- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

His Washington Capitals haven’t won a playoff series on his watch. Season ticket sales have plunged 20 percent from a year in which attendance was down 9 percent. The team didn’t add a veteran player this offseason while losing two. And the NHL could well be on hiatus this time next year.

So, naturally, Ted Leonsis is as upbeat as ever as the Caps begin their fifth season under his ownership tonight at MCI Center against the New York Islanders.

“We still haven’t crossed that chasm to get that casual fan to make that long-term commitment, but my bet is that we’ll finish the year with the equivalent of 10,000 season tickets,” Leonsis said. “That’s certainly respectable, but I was hoping for 12,500. It’s a combination of three things: ticket prices have gone up to keep up with payroll [over the years]; the tight economy; and we disappointed people. We didn’t punch through in the playoffs, and this is a show-me world.”

Despite the NHL’s ninth best regular-season mark — 47 games over .500 — during Leonsis’ tenure, the Caps have nothing to show come April, missing the playoffs once and being eliminated in the first round three times.

Ron Wilson, who coached them to the 1998 Stanley Cup finals in his debut season, was fired four years later after sandwiching two failures to reach postseason around a pair of first-round defeats. General manager George McPhee, who was hired with Wilson by former owner Abe Pollin in 1997, replaced his buddy last year with a young unknown coach, Bruce Cassidy.

But the results were much the same. Washington won the first two games handily in Tampa Bay before losing the next four and the first-round series.

Leonsis remains publicly supportive of McPhee, but low-budget Edmonton is the only team besides Washington to make the playoffs in three of the last four years without advancing. The eight teams ahead of the Caps in the overall standings the past four years have all won at least three playoff series.

“It doesn’t matter how good your record is,” Leonsis said. “Until you win a Stanley Cup, you can’t claim to be among the elite teams. I’d like to know what it’s like to go deeper in the playoffs. That and reconnecting with our fan base are my goals this year. We want to have a team the fans will fall in love with, to win our division and go on to win the Cup.”

If there is the passionate fan base Leonsis claims, it’s a very thin one despite the presence of such charismatic performers as forwards Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra, defenseman Sergei Gonchar and goalie Olie Kolzig — and even the franchise’s first homegrown hero in center Jeff Halpern. None of last year’s three playoff games at MCI came close to selling out — one fell on the first night of Passover and another on Easter Sunday — compared to the three overflow crowds that packed St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.

“I think there were some times last year when our fans felt they didn’t get their money’s worth, that maybe the passion, the joy of playing professional hockey wasn’t self-evident,” said Leonsis, who still answers upwards of 50 fan e-mails on a daily basis. “The fans are looking for results, but also for a team that plays with high energy.”

Leonsis, who made his millions in marketing, is a natural salesman, but he has no obvious pitch to make this season unlike new ownership (Year One); everyone back from a 100-point club (Year Two); the trade for Jagr (Year Three); and the hiring of Cassidy and the signing of center Robert Lang (Year Four). So Leonsis spins the failure to add proven talent while subtracting longtime defensive stalwarts Calle Johansson and Ken Klee into praise for such new players as 19-year-olds Boyd Gordon, Steve Eminger and Alexander Semin.

“We have been able to retain a lot of our players; the Bondras, Jagrs and Gonchars, but now our draft picks are starting to come in,” Leonsis said. “They add a lot of passion and renewed excitement. It looks like [the 2002 draft that produced the three teenagers] was a first-class draft. We have finally reached a mix of players we drafted and developed, others we brought in through trades and some signed through free agency. The reason our training camp was so competitive is that there were a lot of young kids pushing to make the team. That brings the whole energy level up. If our fans like what they see, word of mouth travels and that’s how we’ll increase our attendance.”

Wishful thinking perhaps considering how dead the building was for preseason games against usual big draws Detroit and Philadelphia and the fact that the only attractive contest before Wilson’s return with San Jose on Nov.8 is Oct.29 against surprise Cup finalist Anaheim. The Caps will try to sell the Lightning’s return to MCI as a grudge match, but no perennial hot ticket foe comes to town before Dec.11 and none of Leonsis’ three favorite visitors — the Flyers, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers — plays in Washington before Jan.18.

“If I had my way, we would play Friday night and Saturday and Sunday matinees against the Flyers, the Penguins and the Rangers, but you play the cards you’re dealt,” Leonsis said. “We outdraw Chicago, Boston and [Stanley Cup champion] New Jersey. We’re middle of the pack [18th] in attendance. It’s not like we’re going to be first. By the size of our market, we should be about eighth.”

Without money from lucrative television contracts or later-round playoff dates, the Caps continue to lose between $15million and $20million a year. Leonsis and McPhee denied the payroll was reduced this year, saying it remains at about $46.5million.

“When the Redskins cut [running back] Stephen Davis [in February], no one said they weren’t committed to winning,” Leonsis said. “Everyone said it was because of the salary cap. We lost [Johansson and Klee], but those savings were eaten up by their replacements and the raises we had to give our other players, and yet I keep hearing how we slashed payroll.”

As for the prospect of the owners locking out the players when the collective bargaining agreement expires Sept.15, Leonsis characteristically sees the bright side.

“What the league and union will do is out of my hands,” he said, ignoring that he’s one of 30 owners who would have to approve a lockout. “I hope this is a year of joy, that our players realize that this could be it for a while, so let’s go out and play hard.”

Staff writer Eric Fisher contributed to this article.

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