Like many of you, I’ve spent my summer binge-watching Capitals playoff and Stanley Cup Finals games from this past spring, reliving and soaking in every single moment. However, I was waiting for the Capitals and the NHL to release a DVD commemorating the entire run. On July 31, that DVD came out.
The vision and dream that Ted Leonsis had for Washington DC finally came true on a Thursday night in Las Vegas. It didn’t matter that the Caps won the Stanley Cup away from home because the Hockey Town that Ted built celebrated just the way he envisioned. He has always wanted the DC community to be a town that was proud of its teams and one that the fans loved – be it the Wizards or the Capitals.
And when he took the STANLEY CUP from Alex Ovechkin, you could see what a proud papa he was. That look of overwhelming emotion over a goal finally achieved exemplified the feels we all felt watching.
Mr. Leonsis bought the Washington Capitals (along with the Wizards and the stadium now known as Capital One Arena) from DC legend Abe Pollin in May 1999 for about $200 million – a year after their failed final round of the Stanley Cup. Ted was 42 at the time and had a vision for both teams and a plan to engage fans in one of his favorite sports.
His dream morphed into today’s Monumental Sports and Entertainment, LLC, an organization that broadly includes the AFL’s Washington Valor, NBA’s Washington Wizards, NHL’s Washington Capitals, and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. And he launched the subscription –based Monumental Sports Network in 2017, which pretty much rules the airwaves around the DMV.
It’s Ted’s love of hockey and his dedication to building a Hockey Town on the east coast; one that would become a place equal to many cities in Canada and the original six hockey teams. In 1997 he brought in George McPhee (GMGM) as his general manager and began to set the tone for the future we are living today. Leonsis had a lot of faith in McPhee who would go on to acquire some of the shining stars of the Capitals, especially Alexander Ovechkin.
There is no doubt that Ted Leonsis is a savvy businessman. That isn’t why we fell in love with him. Many of us are “latecomers” to the hockey and Capitals scene. We didn’t really engage until the Ovechkin Era began that faithful day Ovi was given the keys to the city. And Ted knew how to make the most of that silly infectious grin. He knew that with the talent and charisma of Ovechkin and the management genius of McPhee, the future would be bright.
In April 2009 Leonsis shared his list of 10-point plan for rebuilding the Capitals. Among those things the plan included transparency with the fan base, investing in the draft and taking time to develop younger players, add veterans for the short-term to infuse the team with experience, and most importantly, NEVER SETTLE.
In 2012 he answered questions from fans via Japers Rink, and then said: “The Caps have made the playoffs five years in a row. We haven’t progressed past the second round in any of those years; it has been a huge hurdle despite some Game 7 opportunities. So we keep tweaking and making changes to get to the next step. It is tedious, sometimes frustrating, but it is necessary.”
Ted made some hard changes in the summer of 2014 after the Capitals failed to make it to the NHL Playoffs. The biggest change was letting go of the man with whom he built the hockey team that included Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, as well as many other notable players, but failed to help win the cup. McPhee and Leonsis seemed to know what was needed and they went out and got the best players that they thought would help reach the pinnacle of success. GMGM gave us Bruce Boudreau and unfortunately, also Dale Hunter and Adam Oates who nearly destroyed everything they had worked so hard to have in place to win.
Leonsis moved up Brian MacLellan as general manager and hired former Nashville Predators coach, Barry Trotz in 2014. The excitement began to build again. Trotz had a good reputation as a community man and as a coach. He seemed the perfect fit for the image of the Capitals we all had by that time. However, in July 2015, after another year of disappointment, Ted told reporters about Ovechkin: “I feel I haven’t met my commitment that we would build a team that would be able to win Stanley Cups.” Many of us felt that too.
Together MacLellan and Leonsis brought in reinforcements, like Justin Williams whose name was already on the cup three times and American favorite, TJ Oshie. Everything looked right at the start of the 2015/16 season. The team came together as friends in a way that we have never seen. Sadly, we know how that ended again.
Ted was one of us. He was seen walking around the Verizon Center and outside. He was known to meet and speak with people from all walks of life. We learned about the gentle heart of this big man when in 2009 he heard about a homeless man who was a huge Caps fan and spent his nights outside Verizon Center trying to catch glimpses of the game. Ted would later respond to a letter from a season ticket holder about Scott Lovell, find him a job in a local restaurant, and help him rebuild his life. Not only did the encounter change Lovell’s life, it changed Ted, who had never even had a discussion with a homeless person before. A man of the people, he recently sent 200 employees to Vegas to watch games one and two of the Stanley Cup finals.
