LAS VEGAS — Ted Leonsis stood on the ice at T-Mobile Arena, no one around him — a rare moment of quiet inside a dream come to life, between the completion of what had been a two-decade quest and riotous celebration. He had seen the photographs from back in Washington, of streets flooded with red, a city in total communion.
He held his right hand to his cheek. His eyes welled with tears.
“Nothing’s easy,” he thought. And then, after a beat, another thought: “What do I have to do next year to do it again?”
Leonsis bought the Washington Capitals in 1999. He believed in the civic purpose of a sports franchise, how it could weave a city tighter. But he also understood how tied to winning those ideals were.
“I’ve always believed nothing brings a city closer together than a winning sports team,” Leonsis said. Washington came together for the Capitals, but it also suffered collective anguish after annual early playoff exits. Leonsis once said he knew he would be considered a “failure” if the Capitals never won the Stanley Cup. He felt the same sting his fan base felt, over and over, layered with responsibility.
“It makes it taste better,” Leonsis said Thursday night, standing on the ice after the Capitals’ clinching Game 5 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights. “It’s much, much sweeter to go through all of the pain and suffering to get to the top of the mountain. That’s the way life is. That’s the way great businesses get built. It’s never easy.”
Since Leonsis took ownership of the Capitals from Abe Pollin, he has grown enmeshed in the city’s fabric, an ever-present driver — and cheerleader — of Washington’s sporting fate. He is compulsively connected to fans and sometimes, in his deference to patience and loyalty, detached from their sentiments. He made hubristic statements about never missing the playoffs and winning multiple Stanley Cups. The majority owner of the Wizards since 2010, he once declared Andray Blatche and Jordan Crawford part of the team’s “new big three.” He sits next to the Wizards’ bench, hollering at officials and encouraging players. He wears a Capitals jersey in his suite.
With Redskins owner Daniel Snyder increasingly removed from the public eye, Leonsis has become the dean of sports executives in Washington. His Monumental Sports portfolio has become an empire, a massive influence on nearly every sector of the city’s sports scene.
Monumental partially owns NBC Sports Washington, which gives Leonsis a platform to make an imprint on local media — a favorite target of his complaints early in his ownership. The new basketball complex he opened in Southeast Washington may help revitalize the neighborhood. Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner, who became a minority Capitals owner in 2004, called Leonsis “a dear friend and a terrific mentor to me” and “truly a visionary — a man with big ideas and the patience and fortitude to accomplish anything he sets his mind to.”
Leonsis, 61, had turned the Capitals, by many measures, into a raging success well before this past week. Their sellout streak passed 400 games this year. They made the playoffs in 10 of the past 11 seasons. They have three times since 2010 won the Presidents’ Trophy for racking up the most points during the regular season. But they never won the Stanley Cup, and those successes made the failures feel weightier.
“It’s similar to the entrepreneurial journey he’s had,” said Steve Case, the AOL co-founder and Leonsis’s longtime friend and business partner. “There’s occasionally overnight successes in the start-up world. Usually they’re long journeys with lots of ups and downs. That was the case with Ted and I and our team at AOL. It was a struggle.”
“Never lost confidence in the group and the core,” Leonsis said. “To be honest, I never lost confidence in myself and our leadership group. I just think if you attack things with integrity and you have stick-with-it-ness, then good things will happen.”
But there was only so much solace to take in building. The wins and losses in sports are visceral and final. In entrepreneurial pursuits, a slow sales month is not accompanied by another company celebrating in your lobby, and it is followed by another month, rather than a long offseason of customers debating your mistakes and your future on talk radio. If you lose money, you do not feel as if you let down an entire city.
“Any of us who own businesses feel a responsibility to win, whatever business we’re in. You want to do the best job you can,” Seth Hurwitz, Leonsis’s friend and the owner of 9:30 Club, the Anthem and other local concert venues, said before Game 5. “In sports, that’s measured by winning a championship. He knows how much joy it would bring people in the city, and I think that when we don’t [win], he feels like he’s let people down. Which, of course, he hasn’t.
