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Owner Ted Leonsis worked for years to get Washington Capitals into NHL's Winter Classic

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; D03

PHILADELPHIA -- On Jan. 1, 2008, Ted Leonsis watched at home on television as the Buffalo Sabres got set to host the Pittsburgh Penguins in the inaugural Winter Classic. Snow was falling on the boisterous crowd that had packed Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo. Before the puck had even dropped, the owner decided he had to get his Washington Capitals into the NHL's outdoor showcase.

"I started e-mailing the commissioner five minutes before the game started and throughout the game," Leonsis recalled Thursday, "because I thought it was best thing I had seen the NHL do as a new event. It was perfect. I said to Gary Bettman, 'Whatever we need to do, we want to play in that game.'"

After three years of behind-the-scenes lobbying from their owner, the Capitals are set to play outdoors, not once, but twice, in coming years. Alex Ovechkin and his teammates will make their Winter Classic debut on New Year's Day against the Penguins at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, and then will return in either 2013 or 2014 against a yet-to-be-determined opponent. That game is expected to be played at a Washington- or Baltimore-area sports venue.

Leonsis said he expects the NHL to evaluate Nationals Park, FedEx Field as well as M&T Bank Stadium and Camden Yards in Baltimore as potential host venues.

"We've looked at the sites, we just haven't figured out which one we want to use yet," Bettman said. "We're going to have to decide if we want to be in a football stadium or a baseball stadium."

It's too early to call any of the arenas a leading candidate to host the game, Leonsis said, but the Capitals owner conceded that he would prefer for the game to be contested in the Washington area rather than Baltimore.

"It's not my call," Leonsis said. "It's a league and NBC endeavor."

Another advocate for a D.C. venue is Nationals President Stan Kasten, who confirmed his team is prepared to make a hard charge to put on the Winter Classic. That aggressive bid will be led by Mark Lerner, a minority owner of the Capitals whose family owns the Nationals. Kasten said the Nationals have already made a detailed presentation to the NHL, complete with schematics showing where the rink would be placed. Kasten also said officials from the league paid Nationals Park a visit earlier this year when Washington was being considered for the 2011 game.

"Let's face it, Nationals Park is the premier venue in the most important city in the world," Kasten said. "I can't imagine it being anywhere but Nationals Park."

Asked if Lerner's connection to both teams could facilitate a deal, Bettman said, "It certainly doesn't hurt."

While two games in the Winter Classic's four-year history have been held at baseball stadiums (Wrigley Field and Fenway Park), the NHL prefers football stadiums because they typically can accommodate more fans and boast better sightlines. Nationals Park, for example, seats about 42,000 fans for baseball while FedEx Field can accommodate nearly 92,000 for Redskins games.

Redskins spokesman Zack Bolno said the Redskins have had preliminary discussions with the NHL about hosting an outdoor game. "We feel that FedEx Field would be a great venue to host the Winter Classic," Bolno said.

The only venue that has been ruled out so far is the National Mall, Leonsis said. While the monuments would offer a picturesque backdrop, the logistics of erecting stands and a rink are not feasible.

"We need locker rooms," Leonsis said. "We need electricity. We need suites. It's a regular season game and points are at stake."

The National Mall could be used to showcase "hockey-themed" support events that will accompany the game, Leonsis said.

When the Capitals were edged out by the Philadelphia Flyers for this year's outdoor game in Boston, Leonsis was disappointed but undeterred. "I redoubled my efforts," he said.

In January the league tentatively decided to pit the game's two biggest stars -- Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby -- in their marquee regular season event. Just one catch: The Capitals had to travel to Pittsburgh because, in part, NHL officials did not want to make the Penguins play on the road for a second time. "I had empathy for that," Leonsis said.

General Manager George McPhee said the Capitals accepted the invitation to Heinz Field with the understanding that Washington would be awarded a game in the near future.

"That was part of our discussions," McPhee said, "that if we're going to go to [Pittsburgh] let's make sure we have one in Washington."

The work that goes into planning Washington's outdoor game won't begin in earnest for several months, if not longer. After a site has been determined, the league will finalize the Capitals' opponent. Former Patrick Division rivals such as the Flyers or New York Rangers would make the most sense, but with at least two Winter Classics to be contested before the game comes to Washington, it's not a priority for the league and discussions are not scheduled.

"Again, all the league has committed to us is that we're playing in Pittsburgh this year against Pittsburgh, and in the next two or three years they'll produce a game in Washington," Leonsis said before adding after a pause, "I think we'll be fantastic hosts."

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