- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis last night received a $100,000 fine and one-week suspension from the NHL for his role in a physical altercation Sunday night at MCI Center with season ticket-holder Jason Hammer.

The fine is believed to be the first of its type delivered by the NHL upon a team owner for physical contact with a fan. During the suspension, Leonsis is to have no contact with the team or attend any games.

The incident between Leonsis and Hammer occurred outside the owner’s luxury box following the Caps’ 4-1 loss to Philadelphia. Hammer, who had been verbally taunting Leonsis throughout the game, said Leonsis grabbed him by the neck, threw him to the ground and continued to lunge at him while being restrained by security guards.

Caps officials have offered a differing version of the incident, as have other fans who were present, and suggested that Hammer attempted to shove a sign in Leonsis’ face criticizing the owner’s performance with both the Caps and America Online, where he is a vice chairman. But there appears to be clear consensus that Leonsis, at a minimum, shoved Hammer in anger.

“Even in cases when there were instances of alleged provocation, we have made it clear that NHL personnel need to do everything possible to avoid a confrontation with fans, and the failure to do so is not acceptable,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

Leonsis, who has not commented publicly on the incident, issued a statement last night where he expressed deep regret and acknowledged his responsibility to be held “to a higher standard than the general public.”

“It should have never happened,” Leonsis said. “I remain committed to being an accessible owner. Jason and I have had a discussion and will continue to speak because we both are passionate about the Capitals.”

Hammer, similarly, issued a statement along with Leonsis in which he also aimed to move beyond Sunday’s ugliness. The 20-year-old does not intend to press charges. Hammer’s loud taunts Sunday had stemmed from the Caps’ poor play and Friday’s financially motivated trade of Jaromir Jagr.

“What happened is in the past,” he said. “Ted and I have spoken, and we are moving forward. Caps games are a big part of my life, and the most important thing is that people come to support the team.”

The $100,000 fine, which was handed down one day after NHL security officials began an investigation of the incident, technically was levied against the Caps and not Leonsis personally. But since the team will lose nearly $30million this season and relies on the financial might of Leonsis and his partners, the penalty ultimately goes back to the owner.

NHL officials last night refused to indicate if the Leonsis fine was the largest penalty ever given a team owner for any offense. Some fines against management remain confidential, said league spokesman Frank Brown. Players often have surrendered six-figure sums due to suspensions that get coupled with forfeited salary.

The Leonsis fine, however, does appear to be the largest ever handed down from the league for inappropriate contact with a fan. Pittsburgh’s Matthew Barnaby lost $54,000 in pay during a four-game suspension for a December 2000 incident with a fan in Florida. Three months later, Toronto’s Tie Domi was fined $1,000 for spraying water on a fan in Philadelphia, an incident that ultimately led to the fan falling into the penalty box and scuffling with Domi.

Though the Leonsis fine is significant in NHL terms, it pales in comparison to some financial penalties levied upon owners in other sports. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban received a $500,000 fine, a $250,000 fine and two $100,000 fines in less than two years for repeated and strident criticisms of NBA officiating. The NFL fined Eddie DeBartolo, then co-owner of the San Francisco 49ers, $1million in 1999 for his role in a gambling fraud case in Louisiana.

Major League Baseball imposed a gag order in 2001 barring team owners from publicly discussing the sport’s labor negotiations and backed it with a $1million penalty for non-compliance. The NHL, now embroiled a nasty labor fight of its own, has a similar gag order in place. Though several owner comments about labor have irked league officials in both sports, it is not known if either entity has delivered a full $1million fine because of this.

When Leonsis returns from his suspension, his public conduct will be closely scrutinized by fans, the league and media alike. Leonsis, who played a key role in ushering in a new era in fan-owner contact for pro sports, has grown increasingly testy over the past nine months. The sources of the frustration are numerous, ranging from the Caps’ playoff disappointment last spring and woeful play this season, to a worsening financial outlook for the club.

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