- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2000

The Washington Capitals have stopped actively trying to trade former 50-goal scorer Peter Bondra, team owner Ted Leonsis said yesterday.

Leonsis said attempts to reach a fair deal for the right wing since the summer proved unsuccessful, but the team's zeal to honor Bondra's trade request also has worn off somewhat in recent weeks because of his team-leading 16 points and often-inspired play.

"I'm letting sleeping dogs lie," said Leonsis, breaking a two-month silence on the topic. "There's nothing hot or active. There have been no calls. Our focus is now on getting our current team productive and healthy."

Bondra requested the trade in April after ending a disappointing 1999-2000 season that found him on the Caps' fourth offensive line. But a handful of loosely discussed deals with several teams proved too costly, and Bondra himself scuttled a deal with Montreal in September for right wing Danius Zubrus.

Despite the hands-off policy on Bondra now, sources close to the situation said the Caps would still accept a trade that makes sense if it's presented. But no such deal appears likely anytime soon.

"Anything's possible," said Bondra when asked about re-signing with the team. His four-year, $14.3 million deal expires after this season. "Like I said before, I have nothing against the team. Whatever happens, happens. I play it game-by-game and try to do my best. And I will go through the whole season like that."

The Bondra situation, however, has been just one of several issues that have plagued the Caps this season, leading to just three wins in 18 games and often poor turnout at MCI Center.

Besides Bondra, the Caps have had to deal with holdouts by forward Chris Simon and defenseman Sergei Gonchar and injuries to star goalie Olie Kolzig and defenseman Calle Johansson. And defenseman Joe Reekie may be suspended for two games for his crushing head blow Tuesday on Phoenix's Jeremy Roenick.

Leonsis said the organization's current focus is battling through those distractions and fielding a full, healthy team each night.

"Am I happy with the performance of our team right now? No. But if you focus too much time on the outside swirl and reacting to that, you never reach your destination," Leonsis said. "We need to win games. Everything looks better once you win.

"We remain absolutely committed to our three-year plan to have at least 12,000 season tickets, a clear path to profitability and a competitive team in the hunt for deep playoff success each year that's built primarily through the draft," he said.

An aggressive season-ticket sales effort since the spring has boosted the team's base to 10,600 full season equivalents, more than triple the amount Leonsis inherited 18 months ago. But the figure is still less than the 12,000 required for an NHL expansion team. The team's average attendance of 13,921, while up a league-leading 16 percent over last year, remains sixth worst in the NHL.

"We're not getting the walkup right now," Leonsis said.

Merchandise sales, once among the league's worst, have revived sharply this year with a rollout of dozens of new items. With no league expansion fees to share among the owners this year, however, and a team payroll up 10 percent to $31 million, Leonsis said the Caps are on track to lose about $15 million this season, slightly more than last year.

"That's the situation, but we know it and we've planned for it," Leonsis said. "A lot of our expenses this year, such as our new ticketing system, are one-time deals. We've done it, we've paid for it and that's it."

Countering the losses is a new advertising strategy that is targeting Northern Virginia tech companies. Far from a simple play into the expertise of America Online executive Leonsis, 60 percent of the team's fan base comes from that area. That fan base is also younger and more technologically aware than those for the Washington area's other pro teams, according to Caps and NHL marketing research.

The shift has already been seen on two HTS telecasts since April. Instead of the usual rotation of commercials, two Caps games were sponsored entirely by Timebridge Technologies Inc., a McLean computer services firm. Leonsis helped broker the unusual deal, and more of the same are expected.

"It's pretty simple, really. The people in the stands and watching on TV are the ones these [tech] companies want to recruit and do business with," Leonsis said.

Despite the fiscal losses and draft-first personnel policy, Leonsis said he intends to be a significant player in this offseason's free-agent pool. That pool will include Bondra, who Leonsis said the team may consider re-signing.

"There is no preset budget, no ceiling. Financials have about zero concern in this. I just want to win," Leonsis said.

That statement, however, in no ways suggests that a Dan Snyder-style spending spree is on deck for this summer. On the contrary, the team and Leonsis in particular are high on developing a crop of young players that includes defensemen Jakub Cutta and Michael Farrell and center Brian Sutherby.

"If that happens and you retain people like Gonchar, [Brendan] Witt, [Jeff] Halpern, you've got one of the best young cores of talent in the league," Leonsis said.

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