- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

Ted Leonsis has faced more change this year than at any other point in his 40-month tenure as owner of the Washington Capitals.

In the last seven months, the club missed the 2002 playoffs after an injury-marred season, replaced coach Ron Wilson with the untested Bruce Cassidy, parted ways with veteran stalwarts Adam Oates and Ulf Dahlen, imported fresh faces such as center Robert Lang and wing Mike Grier, and passed the long-coveted 12,000 barrier in season-ticket sales.

Leonsis also has significantly altered his role at America Online Inc. Long an influential executive at the company, Leonsis recently stepped forward to help lead a dramatic conversion of AOL from the unwieldy conglomerate it has become back to a more traditional, member-focused online service. Leonsis was recently named vice chairman of the company to denote his heightened responsibility.

All the change, however, has left Leonsis enthused and energized for the 2002-03 NHL season. Leonsis calls the current Caps roster the best on paper he's had, stands to cut fiscal losses of nearly $20million by about half, and plans to improve attendance beyond last season's franchise-record mark of 676,224. And despite a drop in payroll from $56 million to $47.5million, many media outlets have pegged the Caps for a deep playoff run.

An edited excerpt of a wide-ranging interview yesterday at Leonsis' office at AOL:

Q: You're now entering year four of your five-year plan to transform the franchise. Where does the effort stand?

A: All you have to do is look around the league and see the teams that are moving forward, and the teams that are standing still, and the teams that are taking steps back. You do that matrix across the board in terms of business operation, game presentation, ticket pricing, growing the business and what they're doing with the team. I think clearly we now have two years under our belt where there's no one who can say we're not moving forward. I believe as an owner I'm delivering on what I promised. I said the team would get younger, bigger and faster. I said the team would improve itself via trades. I said we would improve selectively via free agency. That's all happened. Right now, on paper, we enter the season with probably the best team in Caps history.

Q: How critical is the next month, seeing the team get off to a good start?

A: It's not the win-loss record in the next month, it's how we play. I think last year what was maddening was that in many of the games we lost, and even some of the games we won, we looked disinterested, unorganized and we gave up. What's important in the first 10 games, the first month of the season, is to establish the kind of team we're going to be. Are we going to adhere to the new system? Are we going to stand up and protect each other? And do the players buy into a new way of playing, which is much more aggressive on the forecheck. If we do all that, I think we're going to be fine during the year.

Q: You have backed off on the goal for the season. Last year, it was making at least the second round of the playoffs or the conference finals. Now it's just qualifying. Why is that?

A: We didn't make the playoffs last year, so making the playoffs would obviously be an improvement. A personal goal would be to actually win a round in the playoffs, because I don't know what that feels like.

Q: So does that mean the five-year plan has been amended?

A: Not at all. You could say in a way we beat the five-year plan. I said very clearly that within five years I want to sell [MCI Center] out and I want to be competing for the Stanley Cup every year. We're now a 'have' in this league. We're improving right up to the start of the season. We're still moving forward across the board. We now have to deliver and take the next step.

Q: The Lang signing (five years, $25million) showed a lot of confidence in him and the economic future of the league. Does the uncertainty of the league's future and the expiration of the labor deal in 2004 give you pause when thinking about other long-term contracts?

A: Yeah, it's very nerve-racking. We don't know what the transition rules will be if there is a new [labor] deal. But right now, I'm more focused on now, this year and next year. And we've decreased our payroll. While Lang is expensive, he is really our No.1 center. And at $5million [a year], there's a lot of centers that make a lot more money than he does.

Q: Has your role change here at AOL in turn changed the time and intensity you devote to team matters?

A: The first year I owned the team, to be blunt, I spent a lot of time on it. I still put in my 40 hours at AOL, but when I wasn't at AOL, I was relaunching the team. The second year was a lot less. And now you never see me at [Caps] offices. I probably visit the office eight, 10 times a year. This is where you find me. This is my day job. I'm at most of the games and all that, but I've given 10 years of my life to this place, and I'm in love. The company needs help. And so I put my hand up and said I'd be willing to step back in and not just work the 40 hours, but whatever it takes, and with passion. What I'm attempting to do here is what we did with the Caps, which was step back and get back to basics.

Q: Was the decision to step forward in rebuilding AOL driven in part by a confidence in the team's day-to-day leadership?

A: Oh yeah. [Team president] Dick Patrick is someone I've grown to not only like, but really respect and admire. He has very solid, very good instincts. And he's a relentlessly and brutally honest person. [Senior vice president of business operations] Declan [Bolger] is running a great, great shop. [Vice president of sales] Kevin Morgan is a real star. And [general manager] George [McPhee] also gets it. His task was improve the team and spend less money, and it looks like he's going to be able to do it.

Q: Do you spend as much time answering fan e-mails these days? (Leonsis has answered more than 20,000 since buying the team.)

A: Yes, I still do. Probably three, four times a day. And nobody goes more than a day without a reply.

Q: Steve Spurrier is now coaching the Washington Redskins. Michael Jordan is back with the Wizards. Is the fight to get attention in this town for the Caps still difficult?

A: Yeah. It's the nature of the Caps being in the NHL. My job is doubly hard, since I don't control what [gets in the media]. So I double down on our Web site, our newsletter, our e-mail marketing, our in-game presentation, because the situation here is what it is, and I'm not going to change 75 years of history. I think media essentially are front-runners or traditionalists, and if the team plays well, we're going to get our ink.

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