In the business world, it’s often true that good execution leads to success. In sports sometimes, one bounce of good or bad fortune can be the difference between the ecstasy of winning and a long offseason of questions.
Ted Leonsis knows that thin line very well.
Successful in business ventures, the owner of the Capitals and Wizards realizes even doing everything perfectly in sports doesn’t guarantee anything.
“It’s why I know if we ever win a championship, I know I’m gonna cry like a baby,” Leonsis said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “It’s why you see owners when they win championships cry - it’s hard. And it’s like no other endeavor because of all these things that have to come together at the same time to work.”
That includes smart management, good execution - and a whole lot of things out of Leonsis‘ control, luck included. But in coming to appreciate that sports are a totally different animal, he has become more of a risk-taker - whatever it takes to try to capture the Stanley Cup for the Caps and, eventually, an NBA title for the Wizards.
In doing so, Leonsis has undertaken a concerted effort to build a Caps team that’s “generationally great” - staying in contention for a decade so that if all the pieces come together, there can be a parade in downtown Washington for the first time in two decades.
“We’ve been able to keep our core, and so I would say I’d put the execution of the plan and the salary cap of what we’ve done with the Caps against any team in pro sports,” Leonsis said. “We just need to have more playoff success and compete and hopefully win a championship.”
The plan: Rebuild from the bottom up with draft picks and prospects to turn what was a bad team in a lackluster hockey town into a perennial winner. Along the way, the Caps jettisoned face-of-the-franchise Peter Bondra, Brendan Witt, Jaromir Jagr and others, bottoming out to construct the current core that includes Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. And now the Caps have enjoyed 97 consecutive sellouts at Verizon Center and a 96 percent season-ticket-holder renewal rate.
But championships don’t come easy - and last season’s first-round exit prompted Leonsis, general manager George McPhee, coach Bruce Boudreau and the Caps to make a leap of faith. Constrained by the salary cap, the team with the best regular-season record in hockey a year ago went young - trusting the kids to the point where it has featured more minutes by rookies than any other team in the NHL. The Caps let Jose Theodore go in free agency and entrusted the goaltending duties to 22-year-olds Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. They gave serious playing time to defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner.
“We were lucky that for us the situation is here now, and we’ve been given every opportunity in the world to do it and take advantage,” Alzner said.
Yet as well as the young players have done, they aren’t the only reason the Caps are in first place and on the verge of clinching their fourth straight Stanley Cup Playoff berth. In fact, three months ago the whole season appeared to be in danger of unraveling - with HBO’s “24/7” cameras rolling and documenting the eight-game free fall.
So the Caps took another chance - transforming from the run-and-gun team that won the 2010 Presidents’ Trophy for most points in the regular season to a defensive-minded group that controls the play and frustrates opponents, offensive stats be damned.
“That was a big risk the organization took: Change the way you play and sell your players on it,” Leonsis said. “And what Alex Ovechkin hasn’t been given enough credit for - he’s a superstar player and he said, ‘I’ll do whatever is necessary to have playoff success.’ “
Ovechkin’s numbers are down - 29 goals and 48 assists in 73 games this season after putting up 50 and 59 last year. Backstrom and Green have experienced similar offensive dives, but they don’t care because they saw how last year ended so quickly with the Caps unable to adjust to playoff hockey.
“It was too much back and forth before. Now I think we’re more complete as a team, and everybody’s buying into it,” Backstrom said. “Even if we’re not scoring as much as we were before, we’re more successful as a team.”
And now the Caps feel prepared to compete in April and, they hope, May and June. Leonsis joked that his team had played in a gazillion one-goal games. Really, it’s 39, but that’s still more than half the Caps’ games - and it’s not a bad thing
“That’s what it feels like in the playoffs,” Leonsis said, “where one play, one mistake, one penalty kill, one power play changes the whole tenor of the game and sometimes the series.”
The same kind of approach Leonsis took with the Caps is one he’s trying to implement with the Wizards. Buying the team (and Verizon Center) from the family of the late Abe Pollin was yet another risk for the former AOL vice chairman and president.
The Wizards were - still are - in disarray, in a similar position to where the Caps were in the early 2000s. Still, Leonsis said the rebuild is ahead of schedule and he wants players and fans to trust him because the Wizards are on track to follow the Caps’ lead.
“I’ve had the same conversations with John Wall that I’ve had with Alex Ovechkin, which start with - there’s a reason we were able to draft you. We’re really bad. But the good news is, it’s by design,” Leonsis said. “And you’re going to have pain. There’s going to be days where you’re miserable and that the pain needs to drive you because it’ll get better.”
Leonsis may or may not get the same results from the Wizards that he did with the Caps. For now, the pain will endure on the court but expectations are high on the ice. It’s not like heads will surely roll if the Caps don’t win it all this year, because Leonsis understands that everything from officiating to injuries to luck plays a role - something that’s much different in the other world Leonsis has competed in.
“I’ve said the hardest accomplishment in [sports] is winning a championship. You have 29 competitors. In business you usually have a couple that are competing with you, and you have all these factors that you don’t have in [sports],” he said. “Never once at AOL did my HR director come in and say, ‘You’d better sit down, close the door, the HTML coder blew his knee out and he can’t go. He’s gonna miss the next month. We won’t be able to ship the product.’ “
A similar thing could happen in a couple weeks when the Caps begin yet another run that they hope will end with a Stanley Cup. Washington is in a good spot; it can clinch a playoff berth with one more victory. But as everyone including Leonsis understands, there are no guarantees.
“That’s the great thing about sports: We can get swept in the first round in four games. We could go all the way, this year,” he said. “I don’t know. You don’t know. Our fans don’t know. That’s why they play the games and all we can do is orchestrate it so that the team has upside and can make the playoffs every year.”
Leonsis has tried to do that. One risk at a time.