The NHL Board of Governors voted unanimously today to approve America Online executive Ted Leonsis and partner Jonathan Ledecky as the new owners of the Washington Capitals.
The board also approved a rule change intended to ease restrictions on players in the goal crease, implemented a four-on-four format for overtime in regular season games, and decided that each team involved in a regular season overtime game will get at least one point in the standings.
The rule change restricts the video goal judge review and gives on-ice referees sole responsibility for determining whether the player in the crease interfered with the goaltender and affected the goal. Video goal judges will continue to review all other disputes that they had decided in the past, such as whether the puck crossed the goal line, whether it crossed the line before the goal was dislodged or time expired, and whether the puck was directed in by a high stick.
The change on players being in the crease had been under consideration well before the controversial ending to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, in which Brett Hull's winning overtime goal was allowed to stand although his foot was in the crease. NHL officials said the goal was good because Hull had possession of the puck before entering the crease, but the dispute highlighted the confusion and dissatisfaction over the rule.
"It was the absolute correct call," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said today. "The rule was absolutely correct we applied. What we're going to is better for the game and better for the fans. We're not going to use replay in terms of crease violations. We're leaving the crease to a judgment call."
In regular season overtime games, both teams will be awarded a point, and following a five-minute sudden-death overtime with four skaters per side -- instead of five on five -- a second point will be awarded if there is a winner. Previously, teams got two points for a win, one for a tie and none for a loss.
"We think from a fan's standpoint this is very exciting," Bettman said.
The board's 28-0 vote on the Capitals sale clears the path for Leonsis and Ledecky to assume ownership of the Capitals as soon as they close the deal with current owner Abe Pollin.
After being approved by the NHL, Leonsis and Ledecky were scheduled to meet Tuesday with an executive committee of the NBA that will decide whether the pair may purchase a minority share in the Wizards. They hope to have the outright purchase of the Capitals, as well as their limited investment in the Wizards and MCI Center complete by mid-July.
"We've been approved by the NHL, and now we get approved by the NBA, and then we go to closing, so we have each of these hurdles," said Leonsis, 42, who became a billionaire through his ownership of America Online stock. "Close to the closing, we'll have our hands full with the Capitals. We are in this for the long haul. We want to build a great organization."
The Capitals' sale price is around $85 million, according to sources. The entire investment, including their share of Pollin's holding company, Washington Sports and Entertainment, is estimated at between $150 million and $200 million. The sale was announced last month.
Dick Patrick, a minority shareholder who served as liaison between the two partners and the NHL, will be team president and run the day-to-day operations, which include dealing with General Manager George McPhee and Coach Ron Wilson.
"We have an unbelievable amount of confidence in Dick, George and Ron," Leonsis said. But he said they have a lot of work to market and "brand" the team, an area where Leonsis has some expertise, and turn them into a winner.
Two years ago, the Capitals' attendance was among the lowest in the league, with season-ticket sales reaching the 6,000 level. The Capitals reached their first Stanley Cup finals in 1998, but were swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
This season's NBA strike hurt even more because there was no cash flow from concessions and parking, and Pollin had invested his own money in MCI Center. The 75-year-old owner decided with his wife, Irene, several months ago to sell the hockey team.
Leonsis and Ledecky now have the formidable task of turning around the franchise.
"The first thing we have to do is listen and formulate a strategy and plan, and what we'll be doing sometime in July -- post closings -- is we'll have a briefing on `here is what our strategy and plans are,' " Leonsis said.
When asked about the Capitals' small season-ticket base compared with the rest of the league, Bettman acknowledged the Capitals have to work on marketing the team.
"I think the franchise has a bright future and they're going to work very hard to be sure the fan support is there," he said.
Pollin paid $6 million for an NHL expansion franchise in 1972, and the team's first season was in 1974.
"I gave birth to this 25 years ago," Pollin said. "I nurtured it. Obviously, there are some pangs in giving up something that you gave birth to."
Capitals Notes: The Capitals acquired the rights to center Jeff Nelson from the Nashville Predators in exchange for future considerations. Nelson, who had been traded to Nashville from Washington for future considerations in 1998, was signed to a two-year contract. . . .
The Capitals re-signed left wing James Black to a two-year contract. Black, 29, had 16 goals and 14 assists in 75 games last season after being acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in October.