Irene Pollin watched the celebration on television from her Bethesda home, struck by the hockey players mobbing each other on ice and the cut-away shots of the red-clad fans who filled the streets of downtown Washington.
“I’ve just been flooded with so many memories,” said Pollin, who along with her husband, Abe, brought both the NBA and the NHL to Washington.
Pollin, 94, had fallen asleep early in the game but when she stirred awake a couple of hours later, she immediately realized the Washington Capitals had finally won it all — 40 years to the day after the Washington Bullets won an NBA title.
“I looked up at the sky and said to Abe, ‘We did it again,’ ” she said. “It’s hard for me, even now. It’ll always be a part of me. This was something we shared for a long time.”
For Pollin, the Capitals’ long journey to a Stanley Cup title dates back to 1972, when she and her husband traveled to Montreal for the NHL’s annual owners’ meetings, facing an uphill battle to bring hockey to Washington.
Abe Pollin, who died in 2009, was not any sort of hockey nut. “I had never seen a hockey game in my life,” Pollin told The Washington Post in 1991. But Pollin hoped to build a new arena in the D.C. area and relocate the Baltimore Bullets to it; to make the move financially viable, he needed another tenant for the building.
Washington hadn’t even had a minor league hockey team since 1960, and many viewed the hockey overture as a big gamble. “I was typing letters to congressmen, the president, everybody,” Irene Pollin said in a phone interview this week. “They kept telling us, Washington is a southern town, not a hockey town, nobody’s going to come to the games. We really had to strategize and really fight to get the franchise.”
“Basically, everyone told him he no chance, why are you wasting your time?” said Robert Pollin, the couple’s eldest son. “But nevertheless, they got it. My father’s very persistent and had a very strong vision.”
The Pollins secured the expansion team, which allowed them to open Capital Centre in Landover with two pro teams and to try to introduce the region to a sport that was largely unfamiliar.
“In the beginning, it really wasn’t a hockey town,” Irene said. “We were giving tickets away for free. We started with the kids and the ice rinks and the kids really took to it.”
The first Capitals squad was historically bad, winning just eight out of 80 games. Today’s Capitals have posted more than 400 consecutive sellouts, but four decades ago, the team sold out only 19 of its first 320 games, averaging fewer than 11,000 a night.
By the early 1980s, there was talk of relocating the team, possibly merging it with the New Jersey Devils. A small group of season ticket-holders spearheaded a “Save the Caps” campaign in 1982 that helped sell tickets and lobbied community leaders for support. The effort bought Pollin’s team a bit of time, coincidentally right when the Caps’ fortunes started changing on the ice.
“They were struggling on the ticket sales side, but they hadn’t yet given fans anything to get excited about,” said Dick Patrick, the team president who started with the organization in 1982. “That year, it really started to build.”
The 1982-83 season marked the Capitals’ first season with a winning record and the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs. They’d go on to make 14 straight postseason appearances and barely a decade after their rocky start, the Pollins felt they had a Stanley Cup contender.
While they waited for a Cup, Abe Pollin’s vision evolved. He wanted to move his teams from Capital Centre in Maryland into the District, identifying Chinatown as ripe for development. Robert Pollin recalls his parents taking him downtown to check out the site. They balked when he suggested they get out of the car and walk around the neighborhood.
“It was just awful,” Irene said. “There was no reason for anybody to go there.”
MCI Center opened in 1997, and the area has evolved into a vibrant city hub.
Even with a new building and perennial regular season success, the Capitals were never a moneymaker for Pollin. Irene says they never broke even on the team and her husband once pegged their hockey losses at $20 million.
“It was very difficult for him,” Robert said. “He had to sacrifice. He was a major developer and had to sell off several properties to finance the Caps. It wasn’t difficult arithmetic. There’s only so many buildings you can sell to keep this thing going.”
Finally, in 1999, one year after the Capitals appeared in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time, Pollin struck a deal with Ted Leonsis, selling the Capitals, along with minority interests in the Washington Wizards and arena.
“It was a very difficult decision to sell,” Irene said. “As my husband said at the time, you could fill the building every night, all the seats, everything — and still lose money. Selling was the last thing in the world he wanted. But at some point, we just saw no choice.”
The family maintained a close relationship with Leonsis and the Capitals. Even these past few weeks Irene says she was texting with Leonsis about the playoffs. And every time she watched the Capitals, she was reminded of her time as team owner.
Forty years ago, Pollin recalls the plane ride back to Washington with the NBA Finals trophy, the celebratory parade and the ensuing White House visit. It’s certainly not the same this time, but Pollin is enjoying it all.
“I can’t even explain all the feelings,” she said. “All through the years, you watch the team, you remember all the decisions, everything it took to get to this point, it’s just very exciting. It’s great. And to think, everyone told us Washington would never be a hockey town.”