- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2000

There's more than one way to own a professional sports franchise, as Ted Leonsis is illustrating. Back in October, when the Capitals lost at San Jose to drop to 2-6-2, did Leonsis hold Ron Wilson hostage in the trainer's room for a half-hour after the game? Certainly not. He waited for the team to return from the West Coast, whereupon he, Wilson and George McPhee conferred and decided to stay the course for the time being.

Six weeks later, when the Caps suffered back-to-back shutouts to Pittsburgh and Montreal and were thrashing about like the expansion Atlanta Thrashers, did Leonsis seek to have this coach fired or that player traded or another player packed off to the minors? Never entered his mind. He trusted the judgment of his generals, who told him the club had changed considerably since making the Stanley Cup finals two years ago and just needed more time.

Leonsis could have done a lot of things when the Capitals appeared to be capsizing. He could have said he was "interested" in free agents like Alexei Yashin and Keith Primeau even if he had zero chance of getting them and generated some cheap, self-serving publicity. He could have searched the Caps' injury list for a player with an injured finger and claimed the guy really hurt himself in a game of curling at the local rink. He could have held his breath and stamped his feet and stormed around the owner's box.

But Leonsis didn't do any of those things because, well, because he isn't Dan Snyder. In fact, their two ownership styles couldn't be any more different. Snyder comes from the Scorched-Earth School. (Motto: Fire people first and ask questions later.) He's very hands-on to the point of strangulation. Winning through intimidation is his game.

Leonsis, on the other hand, is a behind-the-scenes type. It's not important to him that his name is in the paper every day. Take his recent romancing of Michael Jordan. If Dan Snyder had been negotiating with a star of that magnitude, he would have let the whole world know about it. But Leonsis kept everything hush-hush until all the details were worked out. And when Jordan's coming to Washington finally was announced, he generously shared the credit with Abe Pollin even though he and partner Jon Ledecky had done the grunt work.

That's Ted Leonsis for you. Dan Snyder talks about Barry Sanders, Chris Doleman, Joey Galloway, etc., etc., etc., and comes away with Tito Paul. Ted Leonsis doesn't say boo and lands Michael Jordan.

And now he has a hockey team that's the hottest in the NHL, which just goes to show you that patience also has its place in the sports world. Since Adam Oates scored in overtime to beat Pittsburgh on Dec. 29, the Capitals are 13-2-2 and have moved into sixth place in the Eastern Conference. And it's not like they've been pummeling the patsies of the league either. In the past six weeks, they've knocked off New Jersey and Florida on the road, Philadelphia, Ottawa and Phoenix at home and played St. Louis and Toronto to a standstill. This is a very good sign, inasmuch as those are the clubs they figure to be facing in the playoffs.

Equally encouraging has been their ability to win without Peter Bondra. They went 6-1 last month when he was out. When have they ever done that? But Chris Simon, finally healthy, is having a career year (11 goals in one stretch of 16 games, 15 for the season), Sergei Gonchar has been white-hot since the end of December (10 goals, 14 assists in 18 games) and the Jan Bulis-Richard Zednik-Ulf Dahlen line has been wonderfully productive (31 goals and 43 assists among them). The Caps probably won't have any 30-goal scorers, but they might have 11 players in double figures. That's five more than they had when they went to the finals. (And don't be surprised if McPhee adds some more firepower around the trading deadline, like he did in '98.)

Best of all, Olie Kolzig is back to his old Godzilla self. How well is he playing? He went an entire period in Sunday's All-Star Game without allowing a goal, a practically unheard-of feat. (Too bad he didn't get a chance to rack up two scoreless periods. They might have renamed the Vezina Trophy after him.)

What the Capitals have to do from here on out is keep playing their kind of hockey 3-2, 2-1, 4-3 hockey and, if at all possible, avoid X-ray machines. With a full roster at their disposal come playoff time, they could be as dangerous as any team in the East. Let's not forget: They finished only 10 games above .500 and were just the fourth seed when they caught fire two years ago.

At any rate, it's a far cry from late October, when Gonchar was still looking for his first goal and Kolzig was still looking for his first defenseman. The Caps are in the mix again. The Caps have turned it around. And they've done it with an owner who barely opens his mouth, who seems to prefer e-mail to the spoken word. Dan Snyder has his way of operating, and Ted Leonsis has his. It will be an interesting laboratory experiment to see which one comes out on top, trophy-wise.

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