- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

It doesn’t seem good to be Ted Leonsis at the moment. His heralded five-year plan for turning the Washington Capitals into Stanley Cup champions is so much shredded paper. His team, stripped of its offensive stars in cost-cutting trades he approved, is near the end of its worst season in more than 25 years. And a looming labor stoppage threatens the future of the NHL. The Capitals’ owner discussed the future of the team and the league with David Elfin of The Washington Times.

TWT: The five-year plan you announced after buying the Caps in 1999 obviously didn’t come close to fruition. Where do you go from here? Is there a new long-range plan?

TL: I’ll never articulate a plan publicly again because it leaves you open to criticism if the plan doesn’t work. I’ve learned my lesson about watching my words.

TWT: There’s logic to the moves you have made for the future because you were mired in last place with a high payroll. But do you really expect fans to pay to see such a denuded team when they weren’t coming in droves to see Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra and Robert Lang? As popular as Olie Kolzig is, few fans come to see goalies. What’s your marketing strategy?

TL: We’re going to sell $18 million worth of tickets this year. Our best year was $21 million. With our reduced payroll next season, we’ll come out ahead even with $12 million in ticket sales. I don’t think we’ll have an empty building.

The focus will be on a young team growing up together, playing rugged hockey and starting to get results. The fans can already see that Alexander Semin will be a great player. I don’t think it’s possible to sell an underachieving last-place team. It’s much easier to sell a young team with great prospects that works really hard.

TWT: We understand you are going to cut ticket prices. How much and for how long?

TL: We’ll make the announcement when we send out our renewals after the season. The number one issue for our fans is ticket prices, but the average NHL ticket price is $52. Ours is $45. And we have 2,000 $10 seats at every game, and they don’t sell out.

The majority of my e-mails from fans understand what we’ve done and are supportive. My goals are to have more affordable ticket prices and a team that’s more competitive. We had the eighth-highest payroll and the 17th-highest ticket prices. This year, the team played worse and worse, and the fans stopped coming. So how much worse can it be next year with a smaller payroll?

We added $20 million in payroll [the past three seasons] but only added $4 million in ticket sales. We went from losing $15 million to losing $30 million. That’s a fundamental problem for a league based on ticket sales.

If we sell even $10 million in tickets next year with a $30 million payroll, we’re better off than selling $20 million with a $50 million payroll. The fans weren’t buying what we were selling. It’s not fun, but what are we afraid of in going in a different direction?

TWT: Is there any fear of losing dates at MCI Center because of the labor situation? Other buildings around the country are starting to book dates that could be used for hockey. Have you talked to [Washington Wizards/MCI Center owner] Abe Pollin about this?

TL: I haven’t addressed that with Abe yet. It’s business as usual until September [15, when the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the players association expires]. The NHL schedule will have been made with our home games at MCI Center on it.

TWT: The Caps have never really won this town’s heart during their 30 seasons. And now you’re starting almost from scratch. If the NHL is going to subtract a few franchises after the new CBA is negotiated, as has been widely rumored, why wouldn’t yours be one of them?

TL: That makes zero sense. We’re a top-six market, and the league is trying to sell a new TV deal. You can’t reach the Mid-Atlantic without us. And we have the second-highest local TV deal. You heard the commissioner say it the other day. We’re not going anywhere. Anybody who says otherwise is talking nonsense.

TWT: So much depends on the upcoming drafts in which you have stockpiled early-round picks. You have criticized the previous regime for its poor drafts, but what tangible evidence is there that [general manager] George McPhee and his scouts are doing any better?

TL: First of all, it was harder for young players to break into our team the past few years because we had so many veterans. But look at Semin in the last month. [Defenseman] Steve Eminger will eat up a ton of minutes next year. Boyd Gordon will play for us for a long time. Those were our three first-round picks in 2002.

Eric Fehr and Stephen Werner, whom we drafted last year, are leading their teams in scoring. Brian Sutherby [Washington’s first choice in 2000] and Nolan Yonkman [a 1999 selection] were both hurt this year, but they’ll be on our team next year. And two of the kids we traded for, Jakub Klepis and Tomas Fleischmann, are leading their teams in scoring, too. The Hockey News said we have one of the three or four best groups of young prospects.

TWT: You inherited George McPhee. He has fired two hand-picked coaches and hasn’t won a playoff series in six years. Why isn’t his job in jeopardy?

TL: The same people saying George should be fired said we should fire Ron Wilson two years ago. We did, and now his team [San Jose], which went through the same kind of rebuilding last year, is pushing Colorado out West.

During George’s first two years after we bought the team, we had one of the top two or three ratios of wins per payroll. Then came the trade for Jagr. That was pivotal. We changed our style of play and our philosophy.

Peter wasn’t happy, but we kept him with a new contract. We gave Olie a long-term contract. We brought in Lang [Jagr’s former Penguins teammate was signed as a free agent in 2002] to make Jaromir feel more comfortable.

Maybe George needed $10 million more, but I told him he couldn’t spend more than $50 million this year. We started the season with the league’s seventh-highest payroll, but we were still [undermanned] on defense because we had a few players eating up so much of our payroll.

We were counting on Yonkman to replace Ken Klee, and not only did he get hurt, but he hurt Michael Nylander, too. I like and respect George. Last summer, we signed George and the coaching staff for this year and next year. We’ll go from there.

TWT: How close were you to hiring Glen Hanlon as your coach before you chose Bruce Cassidy two years ago? Some of your players believe that the playoff loss to Tampa Bay last spring and this year’s implosion wouldn’t have happened if Glen had been the coach all along.

TL: We’ve always liked Glen, but hindsight is always 20-20. Bruce had the second-best debut season for any Caps coach. He took us to the playoffs, which we had missed the previous year.

People say the players tuned Ron out. Then they said they tuned Bruce out. It’s up to the players to perform. I’m not going to let the inmates run the asylum anymore. The coach is the authority figure.

TWT: Trading for Jagr was your boldest move before the recent housecleaning. Why was there such a rush to sign him to that huge long-term deal before he even played a game for you?

TL: Jagr’s agent said from day one that if we didn’t give him an extension that he would go into free agency. I was afraid of losing an asset. Can you imagine the reaction if we had lost Jagr to free agency? The contract was a bad decision made with the best interest of the team.

TWT: There’s a strong feeling in your organization that it would be best for the Caps not to have a 2004-05 season to save huge losses on and off the ice. George has said he plans on having a bunch of young guys grow together in Portland (Maine) next season.

TL: We want to play next season but under a new economic system. It might be painful [on the ice] for a while. Look at Tampa Bay. Four years ago, I didn’t know any of the guys on their team, and now they have the best record in the Eastern Conference.

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