Washington Capitals owners Ted Leonsis and Jon Ledecky walked into an empty MCI Center at 2:30 p.m. yesterday, nearly five hours before their team took the ice for the first time under their regime. They went around meeting as many employees as possible, brimming with anticipation for the preseason game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Leonsis was elated, eager to show off the new organ the team has purchased and on the lookout for several of the fans he has met while spending hours on the phone and reading e-mail. He probably could have introduced himself to every fan in the building and had time to catch most of the game, a 3-2 victory led by Sergei Gonchar's two goals, and two assists from Adam Oates, before an announced crowd of 10,782.
The new owners realize the huge task that is before them, particularly in terms of increasing attendance, but they remain optimistic. Leonsis hopes to have a theatrical game night presentation in place for the Oct. 9 regular season home opener, in addition to an aggressive advertising and marketing campaign that will put more fans in the seats.
"We sold about 10,000 tickets and there's about 8,500 people actually here," Leonsis said. "That's about 10 percent of what the Redskins get, but I'll take it. For a preseason game, I feel the attendance is high. And we had our best day in season ticket sales [yesterday], so we're feeling pretty good."
One notable fan, former Georgetown men's basketball coach John Thompson, accepted an invitation from Capitals Coach Ron Wilson to join him on the bench. Declan Bolger, Capitals senior vice president of business operations, was in the press box noting every detail, from the volume of the public address system to the size of props used in a trivia game.
General Manager George McPhee and his staff evaluated the on-ice product from a skybox and no doubt were pleased with what they saw.
The evening started ominously when the national anthem singer forgot the words after a couple of verses and had to start over after a long pause. But the night got better from there.
The Capitals, using a lineup of key veterans and raw teenagers, performed admirably, especially considering it was the preseason debut. A host of 1998 draft picks -- 18-year-olds Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, Charlie Stephens and Nolan Yonkman (who assisted on the game-winning goal) hardly looked out of place. All may have earned themselves another exhibition game.
"Our fans got a glimpse of what the future holds for us," Wilson said. Beech, the seventh overall pick in June, said he felt comfortable: "I surprised myself with how calm I was with the puck."
The twentysomething crowd also shined. Bulis, 21, set up the game's opening goal, displaying poise with the puck. He glided behind the net and threaded a pretty pass through the crease to Gonchar, 25, who sneaked into the slot, where he's most deadly. Gonchar's short-handed blast gave Washington the lead 4 minutes 33 seconds into the game.
"That's one of the plays we can use more this season," Gonchar said.
Valeri Zelepukin tied the game at 1 late in the first period. Gonchar responded with 1:42 remaining in the second period, one-timing a pass from Oates in the slot, catching the bouncing puck awkwardly from one knee. The Flyers equalized in the third period -- Sandy McCarthy scored with two Capitals in the penalty box -- but Peter Bondra put Washington ahead for good by tapping in a puck with about six minutes remaining.
And, best of all for the Capitals -- the league's most battered team least season -- no one got hurt.
"Pretty good night all around," Leonsis said. "So far we're ahead of where we expected to be. Everything's working great. Well, everything except the woman singing the national anthem."