A Feb. 19 Sports column misspelled the last name of former Washington Capitals player Steve Konowalchuk. (Published 02/20/04)
The story of this NHL season isn't what's happening on the ice, it's the preparation for the impending doom. And a primary case in point is the Washington Capitals. There's been a sale sign hanging sitting on the lawn since June; now the owner is holding the garage sale. Piece by piece he's selling them off. First it was Steve Konowalchuck, the captain, who was shipped off to Colorado for a fourth-line player and a prospect. Then it was Jaromir Jagr, though at least the deal that sent him to the Rangers brought a real player, Anson Carter, in return.
Yesterday it was Peter Bondra, sent to Ottawa for a player who will report to the minors and a second-round draft pick. That's it, that's what the Capitals are getting in return for the club's all-time leading goal scorer and a player who was as committed to being here and trying to win here as any player the sorry franchise has ever had. When you wake up tomorrow it might be Olaf Kolzig who'll be dealt for some kid you've never heard of, and then it'll be Sergei Gonchar. Robert Lang won't be around here long, will he? Maybe all of them, all the players anybody would pay to see, will be gone by the March 9 trading deadline.
The Capitals joke about it in the dressing room these days. Who's next to go? Of course, it's gallows humor. What else do you have when you're the third-worst team in your league and your best players are flying out the door. The team isn't going to the playoffs, which says there's no present. And Ted Leonsis' first five-year plan is clearly being replaced by a second five-year plan, which says there's no payoff in the immediate future. You know all those prospects the Capitals are trading for? Where are they going to develop next year when the NHL season is canceled?
As business goes, holding this fire sale is probably the smartest thing Leonsis can do. The franchise has been hemorrhaging money. The number we always hear is $30 million in losses this year. And even if you side with the players association, which says NHL owners are inflating their losses, and cut the number in half, it's still a huge chunk of money. And if the team stinks with a huge payroll, the only rational thing to do is make it so the team stinks with a smaller payroll.
But if you're a fan of this team you can -- and should -- scream your fool head off. It's unimaginable to me that anybody would want to pay full price to watch what the Capitals could turn into for the last weeks of this season. This wasn't the way it was supposed to be for Leonsis, who started his run here as the most fan-friendly owner imaginable. The last month has turned into a complete nightmare, from his beat-down of that young heckler at MCI Center to the trading of the glamorous Jagr to the dumping of the incredibly popular Bondra. There's nothing fan-friendly about the eyesore the Capitals have become, and if you don't believe me let's see the fan reaction tonight when the Devils visit.
There was no particular attachment to Jagr here because he was a complete disappointment from Day One. But there's a legitimate connection with Bondra because people saw him arrive here from Eastern Europe unable to speak English, saw him evolve into the kind of player who could score 30 goals or more in a season nine times, saw him average 50 goals during his three best seasons (1996, 1997, 1998). Probably, he's been the most consistently great player the franchise has had since Mike Gartner.
And the most endearing thing about Bondra is he didn't want to leave. When told he was going to Ottawa, Bondra cried. He wanted to see through this rebuilding process and make another run at a Stanley Cup appearance right here. He wanted to retire here. At least, given what he had done for the club, Leonsis didn't ship him to some sorry, no-account team like the Blackhawks or Blue Jackets. Bondra is going to a team -- the Senators are in a first-place tie in the Northeast -- that can win now. So perhaps he'll be rewarded there in a way that wasn't going to happen here while he could enjoy it.
But whenever this sale is over, folks here have to wonder about the future of the Capitals. See, this is the gloom that hangs over the NHL right now because of the work stoppage that's coming after this season because of owner-player differences over a new collective bargaining agreement. Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick, two of the smartest, most politically aware and economically savvy players in the NHL, are both union guys. But they've both told me in recent weeks it would not surprise them one bit, presuming a really long work stoppage, if the NHL has to come back with fewer than its present 30 teams -- something closer to 22 or 24. Give me one good reason the NHL shouldn't contract the entire Southeast Division, and don't tell me because Tampa Bay is having a good season. Tampa Bay is beating up on four chumps in Atlanta, Florida, Carolina and Washington.
Whenever the NHL does come back, presumably in a scaled-down form, who's to say Washington is a lock to have a team? What, Major League Baseball can do without us but the NHL can't?
If you bought tickets for this season, while the team was dreadful from the very start, at least you got to watch world-class players such as Jagr and Bondra. But the coach got fired, the captain was traded in the first few weeks of the season. And if any more assets are sold off, you have very expensive seats to sit in and wave goodbye to all the best players, to a season, and who knows how much more beyond that.