Ovechkin turned out to be okay, returning to that first-round playoff game by the start of the next period. As a Caps fan, Abrutyn was as relieved as anyone else. As Ovechkin’s agent? Well, multiply that feeling by a few factors.
“I know how he’s been building for this moment, and to have it taken away would have been devastating,” Abrutyn said this week. “It certainly wasn’t a comfortable moment for anyone involved.”
And there are few people more intimately involved than Abrutyn, who pops up Zelig-like throughout the history of this franchise. He has represented Washington’s best player since late 2009, a few months after Ovechkin’s Caps met Sidney Crosby’s Penguins in the postseason for the first time. But that hardly begins to tell the story of his connections to the Capitals.
There was that first game in 1974. The NHL All-Star Game he attended at Capital Centre in 1982. The Easter Epic he sat through in 1987, a scarring experience for any fan who was in the building.
There was the time in November 1981 when he left the Capital Centre and saw throngs of fans waiting to buy Rolling Stones tickets. The team posters on his bedroom wall in Potomac, and the replica jerseys, and the Capitals t-shirt he once wore for a school photo. There was the teen-aged prospect named Kevin Hatcher who once moved in with family friends; when Hatcher’s girlfriend came to visit him from Canada, she stayed with the Abrutyns. The next season, the couple stayed for a time in the Abrutyn home, with young David getting to rouse Hatcher for practice.
And then, when he was a college junior studying marketing at the University of Hartford, there was the summer internship his father helped him land with the team, where he caught the attention of the front office.
“David just grabbed a hold of it. This was what he wanted. You knew that this was going to be his pursuit,” said Lew Strudler, now vice president of global partnerships for Monumental Sports, and an Abrutyn family friend. “He just was so aggressive. He was like a sponge; he just wanted to soak it all in. There was no project he didn’t want to work on.”
Strudler, who back then helped assemble the team’s home schedule, assigned Abrutyn a pre-internet project: tracking how NHL teams performed when they were “fresh” or “tired.” Abrutyn still has the hand-written results of his research, which Strudler and then-GM David Poile attempted to use to the team’s advantage while putting together the next year’s slate.
When he went back to school, Abrutyn did a marketing research independent study that involved surveying Caps fans at home games. He still has that, too, with its questions about preferred payment methods and the Cap Centre’s “Magic Message Board” and what type of music fans enjoyed and how they rated announcers such as Craig Laughlin and Al Koken. After he graduated, Strudler offered him a job working in “the bullpen” in Landover, selling tickets. Not a bad first gig.
“It was like, ‘I can get paid to come to work every day, here? At the Capital Centre?’ ” he remembered thinking. “This would be the greatest thing in the world!”
In his new job, Abrutyn worked the concourse during home games, introducing magnetic displays to try to make season tickets look more appealing. He worked the phones during road games — he still rattles off the “202-432-SEAT” phone number — and he was staffing the Cap Centre offices that day in 1993 when Dale Hunter leveled Pierre Turgeon with the most infamous cheap shot in franchise history. He made dozens and dozens of phone calls a day, started selling club seats in his second season and told Strudler that working in sports “was going to be his life dream.”
It wouldn’t happen with the franchise, though. He left the Caps after about two years to become one of the original employees and an associate publisher at Sports Business Daily, and found his way back to hockey with a corporate marketing job at the NHL. That put him inside the MCI Center in the spring of 1998, in a private room with the Stanley Cup, a few moments before the Detroit Red Wings celebrated on Washington’s home ice.
The next year, he left the league and joined IMG, the global marketing heavyweight. Abrutyn’s focus was on corporate consulting, and he eventually led IMG Consulting, directing more than 150 executives in 13 countries. About a decade into his tenure, Ovechkin’s people reached out to see if IMG might be interested in representing the flashiest name in hockey.
With his roots both in the sport and in Washington, Abrutyn was included in internal discussions about a potential first NHL client. Hockey players don’t often have the reach of typical IMG clients — think Tiger Woods, Pete Sampras and the Manning brothers — but Abrutyn argued that Ovechkin was different.
“I really thought that because of the way he played and what his personality was, that he really was an iconic athlete with name recognition,” Abrutyn said. “You needed to separate him as quickly as you could from that narrow universe, and start to do things that would associate him in the same way people think about other transformational athletes.”
“Sounds good,” he was told. “Write it up.” So Abrutyn wound up leading IMG’s presentation to Ovechkin’s family, and meeting with them at an Arlington hotel and a local hibachi joint, and before long he was representing his favorite team’s franchise player in all his off-ice marketing and business ventures. For a kid from Montgomery County who grew up enthralled with Washington hockey, this was pretty close to the dream.
“You sort of sometimes have to pinch yourself, right?” he said. “Like, is this really happening?”
“It put a huge smile on my face to realize how far he had come, as a kid coming in to intern, to now representing the top player in the NHL,” said Strudler, the Monumental executive. “I thought that was phenomenal.”
And so for a decade, Abrutyn has worked alongside Ovechkin as he has cemented himself as one of the best pro athletes in D.C. history. They’ve gone to commercial shoots in Washington and New York, in London and Moscow. They flew across the world in the middle of the night so Ovechkin could carry the Olympic flame before the Sochi Games. Abrutyn’s helped a foreign player who started out working with Eastern Motors and Hair Cuttery land deals with Nike, Bauer, Beats by Dre, Fanatics, Coca-Cola, Upper Deck, Gillette, Kraft Canada, Capital One Bank, Verizon Wireless and others. When Abrutyn left IMG in 2015 and helped launch Bruin Sports Capital — a global sports investment firm — Ovechkin went with him.
His agent has watched Ovechkin pile up individual milestones no Caps player has ever reached, and he’s lived through the same playoff heartbreak Caps fans have endured for more than 40 years. The perspective has changed, though, along with his proximity.
“Sometimes the losses now, when they happen, it’s almost harder,” he said. “Because you feel it more. Because it hurts more.”
But if he dearly wants playoff success for his client, he also still wants it for his hometown team, whose games he now watches with his two kids. He went to the Capitals’ first home game. His first job was with the franchise. He saw them lose the Stanley Cup. He still refers to them as “we.” And his career is intertwined with that of the team’s most important player.
“So when you’re part of all that, you sit back and go, ‘Wow, this is your job. How cool is that?’ ” Abrutyn said. “I mean, does it get any better? No. The only way it would get better is that parade down Constitution Avenue, where he does it — for the team and for the city and for the franchise.”
For one of its longest-tenured fans, too.