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.
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.
And last night was his reward as much as it was for those patient legions, who watched Alex Ovechkin fire a rocket that tied the game in the second period.
These Caps did it the old-fangled way, using a majority of players from their own system, watching Ovechkin, Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green mature into tremendous talent, talent that will last well beyond last night -- probably five years or more as the Caps prepare for more Cup runs. Leonsis saw Backstrom in the locker room after the game. "I said, 'You came in a month ago at 20 and now you're 25,' " Leonsis said. "This was one of those accelerated MBA programs, where you get your graduate degree in the summer -- because they played their guts out in so many meaningful games."
This was the first Game 7 spectacle hosted by the Capitals since the 1992 Pittsburgh series, won by the Penguins; the Wizards haven't played a Game 7 in the Washington area since 1979.
If it was great theater, it also was a grand testament to the patient gamble by Leonsis, who proved Washington could stomach a complete, three- to four-year remodeling of a franchise rather than buying someone's else star and expecting that player to give you credence and credibility.
This foundation was not just built on talent and long-term potential; it was built on character and, yes, characters.
For some reason I found myself referring to Chris Clark, the Capitals' injured right wing, as "Clarkie" the other day, as in, "What's Clarkie doing sitting up here in the press box?"
It didn't feel chummy or corny, of which it was probably both. It felt oddly natural, like my friend who walked up to Donald Brashear yesterday and said, "What's up, Brash?" as the Caps' enforcer winked at the notion of a virtual stranger knowing his nickname. Ovie the Kid. Olie the Elder. Greenie. Feds. Brooksie. And, yes, "Gabby," Bruce Boudreau, that chatterbox coach from Hershey, whose wry humor and spare honesty disarmed most anyone interested in his hockey team.
They let Washington into their world the past five months, into their clubhouse -- a grown-up bunch of Lil' Rascals, armed with sticks and pucks. They fell to a more focused Flyers team that taught them a good lesson about playoff hockey:
Hit first, shoot first and ask questions later, preferably during the offseason.
Bottom line about the series comes from an astute Flyers fan, who said: "When your team plays like a hockey team and not a bunch of figure skaters with padding, you win. Our fans and team didn't beat the Caps up. We made them men. You're welcome."
Down the road, the Caps will thank you, Philadelphia, from the bottom of their Game 7 hearts.
"I think we have a fan base that has hope and can dream," Leonsis said. "And that's really one of the deliverables as an owner. It's a day that we're sad we lost in front of an unbelievable crowd. But it's a day that kicks off some introspection on what we built and what we have to do to get better."
His last overtime experience may have ended like this, but the day after will be much different. Ovechkin and many of these playoff-maturing 20-somethings will be around for years to come, long after anyone remembers a power-play goal that brought this scintillating season to conclusion.
"I believe in what we've done," Leonsis said.
It's not over. It's just beginning.