Amid all the fine art and personal mementoes in Ted Leonsis’s corner office in Arlington — the clay bust by the great American sculptor Robert Berks, an art-deco piece of his wife, Lynn, courtesy of Peter Max — absolutely nothing competed for his time and attention like the sound of a new e-mail in his inbox the first three weeks after the Washington Capitals’ season ended abruptly in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last May.
Ka-choonk. Trade Alexander Semin Now!
Ka-choonk. Mike Green Has Got To Go.
Ka-choonk. If The GM, Coach Aren’t Fired and Most of the Players Are Still Here, I’m Giving Up My Season Tickets.
“There wasn’t a single player, or person in the organization — including Alex Ovechkin — that I was told not to trade,” Leonsis said, four months after another crushing end to a year of promise.
The owner’s voice trails off.
“Every one is a virtual GM,” he said, shaking his head.
It was 48 hours before a red-rocking 2011-12 season opener at Verizon Center and, no, Leonsis didn’t grant the zealots’ wishes and back up the truck.
He kept George McPhee, a general manager he inherited more than a decade ago and still the only one he’s ever had.
He kept Bruce Boudreau against many protestations from fans that Gabby was too much of a rumpled, likable good guy to truly capture the respect of his star players.
He held onto Semin and Green, the two main targets for some of the team’s laissez-faire play in April and May the past few years.
Why the loyalty from the man with the purse strings, who in theory should be more punitive than every fan? Leonsis is a dot-com gazillionaire, after all, a guy who made his money in new technology, who knew and once worked with Steve Jobs. Men of their ilk are supposed to delete nostalgia from their hard drives, no? They are proactive, forward-thinking, never ruled by sentimentality or emotion.
“I look at the data first, then I try to show empathy,” Leonsis said.
Regarding those who wanted a roster and front office overhaul, he added: “You say to them, ‘I feel the pain of an early playoff exit but let’s look at the body of work over the last four years.’ Is this on a team on its last legs? Or is it a team just coming into the meaty part of its best players’ careers?”
McPhee, he said, is still here because he successfully transformed one of the worst teams in the NHL to a perennial playoff team, “a team built to last because it’s so young,” Leonsis said.
“I felt with George I had to have his back because he was asked to execute a very radical strategy. He’s executed it very well. He’s gotten us to a point where we’ve got these unbelievable expectations placed on us.
“And, in fact, now I think the expectations are over the top. But George built a team that now has a track record, certainly over the last four years, that says we should have these expectations. So we have to live with those. He earned our respect and loyalty.”
Boudreau? “He’s had the best record for the first four years of any coach in NHL history. And the players really like him. But maybe more important in this day and age, they respect him — they respect his hockey knowledge. . . .
“Yes, we’ve only won two playoff series. So you have to weigh that. But he’s a good man, he’s been loyal to the organization and he did the work that turned us [from] one of the worst teams in the league to making the playoffs on the last day of the season” in 2008.
As for why Sasha and Greenie are still here: “Mike Green is a first-team all-star,” Leonsis said. “He’s grown up in the system. I really like and admire Mike Green. I think Mike Green can be a bedrock, great player in the NHL for another dozen years.
“Semin — unbelievable talent. Someone will say, ‘He’s terrible in the playoffs.’ You look at goals and points and you look at other great players. Go look at the first 34 playoff games of Pavel Datsyuk. And compare him and Semin. My bet is Semin is better in his first 34 playoff games. I’m sure there was someone saying, ‘Pavel Datsyuk will never amount to anything.’ And now he’s one of the best players in the world.”
Leonsis is saying he doesn’t give up on people easy — especially those whose promise and upside outweigh their flaws. Beyond five new players added to the nucleus of Ovechkin, Green, Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps have changed in ways not immediately seen.
Boudreau, for example, has a longer leash to take stronger disciplinary measures.
“The biggest change has gone from, ‘I really want to win’ to, ‘I don’t want to lose.’ If you were to ask me, I mean, I want to win. But I hate losing. I hate losing more than I love winning,” Leonsis said.
“All of that will start with Ovechkin. Because if Bruce sits him, takes away his minutes, puts him in different places on the power play — and Alex does it — then everyone else on the team has to do it.”
Is Ovi on board with this?
“Alex and I have talked,” Leonsis said. “Mike Green and I have had a conversation. We’re in it together. And they will do whatever is necessary to have a different outcome.”
As the only child in a Greek family, Leonsis acknowledges a measure of his loyalty stems from “ethnicity.”
“At the dinner table, you could critique, talk openly, swear — even fight. But once you left the dinner table and you were external, you were a family. You were tight.”
Now his hockey family leaves the cocoon of training camp to see if it can finally deliver on all that promise. With a few exceptions, the new team photo looks remarkably the same.
For better or worse, Ted Leonsis stood pat.