Time and again, we have heard the stories about Ted reaching out to fans. Maybe they were from Brazil and arrived to watch a game only to be snowed out. Ted later brought our friends Pedro Rocha and his family back for a game in his box.
Tonight's contest? What country are they from? Why are they here? First correct answers gets a autographed puck. pic.twitter.com/XkphQi6SCs
Or how about Connolly Fan sensation Keelan Moxley? Somehow he always seems to want to make a bad situation better. And his actions inspire us as a result.
Six-year-old @Capitals fan Keelan Moxley was given owner Ted Leonsis glass seats to today’s game. Leonsis met with them and Keelan, who famously got a puck from winger Brett Connolly on her third try, got a signed stick from him today. pic.twitter.com/VgTwc67wtb
Never one to just relax or sit back quietly, rumors began in 2016 that he might consider moving the Caps and Wizards out of Chinatown at some point. He corrected himself later, saying: “We love Washington D.C., and we have a great, mutual respect for our city, and we have a 99-year lease on the land, and it’s been the greatest experience, so we’re very, very committed to Washington, D.C., and I’m grateful for the love that the fan base has shown us, and I hope to return that certainly for the rest of my lifetime.” For now, he continues to focus on making Capital One Arena a better place for the fan experience. He announced in February 2018 that over the summer he would be investing $40 million in improvements to the arena to “…ensure that the fan experience at Capital One Arena remains second to none.” We can expect to return to a more modern concourse, improved concession stands, two new lounges, on the 100 level, and even new padded seats!! Always making it better for us.
Thank you thank you thank you. I love you. It is heartwarming to see the community come together and nothing brings a city together like a sports championship. We have the worlds greatest fans for the worlds greatest hockey team.
So while the Capitals are a business for Ted Leonsis, it is also his passion. He is one of those rare breed of owners who actually involves himself in team and the community. We are in large part the kind of community that showed up by the thousands at Capital One Arena and in the streets of DC on a night when the team played in a place far away, because of him. And when it was all over, and the Cup came back to DC, what did he do?? He took it to the people!!
So when you line the streets on Tuesday to celebrate the Stanley Cup – make sure you wave to Ted Leonsis and scream a huge CAPS THANK YOU!!! And if you see him walking around town or the Arena – stop and shake his hand. Let him see the tears in your eyes as you thank him for investing in a sport that we all love and a team that has proven to be incredible ambassadors for Washington DC!
Every time the Caps fail to make it past Round Two of the NHL playoffs, the call for the coach’s head can’t be far away. This season is no different as we have begun to see the tweets in favor of replacing Barry Trotz are building as frustration is replacing tears and anger.
So let’s look back a few years on the Ovechkin Era and see what’s been going on. Ovi signed with the Caps in 2004 right before the 2004/05 season lockout. It was a pivotal time for the Washington Capitals. At that time George McPhee was general manager (GMGM) and Glen Hanlon was coach. Hanlon had been coaching the team since 2003 when he was promoted as assistant coach and replaced Bruce Cassidy. Hanlon had played in the league himself from 1977 to 1991; however, he was never on a Cup winning team. His stint as coach was memorable only for his losses and the sense of defeat the fans felt as the result of his coaching.
That takes us to Bruce Boudreau. He too had played in the league. He; however, had no NHL coaching experience. What he did have was a winning record with the AHL affiliate team, the Hershey Bears. After seven years he took the team all the way to win the Calder Cup in 2006. The hope was that he would bring the winning skill he demonstrated in Hershey to Washington. Fans were pretty excited with this change and hope seemed to be all around the team. With Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green—The Young Guns—the Caps were primed for lifting the Cup.
Or so we thought.
BB would quickly become part of the “Building America’s Hockey Capital” strategy of owner Ted Leonsis. It was a pretty remarkable time for the Caps. He helped them win the Presidents’ Trophy in 2009. He gained notoriety as the “F-bomb coach” when HBO followed him around during the Caps first Winter Classic against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was a game that would excite Caps fans and dismay Pens fans as the Sidney Crosby hit and subsequent concussion would haunt the team ever after. He was a staple in the hockey world and fans adored him almost to the end. By the time he left Bruce posted a 201-88-40 in 329 regular season games. He was also the fastest coach to record 200 regular season wins. Unfortunately, he could never get the Caps past the second round of the playoffs either. He gradually lost the confidence of the team and the fan base resulting in his rather abrupt firing.
