After 25 Years, Pollin Offers a Surprise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 1999; Page D1
The Washington Capitals' 1998-99 season began in spectacular fashion. Amid the haze of an indoor fireworks display, owner Abe Pollin and team captain Dale Hunter watched from center ice as the NHL's Eastern Conference championship banner was raised before a raucous, sellout crowd at MCI Center.
That October night, as the Capitals skated to a 1-0 victory over the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, it was impossible to imagine that in seven months the NHL playoffs would be a distant memory, Hunter would belong to the Colorado Avalanche and the Capitals no longer would belong to Pollin.
Pollin announced yesterday he had sold the Capitals, the NHL team he founded 25 years ago, to America Online executive Ted Leonsis. Leonsis and partners Jonathan Ledecky and Dick Patrick also bought a minority interest in the rest of Pollin's sports empire, which includes the NBA's Washington Wizards and MCI Center.
The news that one of Washington's best-known and well-liked corporate citizens was sharply curtailing his involvement in sports caught many off guard including Capitals Coach Ron Wilson, who met Leonsis for the first time yesterday afternoon.
And Wilson confessed to feeling a bit wistful about the passing of an era, as the Capitals' only owner stepped aside.
"I'm kind of sad," Wilson said, "because Mister Pollin is such a good guy and has made it possible for me to coach here."
Leonsis beamed as he was introduced by Pollin, and he paused to hug Pollin before stepping to the lectern before a room of reporters at MCI Center.
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, Leonsis described himself as a passionate fan of hockey and basketball. As the Capitals' owner, he pledged to put an entertaining product on the ice and move as quickly as possible toward delivering a Stanley Cup championship.
"We're doing this to win," Leonsis said. "We're doing this personally. We have really one goal, and that's to win."
Leonsis said he hoped to transfer some of his experience in a consumer-driven company to the hockey arena. He spoke of tearing down walls between players and the community, and of meeting personally with every Capitals season ticket holder.
"Building great businesses and building great brands is what I've done for a career," Leonsis said.
While Leonsis will continue his work at AOL, Patrick, who represents the Capitals at NHL Board of Governors meetings, will assume a more active, day-to-day role with the team.
"Dick is president and in charge of the Capitals," Leonsis said, grinning as if he had just won a Stanley Cup. "I'll be the fat guy in the owner's box, yelling and screaming."
As Leonsis looked forward to the Capitals' next 25 years, others reflected on the team's first 25 and on Pollin's nearly single-handed role in bringing hockey to Washington.
"He gave birth to the franchise and brought hockey to an area where there were a lot of doubters," Capitals General Manager George McPhee said. "It hasn't been easy keeping the team here. There are some people who wish he had done more; there are others who know that if it wasn't for him, it wouldn't be here."
Indeed, the early years were painful.
An expansion team, the Capitals won just eight games their first season, tallying a record of 8-67-5 in a 1974-75 season many would as soon forget. (The eight victories remains an NHL record for the fewest in a season in which teams played at least 70 games.)
It took nine seasons for the Capitals to produce a winning record. In 1982-83, they went 39-25-16 and lost their first playoff series, 3-1, to the New York Islanders.
Pollin's support never wavered.
"No matter what happened if we won a tough game or lost a tough game when Mr. Pollin came into the dressing room, all he would ever say is encouraging words," said former Capital Craig Laughlin, an analyst for the team's television broadcasts. "It was, 'Thank you for working so hard.' He was a one-of-a-kind owner.
"He always said we were a family, and it was like he was looking over our best interests. This was the guy and I can say this, because I know all the guys felt this that we wanted to win for."
Pollin's Capitals started paying dividends in the 1980s. They made 15 trips to the playoffs, but advanced beyond the first round just seven times.
Last season, however, they shed their reputation for folding in the postseason, advancing to their first Stanley Cup finals. And they did it as underdogs, behind upstart goaltender Olaf Kolzig and a gutsy offense that vanquished the game's best goalie, Buffalo's Dominik Hasek, to earn a date with the defending champion Detroit Red Wings.
Though swept by the Red Wings, 4-0, in the finals, the Capitals opened their 1998-99 campaign with their heads held high. They had not only won their first Eastern Conference title, but their stirring run through the playoffs had brought electricity to a Washington sports landscape that sorely lacked it.
But their fortunes fell quickly and without warning.
The team was vexed by injury and illness. Center Adam Oates missed two months with a groin injury. The edge seemed missing from Kolzig's game. And the offense failed to do its part too many times.
On March 23, the eve of the NHL's trading deadline, the Capitals dealt away Hunter, winger Joe Juneau and winger Craig Berube. Soon after, they were eliminated from postseason contention. And they finished with their worst record since the early 1980s, 31-45-6.
It is estimated that the Capitals lost $20 million this season. Looking to next season, it's doubtful they will sign any high-profile free agents. And it's possible their $33 million payroll may need to be cut.
On his first day as the Capitals' owner, Leonsis wouldn't tip his hand on that matter.
"I'm in a business where success and results matter," said Leonsis, president of AOL Interactive Properties Group. "We have a lot of wealthy people at AOL. The reason we're wealthy is we've built a lot of value. I'll pay as much as it takes to win, but I want value."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company