- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

The NHL will investigate an incident in which Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis was accused of throwing a fan to the ground after a game at MCI Center.

“We are looking into it,” league spokesman Frank Brown said yesterday. Brown declined to elaborate on the investigation or say what penalties the league might impose on Leonsis.

The incident involving Leonsis and season-ticket holder Jason Hammer occurred after the Capitals’ 4-1 loss to the Flyers on Sunday.

Hammer, whose seat is across the ice from Leonsis’ box at MCI Center, admitted he taunted Leonsis throughout the game, leading mocking cheers and holding up a sign that read, “Caps Hockey; AOL Stock - See a Pattern?”

Hammer said that after the game Leonsis grabbed him by the neck and threw him to the ground. Even amid conflicting accounts of the incident, there is consensus that at a minimum Leonsis angrily shoved Hammer.

Hammer said he does not plan to press charges, and Leonsis later called Hammer to apologize and invited him to attend a game and sit in the owner’s box.

“He’s embarrassed. He regrets the incident happened,” Capitals spokesman Kurt Kehl said yesterday. “He reached out to the fan.”

Leonsis yesterday declined to comment on the incident, which was reported by The Washington Post yesterday.

Leonsis is now believed to be planning to increase his personal security for games he attends at MCI Center. The altercation capped a rough night for him: His car was hit by another driver en route to the arena.

The incident surprised many friends and associates of Leonsis.

“This is just shocking,” said one former Caps employee, who asked not to be identified. “He’s put up with a lot of abuse and handled himself with a lot of class. It’s really hard to believe. There just are not a lot of positives happening right now.”

Leonsis is no stranger to abusive fans.

In July 2001, after two years of frustration in both the playoffs and free-agent market, Leonsis received hundreds of angry e-mails from fans, some physically threatening him and containing profanity, sexual vulgarities and ethnic slurs. One e-mail even contained a veiled threat to kidnap his two children.

Leonsis appealed to the Caps’ fan base to temper its frustration but refused to stop his trail-blazing level of owner-fan contact.

“Since Day One, I have tried to be open and accessible to all of our fans,” Leonsis said at the time. “I encourage debate and your most vociferous concerns.”

Leonsis’ altercation with Hammer stands as the signature moment of a season likely to go down as one of the worst in franchise history.

The primary markers of the Caps’ deep malaise are well known: a 14-29-5-2 record that is the second-worst in the NHL, a loss approaching $30million for the season, a decline in attendance of nearly 20percent in the last two years, the firing of coach Bruce Cassidy, and a trade of star forward Jaromir Jagr that could lead to a gutting of the roster in preparation for a lockout that is expected to take place this fall.

But a far edgier Leonsis provides a unexpected wrinkle in this mess.

The first major showing of that occurred after the Caps’ heartbreaking playoff loss to Tampa Bay. Leonsis, upset by the lack of sellouts for any of the three home playoff games in the series, said, “I think the market has spoken and 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 followed up that comment which prompted a quick 20percent reduction in season-ticket sales with a more distant and fractious relationship with the local media, more e-mail sparring with local fans and more strident and public criticism of the team.

Raul Fernandez, a minority owner of the Capitals and a longtime friend to Leonsis, said he has observed no change in Leonsis over the difficult past months.

“I’ve known him forever, and the pressures he’s gone through in business are far more stressful than anything we’re trying to do to reposition the team,” Fernandez said. “You look at the company that he founded and ultimately sold to AOL, for example, and there were many, many times that were far dicier than this.”

Fernandez said he has talked to Leonsis several times since the altercation and said the owner feels deep regret.

Fan reaction was decidedly mixed, with messages on the Caps’ Internet message boards ranging from heated anger toward Leonsis to lighthearted informal polls seeking an enforcer-style nickname for the owner.

There conversely appears to be little debate that the season is causing unusual levels of strain on the players, who declined to discuss the incident involving Leonsis.

The many losses, fiscal troubles, changing rosters and uncertain future, the trade of captain Steve Konowalchuk, departure of longtime defensemen Calle Johansson and Ken Klee, and season-long injury to talented center Michael Nylander have collectively moved the Capitals away from the tough, grinding teams that have been the franchise trademark.

“It’s clear where it’s going. It’s almost like a surgery where something is injured,” said center and Potomac native Jeff Halpern, who not surprisingly called this season the most difficult in his short career. “Once you go through the surgery, every day from that point on, it gets better. If that’s the case, maybe you have to hit bottom before you can get any better.

“If we’re not there, we’re pretty close. Clearly a page is being turned here. You hope when you come out of it that there are a lot of reasons to be a Washington Capital.”

With the Caps’ time as an NHL “have” now officially over and the season lost, general manager George McPhee is now, ironically, talking about following a blueprint laid out for the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks are coached by Ron Wilson, who McPhee fired in 2002.

“In my 12 years in the , I haven’t had a year like this,” McPhee said. “We’re trying to get through a tough year and rebound like a San Jose has this year. We have a good core. They went through similar distractions last year, talking about moving Owen Nolan, having some holdouts, a coaching change. They’ve bounced back with a younger team.

“We all have our pride, but we also have to be pragmatic and make sure that the long-term health of this club is going to be intact.


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