Saturday, January 12, 2008

Thirteen years.

A lot can happen in 13 years. Ted Leonsis didn’t own the Washington Capitals 13 years ago. Verizon Center didn’t exist. The Redskins played at RFK Stadium.

And who knows what will happen 13 years from now? Heck, the polar ice cap could have melted by 2021, and we could all be looking for life jackets.

But the Washington Capitals have a vision for the next 13 years — Alex Ovechkin in a Capitals uniform, and they have paid a record $124 million for that vision.

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    Yesterday at the Capitals’ practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, fans were still trying to comprehend the deal Leonsis announced the day before — the signing of Ovechkin, one of the hockey’s brightest young stars, for the next 13 years.

    Tim Robinson, a 25-year old Capitals fan from Sterling, watched practice while wearing his Ovechkin jersey — a wise investment now, since he should be able to wear it for the next 13 years.

    “I jumped for joy when I heard the news,” Robinson said. “I was so happy. He is the best thing to come along here in a long time, and this was a huge signal for Caps fans.”

    No one could argue that. There had been growing fears that somehow the Capitals would not be able to hold on to Ovechkin, who could have been a restricted free agent at the end of this season. Those fears were fueled by media reports in Canada, where Ovechkin is coveted and where he could have been a hockey god.

    But Leonsis never considered those reports to be serious. He held a trump card. He knew Ovechkin — tied for second in the league with 32 goals and tied for ninth with 52 points through Thursday, with his 130 career goals, tied with Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk for the most in the NHL since he joined the league in 2005 — was happy here because every time he spoke to his 22-year-old talent, Ovechkin told him so.

    “I was very relaxed throughout the whole process because whenever I would touch base with Alex, he would say, ‘I’m really happy. I love you guys. I love what we are doing with the team, and I want to play here for a long, long time,’ ” Leonsis said. “I would read in the media stuff that was incongruent with what my firsthand knowledge and experience was, and because I trust him and his family, it just never bothered me.”

    And a day after making the announcement to spend three times as much money as it took to build his state-of-the-art practice complex in Ballston on one player, Leonsis seemed just as happy and content as his very rich star.

    “Alex was coming off his rookie contract, and he could have signed a four- or five-year deal,” Leonsis said. “Sidney Crosby had signed a five-year deal. Then [Ovechkin] would have been an unrestricted free agent. We talked to him and we told him we would give him another year, to make it six years. That was the first deal we negotiated, and that is why it came to $9 million. Crosby did five years at $8.7 [million]. We were buying a year of free agency — $9 million a year over six years.

    “We were all happy,” Leonsis said. “We shook hands. We had a deal. Then it was, ‘Do you want to stay longer?’ And it was, ‘Sure, what do you have in mind?’ Then we did some research and asked, what is the average free agent deal, how long is it? Last year there were several seven year deals. So we thought, why not just negotiate his free agent deal now?

    “So while $10 million sounded like a lot of money, I will bet you that in six years, when a player like Alex hits the free agent market, they are going to be paid a lot more than $10 million a year,” Leonsis said. “Dany Heatley this year makes $10 million. That is how we broke it up — do his first year now, then let’s negotiate his free agent deal. That is how it got to be 13 years.”

    Things change, though, in 13 years. People change. Money changes people. The Capitals believe, though, they have invested in as sure a thing as you can in an athlete, even with the uncertainties of any future.

    “There aren’t many players you could do this with,” general manager George McPhee said. “We were comfortable doing it with Alex because he is a unique player. He has the physical tools and energy and intensity and body type to withstand the rigors of the NHL and the mental makeup to not change his game. One thing we know is that Alex is a very driven guy. His game won’t change. Some people around him may change, who knows. But he won’t.”

    Well, maybe just a little. As he peeled off his equipment after practice, I said to Ovechkin, “You must feel a little different today than yesterday.”

    “Of course,” he replied, smiling.

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