It was all over by November 2011 when the Caps fired Broudeau and made one of the worst hiring decisions bringing in former Capitals’ superstar Dale Hunter, owner of the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights. Hunter played for the Capitals from 1987 to 1999. Hunter made it clear when he arrived that he was no fan of Ovechkin, probably believing the press that Ovi had become disrespectful toward his coach and needed rewiring. The excitement for Hunter was brief. He had almost tasted the thrill of victory as a player with the Colorado Avalanche but still did not know how to lead a team past the final. After a dismal season (six months of coaching) with the Caps once again not making it past the semi-finals, Hunter decided he was better suited with the Knights and folded tent to head home.
Hunter’s departure led to the Caps second disaster in this time frame; the hiring of another former player, Adam Oates. Oates was a former assistant coach for Tampa Bay Lightning and part of the NJ Devils team (assistant coach) that made it to the Stanley Cup final in 2012, which the LA Kings won. Although he had not yet served as a head coach, he at least had the experience of working with a team that made it to the finals. And he was a Hall of Famer. What could go wrong??? Well things started bumpy with the 2012/13 NHL lockout, which led to a shortened first season. It looked hopeful for the team until they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. His second full season fell apart as he lost the locker room early and he lost the confidence of his star players, most notably Ovechkin. (Que the Ovi fires coaches rumors). He quickly lost the support of the fan base that loved him as a player. This discontent ultimately led to the Caps failure to make it to the playoffs. In the end, the Caps declined to continue their relationship with Oates and released him from his contract.
And as a side note, they also released GM George McPhee. He was after all, the guy who brought in all the losing coaches. Although he was also responsible for bringing on some of the strongest players in the league, he was unable to create the right mix for a Stanley Cup winning team. He came close though in his first year, 1998, when the Caps went all the way to the finals—for the last time. It was time for a major shakeup and many long-time followers of the Capitals had mixed feelings about letting go of GMGM. Like Bruce, he was well liked in the community.
Which brings us to the Capitals current coach, Barry Trotz. He never played hockey in the NHL, often saying he wasn’t good enough. He began his NHL coaching career with the Nashville Predators in 1997 as part of the new expansion team. He earned a positive reputation as a coach, a winning coach who also never took his team past the second round of the playoffs. He failed to bring them to the playoffs in his last two seasons in Nashville. As a result, the Preds released him in April 2014 which opened the door for the Caps to bring him into the fold a month later. There were mixed reviews about the Caps hiring him, but there was also a sense that he could be the guy to have some success in the latest round of “rebuild.” He has worked well with the team, never afraid to do the unexpected as he adjusted lines, sat under-performing players, and was not phased by the Ovi hype but looks at the team as a whole. Clearly he was disappointed after the Caps were knocked out of the playoffs for the third time under his leadership. He built real cohesion and friendships on the team, the likes of which we have never seen. There were mentors and a real dependence on each other, on and off the ice. However, all the changes and growth were not enough to give the team the confidence and steam to push past round two. Clearly he knows how to get the team to the playoffs but he hasn’t proven an ability to make it all the way. All that said, there is no sense from the players that they have lost confidence in him. He has created a new culture, but that culture will change with all the moving pieces and trades likely to occur over the summer.
In the weeks ahead the Capitals management will be taking a good look at what worked and what didn’t. Bloggers and sports writers will assess players and argue about the weakest links. If Trotz stays, he will keep working with GM Brian MacLellan to develop a new strategy and together they will work to create a new team that can go all the way. They have already made some positive changes overall on behalf of the team—creating a healthy environment and a place where young players can develop their craft. The team is closer than ever and it is a waiting game to see who stays and who goes and what that means for the next season.
In the end, the biggest downfall with GMGM’s hiring practice was the mistake in not hiring a coach with NHL Stanley Cup experience. The ongoing problem is that the Caps have never hired someone who coached a team and won the Stanley Cup. Close enough is not necessarily good enough. As much as we believe in what Barry Trotz has tried to accomplish with this team, his record speaks for itself. If the Caps stay with Trotz one more season, he needs to not just coach the team to the finals but win the Cup. If management is unsure of his ability to do that, we strongly urge them to consider hiring a coach with the actual experience of “rebuilding” a team that has won the Cup. We know who we would suggest at this point were the Caps to make a change today…
Bottom line: fans don’t just want another season of making it to the playoffs, or even making it to the final round. WE WANT TO BRING THE CUP HOME!! And we want them to do whatever it takes to make that a reality next season. We are past the ‘rebuilding’ promises and are ready for a positive outcome.