After that January day a decade ago, one of the more memorable phone calls Ted Leonsis received was from then-NBA commissioner David Stern.
“Boy, you are going to live to regret this,” Leonsis recalled Stern saying. “I thought you were a smart guy, and that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals, had just signed superstar winger Alex Ovechkin to a 13-year, $124 million contract extension, a deal that’s not even possible in the NHL today because the collective bargaining agreement doesn’t allow contracts longer than eight years. Stern asked Leonsis how Ovechkin would stay motivated with that kind of guaranteed-contract security. Leonsis said he had faith in the franchise-changing player Washington drafted first overall in 2004.
“Time will tell,” Leonsis told Stern.
Ten years later, with a 32-year-old Ovechkin set to play in his 1,000th game Sunday night in Pittsburgh, he’s once again leading the league in goals with 45. He’s the Capitals’ top scorer with 83 points, poised to complete his most productive season since 2009-10, when he was 24. Since his arrival, Washington’s downtown arena has gone from mostly empty to consistently sold-out.
“Do I have any regrets? Yeah, my regret is it wasn’t a 15-year contract,” Leonsis said.
Ovechkin’s $9.538 million salary cap hit is the fourth-highest in the NHL, behind Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and Los Angeles’s Anze Kopitar. Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin and Dallas winger Jamie Benn both have contracts with average annual values of $9.5 million. Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban is the highest-paid blue-liner with a $9 million cap hit. Edmonton’s 21-year-old Connor McDavid will be the NHL’s highest-paid player starting next season, when he jumps to a $12.5 million cap hit after signing an eight-year, $100 million deal last summer.
Ovechkin’s 83 points are more than Kane (74) and Toews (52), who have matching $10.5 million cap hits. Kopitar has comparable production, with seven more points than Ovechkin, and he’s two years younger.
Since Ovechkin signed his 13-year deal, he has scored at least 50 goals five times and led the league in goal-scoring six times. He’s won the Hart Trophy, the NHL’s MVP award, twice since the start of the 2008-09 season. His presence ushered in the “Rock the Red” era in Washington, a re-brand for a fan base for whom the home attendance is ranked third in percentage to capacity this season, according to ESPN.com.
“I think [the contract] gives permission for the fans to say, ‘We deserve this, and he’s not going anywhere,’ ” Leonsis said. “That to me was the most important thing, that we were accustomed as a community — we weren’t a hockey market at the time — and it was always, ‘We’ll lose our best players.’ And when Alex said, ‘No, this is where I want to be, and I’ll make a long-term commitment,’ I think it really was the tipping point for the organization, for the fan base to say we’ve got something here and he’s delivered in every way.”
Nicklas Backstrom was at the season-ticket party in 2008 as Leonsis walked on stage and announced Ovechkin’s 13-year deal. “The whole building was just rocking,” Backstrom said. Two years later, Backstrom signed a 10-year extension that pays him $6.7 million per season, a bargain compared to what top centers get now.
“I’m happy about that today, that we got that secured,” Backstrom said. “I wanted to stay on the same team, too. Obviously, when Alex signed that 13-year deal, that opened up 10-year for me.”
Backstrom has two more seasons left on his deal after this one. Ovechkin has three more years left. The stain on a pair of otherwise sterling careers is that the duo has yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs. Washington is poised to win the Metropolitan Division for a third straight season. Asked about the possibility of the next contract for Ovechkin, Leonsis said, “It’s probably a little too early to start to worry about that.”
“I think Alex is just one of a kind. He can play for a long, long time. I think he also knows his place in history in that, if he takes cares of himself, which he has been — he looks great — he can play a lot of years in the league,” Leonsis said. “I’d love him to play here. He can move up in that pantheon of individual statistics. But we all know what we’re playing for is to win a championship, and I’m hoping we do it this year. I’m hoping we do it within his contract time.”
Said Ovechkin: “If I take that time back, I would sign for 16 years, if I would know the situation that happened. But I’m happy I signed 13 years, and I’m happy I’m staying here for three more years.”
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