“For so many years, you’ve always said, ‘Well, there’s always next year,’” Leonsis said. “Well, it’s now next year, and it’ll be different for the guys.”
The Capitals intend to keep the party going by repeating as champions this season, and they kicked that bid off with a 7-0 win over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night. Before the game, Leonsis sat down with The Washington Post for 30 minutes to reflect on Ovechkin and fellow longtime star Nicklas Backstrom and address whether the team will visit the White House as part of the tradition to celebrate a title.
What follows is a Q&A with Leonsis, edited for clarity and length.
Q: At the championship ring ceremony, Ovechkin’s wife took this video of him hugging you and you putting your hand on top of his head. Can you describe your relationship with him and how it’s evolved over the years?
Leonsis: “There’s this misnomer — there are owners of teams who hang out with players, and I don’t. I respect the hierarchy. The most time I’ve ever spent with Alex was flying to and from the awards ceremony in Vegas last year, 5½ hours out and 5½ hours back. We’re reminiscing on things, and I said, ‘Alex, I admire you and care for you,’ because people don’t understand the integrity of him. It’s easy to just write stuff, but Alex never threatened to leave. He never told me to fire a coach. He never said, ‘This guys sucks, trade him.’ He never asked to be traded. He trusted me. Because he did, [Backstrom] said, ‘Well, if Alex is staying for 13 years, I’m signing a long-term deal.’
“I look at the Nationals right now, and this whole season was, ‘Is Bryce Harper staying or leaving?’ Bryce Harper should stay. Maybe he’ll get a little bit more money from someone else, but he should stay. He should see it through. This is where he’s grown up, the fans love him. And Alex, they didn’t threaten. It was, ‘No, we believe, and we want to stay.’ After that, I said, ‘Well, let’s do your first deal and then your second deal.’ He’s got three years left.
“I think what that hug was — [early in his career], he got dropped off at my house by [former Capitals general manager] George McPhee, who said, ‘I’ve been babysitting this kid, you take him.’ His mom was leaving, and I said, ‘Look, I know how hard this is. I promise I’ll take care of him like he’s a second son.’ And we hung out, and we were in the pool. I said, ‘The reason we were able to draft you is we were a really bad team, but I can tell you it’s by design. We’re not bad because we don’t know what we’re doing. We’re bad because we said, the only way we’re going to win a championship is to be able to draft and develop and retain. So this will be hard, but we’re in it together, and I’ll always be truthful to you.’
“I don’t even know if he understood everything I was saying, but he was asking lots of questions, and he saw the crowds started to come, and we built the training facility. We were training at Piney Orchard before. I’ll never forget [Ovechkin’s] very first practice. Olie [Kolzig] was our goaltender, and I had a nice relationship with Olie. He comes off the ice, and I wasn’t planning on talking about anything. [Kolzig] says, ‘That’s the greatest player I’ve ever played against.’ I said, ‘Olie, it’s his first practice.’ He said, ‘Ted, I’ve never faced a shot like that. That’s the heaviest shot and the most movement on a shot I’ve ever faced.’ First practice. It was that instant — the first practice. It’s just different.
“Well, Nick and Alex . . . those two really are our bedrock. They grew up together, and both of them had a really meaningful [Monday] night seeing their name on the Cup. It’s a very humbling thing. It really is. You just look at the other names on it. I’ve been a fan of the NHL for 55 years, and I grew up in Boston, in Lowell. My first vivid Stanley Cup memory is Bobby Orr scoring ‘The Goal.’ You read The Boston Globe, you watch the parade on TV, you watch the highlights over the years — the tape plays in your head. This year you start watching it, and the tape starts running, and you go, ‘That’s us!’ That’s not somebody else, I was there. It’s unbelievable.
“I think with that responsibility, you saw Alex and everyone came, and they go, ‘We want to win it again.’ Chicago was a great, great team, and they didn’t win it back-to-back. It’s hard to do.”
Q: Is it important to you that Ovechkin and Backstrom retire as Capitals?
Leonsis: “I always want what’s in our team’s best interests and their best interests. The thing that I know intuitively about Alex is that he will only play if he’s great. Alex is not going to be one of these players who, ‘I’m playing 11 minutes a game and I’m on the third line and I can get a power-play time.’ He just has too much pride.
“I think Alex right now is still one of the best players in the world. It’s ironic; if you ask people around the league who is our best player, I think people would say [center Evgeny] Kuznetsov, which is truly amazing that we have Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin and people would say Kuznetsov. So I go, ‘Why, when we won the Cup last year, were you surprised, if we have three, four, five world-class players and we’ve had the best record for the last decade?’ It wasn’t a surprise to me. It was a disappointment and a surprise when we weren’t winning.
“I think Alex and Nick, as long as they’re great and productive, they’ll want to play here and we’ll want them here. Both of them are Hall of Fame-quality players, and they’ve managed their life and their money well. I don’t think you’re going to see them out trying to chase the Cup. They’ve got the Cup, right? So, I think they’ll take care of themselves, and they can still play. But they’re not going to hang on. They’re just too good, and they’re just too respectful.”
Q: Switching gears a bit, do you think you guys will visit the White House as a team?
Leonsis: “Well, I think we’ve done a good job of not talking about, dwelling on it, thinking about it. And that was by design. There’s no manual on how to win a Stanley Cup. You have all of these things thrown in front of you. Oh, you won a Stanley Cup, well what do you do with the Cup? Oh, you need to have a parade. Oh, you have an offseason with a hard [salary] cap, so what are you going to do? We had an extra thing with our coach [resigning], and now we have a new coach, who says, ‘Can I have a little bit of time to figure out what I do as the head coach?’
“What I have said is, we’re in Washington, D.C., and the players and the coaching staff have to decide. I’m not going to influence, and if we go to the White House, I will go to the White House. But they haven’t made it to that conversation and a vote yet — and appropriately so. It’s like, why have to address that and get deep into that discussion when we’re putting up the banner? I’m sure at some point as the season gets started, there’ll be a team meeting, and they’ll talk about it and come out and tell us what to do.”
Q: Hockey players haven’t been as politically outspoken as players in some other professional sports, but on your team, Devante Smith-Pelly and Brett Connolly have already said they wouldn’t want to be part of a team visit to the White House. What do you make of professional athletes voicing their opinions in that way?
Leonsis: “I think the beauty and the power of hockey is that it is more team-oriented. To show you how team-oriented, when you come to Capital One Arena and you get off the elevator and you’re walking down the hallway to the locker room, the Wizards have all of these photos out of players dunking and there’s no photos going to the Caps’ room. Not one. And I said, ‘Let’s put some photos up.’ The only photo we would put up is the team photo with the Stanley Cup. So they’re considering if they should do that. …
“It’s just a different culture and outlook where team overcomes everything. You know, I admire all of these people for their individual voices, but they have to speak as a team on some of these things.”
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