I suppose I shouldn't be as surprised as I am. After all, you don't become an entrepreneurial mogul with seriously flawed foresight. However, I never, ever, ever expected Washington Capitals' owner Ted Leonsis's rose-colored prognostications regarding his team to play out in such grand fashion.
And yet there were the Capitals last Saturday, playoff-bound as the unlikely champions of the NHL's Southeast Division. The players grinned, they screamed and embraced each other on the ice, while an unbroken sea of red-clad fans in turn embraced them with their cheers from behind the boards of a packed Verizon Center.
I did not see this coming. I mean, I thought the Capitals had the talent to make the playoffs entering this season. I even thought they had the momentum to come full circle from an atrocious start and slide into the playoffs in the season's final game. But the deafening din from the throng of 18,000-plus passionate fans? Nope. Not even a little.
Let me color my doubts with some context.
Five years ago the Caps qualified for the playoffs. The team featured one of the top scorers in the game in Jaromir Jagr and welcomed a division rival to the rink, at the time, known as MCI Center. Empty seats abounded. Playoff fever? Not so much.
It was that sort of tepid response from Washington fans that first made me think that Washington wasn't, and would never be, a hockey town. When the Caps returned to the ice following the 2004-05 lockout, the picture was no more inspiring. Stars like Jagr, Robert Lang, Peter Bondra and Sergei Gonchar had been shipped off, and even the highly-touted arrival of Alex Ovechkin couldn't boost bleak attendance figures. A year later, with Ovechkin firmly entrenched as a once-in-a-generation talent, with no progress in the “points” column and attendance still low, contraction seemed a more likely future for the Caps than a Stanley Cup.
But Leonsis's faith wasn't as flimsy as mine, and he deserves a champagne shower of praise for that.
When I interviewed him one-on-one during the Olympic break in 2006, he spoke of how it was his goal to reinvent his team with “young legs” set in motion by hungry spirits. He thought that such displays of on-ice desire would resonate with fans (similarly “on ice” at the time) and eventually draw customers back to the Caps. While the theory sounded valid at the time, I thought it was a bit of silver-lining spin job to accentuate the positive of his product. Did he really see a successful future for his franchise? The answer to that question came on January 10, 2008 when Leonsis locked up Ovechkin for 13-years with the largest contract in NHL history.
Successful businessmen do not accumulate wealth by spending imprudently. Hall-of-Fame-caliber talent or not, if Leonsis's vision of Verizon Center in 2010 was that of a half-empty, emotional black hole — an apt description at times over the past three seasons — he never would have sunk that sort of money into Ovechkin. So when Leonsis made that commitment to the Capitals, did he foresee the sweetness of this past Saturday?
Perhaps, but as with most successful entrepreneurs, the key isn't necessarily their ability to foresee the future so much as their conviction to make that desirable day a reality. When Leonsis coughed up for Ovechkin's contract, the Caps' record sat below .500, attendance was still mediocre and the team's finances figured to finish in the red. He still approved the deal.
At this year's trade deadline, the Caps were on the skids, dropping five of their previous six games. When the opportunity arose to add some veteran players — and their pricier contracts — for a playoff run, Leonsis gave the green light.
The moves all paid dividends. The Caps won, the crowds came and the season continues, bringing a windfall of playoff revenues.
Since the rebuild began, Leonsis tried to sell fans on his team. But for all of silver-lining citations and what, at times, seemed like overly-optimistic opinions, he never once presented a false front. He never lied about his commitment to the team and to the fans — even the ones that had temporarily forsaken him.
In a perfect world, such behavior would be common place, but struggling sports teams seldom receive the commitment the Capitals have from Leonsis. Fans of the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Florida Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates, feel free to send in your testimonials.
So as the euphoria of the Stanley Cup Playoffs washes over Washington this weekend, praise the players that willed this team into the postseason. But save something for the man in the owners' box that made this playoff push possible.