- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

The Washington Capitals slowly are starting to show up on the radar screen, thanks to their young superstar Alex Ovechkin.

How do I know this? Pat Sajak was in the house Saturday night for the Caps’ 5-2 win against the division-leading Carolina Hurricanes, a sign the wheel of fortune finally may be turning in favor of owner Ted Leonsis.

Things haven’t gone well for Leonsis since he purchased the Capitals in 1999. He bought high — Leonsis took control of the team the year after it reached the Stanley Cup Finals — and the Caps haven’t been close to the Cup since.

He bought the team assuming that Abe Pollin would soon step down and owning the Caps would help him get the Wizards and MCI Center. Seven years later, Abe still is in charge and the arena is about to switch its phone identities and become the Verizon Center. All Leonsis has to show for it is the franchise that is the perennial leader in attendance in the WNBA.

He brokered the marriage of Pollin and Michael Jordan, a union that ended in ugly divorce. He brought in Jaromir Jagr, who was a mess on and off the ice in Washington but now is flourishing in New York.

He and his partners reportedly have lost more than $100 million since they bought the franchise.

Leonsis hasn’t been able to buy a vowel pretty much since he became the Caps owner. But now he is about to own the entire alphabet, because Ovechkin looks like he truly may be the eighth wonder of the world.

In just 45 games, Ovechkin set a franchise record for goals by a rookie with 33. He has a total of 64 points, 38 ahead of the team’s next-highest scorer.

Ovechkin had accounted for nearly 26 percent of the Caps’ goals through Wednesday, by far a higher percentage than any other player in the NHL. He ranked second in percentage of total points, two-tenths of a point behind Jagr. On Monday he was named NHL Player of the Week.

He might be the most talented player ever to wear a Caps uniform. Many people who have spent a lifetime watching hockey are convinced he will be one of the best players — if not the best — the league has ever seen.

If that isn’t enough, he is by all accounts extremely coachable, extremely likeable and extremely dedicated.

Last week Caps coach Glen Hanlon had to order him off the ice in practice to save his strength. He is almost too good to be true. And he is just 20 years old?

So what do the Caps do with the eighth wonder of the world?

“What it may do is accelerate the plan,” general manager George McPhee said. “We’re better than people think. We’re better than people expected. He has been a big part of that. Where we were looking six months ago at this being a two- or three-year process, we are now thinking we may be able to turn this around in a year.

“We were hoping he could hold down a regular shift this year and contribute a little bit, and he has been absolutely phenomenal. So we feel we’re closer than we were six months ago.”

Hold down a regular shift? He controls the ice whenever he is in the game. However, at times he has woeful support, as witnessed by the 8-1 beating the hapless Penguins gave the Caps on Wednesday night. It would seem that before there are too many of those, the Caps should consider making a rush to load up on talent, because the losing becomes too much of a burden.

Still, Leonsis said he is not going to let the talent of Ovechkin change the Capitals from the plan he believes will build a solid, winning franchise in the new NHL.

“There is no shortcut,” Leonsis said. “It took Mario [Lemieux] and Michael Jordan many years to win a championship. If we build a great team around Alex, it will take him less time, but I am also not interested in being a flash-in-the-pan franchise. I want to build a team that lasts, that is competitive for a long, long time, and that is why building with young players that peak and grow together is so interesting to all of us in ownership.

“Alex has exceeded our expectations. He is a great player. He has great offensive gifts. He is charismatic. His teammates love him. Free agents will want to come to Washington to play with him. We will market him as a once-in-a-generation player. But as we have seen in NBA and NFL, teams win, not individuals. So we will do our best to find the right balance between the team and the star. I am confident we can do both, and do them well.”

Teams may win, but stars sell tickets.

The Caps are in a battle with a rejuvenated Redskins franchise and the new kid on the block, the Nationals, for the sports entertainment dollar. They need attention.

The sports world took notice of Ovechkin last week after he scored a goal against the Coyotes while sliding across the ice on his back.

It was all the rage on “SportsCenter,” and ESPN is going to have to come up with an Ovechkin plan sometime soon as well.

You can be sure NBC will be coming up with one shortly. Next month, men’s hockey will be one of the cornerstones of their Winter Olympic coverage.

“Our hockey coverage is a fan’s dream come true,” said Dick Ebersol, the network’s sports chairman.

If that is the case, then Ovechkin should emerge as one of the stars of the Games. He will play for Russia, one of the gold medal favorites.

Speaking of gold, fortunes appear about ready to change for Ted Leonsis, who someday soon may finally be able to look at his partners and say, “We’re millionaires, boys. I’ll share it with all of you.”

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