- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis is back in full spin mode.

After a brutal offseason Leonsis called “awful and miserable,” the owner is seeking to soothe and energize the bruised spirits of Caps fans and restore some energy in a local hockey market that four months ago he called “disappointing.”

Leonsis held the final pair of four town hall meetings with season ticket holders last night at MCI Center. He said he remains committed to creating a winning team that is also more likeable and workmanlike.

“You were in pain this past season. I felt double pain because I’m still a fan, too,” Leonsis told the season ticket holders. More than 450 people total showed up for the four sessions. “We just haven’t found the way to break through yet. But we’re still self-critical enough to keep searching for what works. I’m convinced you have to have the personality to pick yourself up off the floor and be motivated by failure.”

The town hall meetings are keeping with Leonsis’ four-year history of fan accessibility with the Caps. But it remains a marked departure from much of the past four months, during which Leonsis made almost no public appearances and refused to make any substantive comments on the acrimonious departure of business partner Michael Jordan from the Washington Wizards.

“What else was I going to say [that hadnt been said]?” Leonsis said. “I’ve moved on. I feel good. Now it’s time to get out there and perform. This market is demanding results and real passion, and we still haven’t delivered.”

The last year has been rough on Leonsis. In short order, the Caps made another ugly first-round exit from the playoffs, this time blowing a 2-0 lead to Tampa Bay in a crushing six-game series loss; saw average attendance drop 9 percent to 15,787 a game; posted another eight-figure fiscal loss in the ledger; and struggled as franchise icon Jaromir Jagr clashed with coach Bruce Cassidy and again failed to match previous seasons of lofty offensive production.

The discord peaked after the series-ending loss to the Lightning in triple-overtime. Leonsis lashed out at mediocre fan support that manifested itself in no playoff sellouts at MCI Center.

“I have some real re-evaluating to do on the kind of investments we’re going to make in the team because the city didn’t respond,” Leonsis said after that game. “You cannot have a playoff game with 14,000 people with the kind of marketing and consumer focus that we’ve had.”

Since then, the fallout has included a drop in season ticket sales from 12,000 to 10,000, an unsuccessful attempt to shop Jagr around the league for a trade and a difficult and perhaps impossible balancing act in building the roster for the upcoming season.

Leonsis would love to pare down his almost $50million payroll further. To that end, a mini-youth movement is already in the works. But he is also all too aware that a nontraditional hockey market like Washington still needs star power to lure fans.

“I would have traded my entire team for Minnesota’s,” Leonsis said of the bargain-basement Wild, who made a deep playoff run this past spring. “But with our fans, if we did that, I don’t think you’d come. We are a team in search of a new identity.”

One roster element being sought by both fans and management is a greater sense of toughness and grit. Leonsis admitted the flurry of trades and free agent signings that brought the likes of Jagr, Robert Lang, Michael Nylander and others also sacrificed a collective sense of toughness and team chemistry.

“We’ve had to change up the team, but we have erred on the side of skill [players],” Leonsis said.

Leonsis said of the flagging season ticket sales: “Sometimes you get the government you deserve. The market has spoken, and it’s not the fans’ fault. The loyal fan base that has stuck with us is great and continues to be loyal and strong. But there’s another group of people sitting on the fence that are going to go a long way to defining this franchise. If we can just make some progress in the playoffs and engage them, I think we’ll get them on the bandwagon.”

Leonsis said there were two turning points that helped him get beyond the troubles of the spring and early summer and focus on the 2003-04 season. First, he got away to Mexico and Las Vegas for vacation. Second, Wizards owner Abe Pollin sent Leonsis a motivational letter. The note also went a long way to repair a temporarily fractured relationship between the Caps and Pollin’s Washington Sports & Entertainment, which controls MCI Center.

“It was basically your classic get-over-it letter,” Leonsis said. “He told me to focus first on my family, my health, what I do have and that this was just one game, one season and that more chances will come. It was all true. So we have to get back at it.”

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