“I don’t know if it wears on him what other people think,” Hurwitz added. “I know it wears on him personally, that he’s disappointed. The early exits have been really crushing. I know he’s sad about it. I think it’s more that, when people don’t think he’s sad about it or think he’s satisfied, it probably hurts him. He wants to deliver a championship for everyone here. He wants to make everyone happy.”
After the Capitals beat the Pittsburgh Penguins to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, Leonsis revealed a telling insight into his thinking. Asked about finally making it out of the second round of the playoffs, Leonsis said, while standing in the dressing room, “It’s almost embarrassing it’s taken this long for us to get past it.” It was a stark admission from an owner who rarely, if ever, expressed anything but positivity and confidence in his teams and his ability to guide them.
“I think when he bought the team, he expected, as any new owner would have, that the path to victory would have been shorter,” Case said.
Do you think? As the Capitals rose, Leonsis frequently made statements that, in the eyes of fans and NHL insiders, dripped with hubris. Case explained the mind-set as Leonsis’s expression of faith in what he was building, not dissimilar to the pair claiming in the early 1990s that all of America eventually would go online. It was not arrogance but belief in his long view.
“Alex [Ovechkin] and the Caps are going to win Stanley Cups,” Leonsis said in a 2010 radio interview. “We’re either going to win it this year or next year or the year after. We’re going to get better, too. That’s the thing: I promise the team will be better next year than it is this year.”
Before the Capitals had escaped the second round, Leonsis was casually guaranteeing multiple championships.
“The team will make the playoffs, as I promised, 10 to 15 years in a row,” Leonsis said in 2011. “There is a 10- to 15-year horizon.”
The Capitals missed the playoffs in 2014.
“I think now we are truly educated through experience,” said Leonsis’s wife, Lynn, while smiling. “It is definitely not easy. There is a lot of unpredictable variables. We totally respect the process. We totally respect — and love — the process.”
“Humbled is a strong word,” Capitals President Dick Patrick said. “I would say he’s just a little more seasoned in his view of things. We’ve seen how difficult and almost arbitrary it is to be standing at the end of the day with the Cup. They did have the potential to win multiple Cups. They had great players. It’s really hard to win the Stanley Cup.”
Humbled, indeed, may not be quite right. Asked whether he had been humbled over the years, Leonsis paused, gave a quizzical look and then started talking about what a wonderful experience winning had been. And then he said, “Our fans deserve to have this done again.”
José Andrés, the famed D.C. chef and a Wizards season ticket holder, has been close with Leonsis for years. “I love the man,” Andrés said. This past week, in response to a broad question about Leonsis’s demeanor as he homed in on the greatest prize of his career, Andrés rattled off a list of good deeds he had observed.
Andrés said Leonsis had donated money and set up connections to help his massive efforts in feeding people after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. “He would kill me if I talk about it,” he said, before talking about it. He told a story about how Leonsis met a homeless man outside Capital One Arena, offered him tickets and pressed Andrés to give him a job and teach him the food industry. When the man faltered, Leonsis persisted, wanting to help him without giving him a handout. Andrés still employs him today.
“I bet you’re thinking, ‘Jose, what does this have anything to do with the Caps?’ ” he said. “You know, my friend, it has a lot to do with the Caps.”
Andrés and Hurwitz said they have felt an uncommon communion at Capitals games, especially during this year’s playoff run. Andrés said watching fans react has made him proud of the city, reaffirming his belief in the connectivity of Washington. He thinks it filters down from Leonsis.
“It tells you a lot about the way he runs the Wizards and Capitals,” Andrés said. “The persistence Ted has in life, it seems reflected in a series of small gestures of goodness. I think what Ted brings into the team — it’s difficult to think a person that owns the team has zero connection with what happens on the field.”
Leonsis’s hoarse voice caught on a few occasions Thursday night but only when talking about Ovechkin or the fans. At one point, Lynn found him on the ice, wearing her Nicklas Backstrom jersey. She fell into his embrace, and tears formed in her eyes as they hugged for 13 seconds.
“I still don’t feel like a success,” Leonsis said later. “I think that’s an important thing to always drive you. If you become satisfied, give it up. This is such a high. Our fans love it so much. I’ll enjoy it for a couple of days, but then it’s, ‘What do we have to do next year to do it again?’ ”
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