By Mike Wise
Saturday, October 3, 2009
There is no more popular pro sports owner in Washington than Ted Leonsis today and, miracle of miracles, it has nothing to do with his competition.
He isn't embraced for his blow-kisses-to-the-crowd showmanship. Or because he spent his money wisely -- though that has helped.
Leonsis is not unanimously liked because he lucked into the most thrill-seeking hockey player in two decades and presided over a playoff team the past two years -- both of which the chairman and majority owner of the Washington Capitals did.
It's simpler than that.
In somewhat of a novel concept four years ago, Ted Leonsis told the truth.
He didn't sell hope. He sold hell, telling an angry and dwindling fan base that the Caps needed to be really bad before they got very good again. Season ticket holders found out, in fact, in a brutally honest letter written by Leonsis.
"Of course it was a gamble, because we had a team with brand-name players that fans thought they loved but in hindsight were just familiar to them," Leonsis said. "I said, 'You're going to hate this plan. This is a very hard message for you to internalize. But if you are patient with us, this is the only way we're going to compete for the Cup.' "
Risking losing even his loyalists by waving the white flag, he directly communicated "rebuild" instead of "reload," trotting out an on-the-cheap outfit for two years while promising eventual rewards from the draft and farm system.
The pain was quickly felt.
Post-NHL lockout, attendance tanked; fewer fans went to Caps games in 2005-06 than 27 other NHL teams.
"It was bad," sixth-year forward Brooks Laich said. "We would look up in the stands and the running joke with the players and coaches used to be, 'Hey, It's Dress Like A Seat Night.' "
At the time, Leonsis asked ask himself a tough question: "If your deliverable is to win a championship, do you think you have the system, culture and talent to deliver that?"
When "no" kept coming back, Leonsis and George McPhee, the team's general manager, combined to rebuild the team, the scouting staff, the facilities, the Caps' relationship with Hershey -- once again the team's top minor league affiliate -- and revamp the system, in which a trapping defensive unit suddenly morphed into an aesthetically pleasing offensive machine.
The game does not feel like work at the speed Bruce Boudreau coaches it; it feels like a bunch of souped-up Ferraris flying across a frozen pond -- colliding, sometimes skidding out of control, yet all of them somehow taking their places in original, sublime choreography.
Three and four years after those minuscule turnouts and those depressing, back-to-back 70-point seasons, Alex Ovechkin might score 70 goals by himself this season.
Ovie is the most talented player in the world. Mike Green is arguably the best defenseman in the league because he is so good offensively. Nicklas Backstrom has yet to miss a game and is on his way to being an NHL star, followed by an enigmatic Russian player who might be more skilled than all of them; yes, Alexander Semin is that good. He left a brilliant drop pass for Ovechkin in the second period of the Capitals' season-opening victory in Boston on Thursday night.
Did we mention the Bruins, outplayed badly, had the best record in the Eastern Conference last season?
The franchise Leonsis purposely cratered in 2005 is now among a handful predicted to win the Cup.
In a sold-out arena visiting players now find decibel-splitting and difficult to play in, the Goateed One can peruse the red-clad stands of Verizon Center, hear the throaty roar and know he delivered on the promise of hitting rock bottom before a genuine climb to the pinnacle began anew.
He kept his pledge to his fans and to his players, including Laich, Ovechkin, Matt Bradley and Chris Clark.
"That was one of the promises: If we can build through the draft and trade for young prospects, we would wake up and have a young and very good team that I expect could contend over the arc of 10 seasons," Leonsis said. "The idea was that if you're in the playoffs year after year, one of those seasons you will get home and win a Stanley Cup."
After tussling seven games in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs with the eventual champions -- featuring Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the only players who can prevent Ovechkin from retiring as the greatest player of his generation -- the bar has been raised.
Indicative of how far they have come, not one Capitals player watched the Penguins raise Lord Stanley and had a "good-for-them" moment after Pittsburgh stunningly won on the road in Game 7 against the heavily favored Detroit Red Wings.
"I felt sick to my stomach," David Steckel said.
"Just turned off the TV," Clark said. "I think I wanted to throw something."
"Yeah, that wasn't good for any of us," Laich said.
Asked if a part of him felt happy for the Penguins, Boudreau said, "No" before the question was finished. "Not one part. Not my toe. Not the three hairs I have on my head.
"I had five texts from guys right after the game because it could have been," he added. "I don't know if we would've gotten by Carolina, but the potential if you're dreaming would have been there."
The point is, it's possible now, where four years ago it felt like a cash-strapped tycoon was running the team instead of a patient, forward-thinking owner.
"It is very sobering and painful when you look in the mirror and don't like what you see," Leonsis said. "It's easier to go down the 'We're-one-player-away' path. I've been there when I brought in Jaromir Jagr.
"But when you come to that clarity, 'Can this team win a championship?' And if your answer is, 'No,' then you have to do something."
Like tell the truth.
"I've known Ted now for five, six years now and I've never heard him tell a lie," Laich said. "He's a very up-front guy and a humble guy."
In a building now among the NHL's loudest arenas, home of the hottest sports ticket in town Saturday night and maybe the most valuable team-sport athlete in North America, Ted Leonsis also looks amazingly prescient.