyder often did with his football team.

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