- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said he believes he has built a team that will contend for the Stanley Cup for the next decade, and that sooner or later the team will win the first championship in franchise history.

“It’s like a portfolio strategy,” he told editors and reporters of The Washington Times Wednesday. “We’re there enough and we’re good enough, we will get there.”

The region’s most visible sports executive said he has found a surprising amount of time on his hands as the Capitals begin their season Thursday on the road against the Boston Bruins. The major pieces are in place, Mr. Leonsis said, and the only heavy lifting remaining, if he’s lucky, would involve the hoisting of the Stanley Cup.

“Every year, I’ve always had something to worry about,” Mr. Leonsis said. “There was always a ‘but-for,’ or an ‘if-only.’ But now when we go down the list, there aren’t any.

“Bluntly, it’s a great place to be. But the flip side is there’s great expectations on us.”

Perhaps no one has higher expectations than Mr. Leonsis himself, who has overseen a rebuilding of the Capitals from a downtrodden team with a stagnant fan base to a Stanley Cup contender with an energized following that is expected to buy every available ticket at Verizon Center. With a young team that includes the two-time NHL most valuable player in Alex Ovechkin, Mr. Leonsis said, he expects the Capitals to contend for a championship for at least the next decade.

Mr. Leonsis was effusive in his praise of Ovechkin, in particular, for not only his high-scoring style but his attributes as a teammate.

“We signed a guy, Mike Knuble, and the first guy to call him is the reigning league MVP,” Mr. Leonsis said. “And he was replacing a guy who [Ovechkin] liked, Viktor Kozlov. Your best player, your highest-paid player just sets that tone.”

Mr. Leonsis and the Capitals landed Ovechkin after earning the first overall pick in 2004 after a dismal season that was followed by a lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season. He ensured Ovechkin would remain in Washington long-term with a record-breaking 13-year, $124 million contract. Since then, Mr. Leonsis has been adamant in his desire to remain under the league salary cap by shunning pricey free agents in favor of maintaining a core of young players that includes Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green. Mr. Leonsis hired a mathematically inclined “capologist” to ensure the Capitals would remain just under the $57 million cap, and the team enters this season with less than $13,000 to spare.

“When you think about this team and what they’re doing and how they’re built the right way … what you’ve got here is stability and a plan and they’re sticking to it,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in remarks at the Capitals Convention on Saturday.

Building the Capitals into a contender is only one of Mr. Leonsis’ passions. The former AOL executive also is an investor in several technology startups, including Revolution Money, a type of retail payment system, and SnagFilms, a Web site devoted to promoting documentaries and independent films. He remains tech-savvy, maintaining a blog and interacting with fans via e-mail and on Twitter and Facebook.

Mr. Leonsis bought the Capitals as an investment, and it has thus far failed to bring in an annual profit. Despite the salary cap and the probability of 41 sold-out games at Verizon Center this season, Mr. Leonsis said, the Capitals will still fall short making money, adding to the tens of millions of dollars he has invested in the team since purchasing it for $85 million in 1999. The Capitals remain handcuffed by the debt service incurred by Washington Wizards’ owner Abe Pollin when he financed the construction of Verizon Center, as the debt has limited the amount of revenue the Capitals can collect from each game. Furthermore, despite raising ticket prices each of the past two years, the Capitals remain in the middle of the pack in the amount charged to fans.

Mr. Leonsis, however, said he believes the franchise has boomed in value since he bought it. He has no plans to sell the team, but said that if he did decide to cash out, he’d make back every penny he spent because of the strength and prestige of the Washington market.

“This has become the most dynamic, vibrant city in the country,” he said. “The economy is strong here. Unemployment is less here than in the other big cities. The media market is fantastic, and I feel like I’ve built a very valuable franchise. If I happen to sell it, I hope to look back one day and say it was a good investment, and hopefully we’ll have won a couple of Stanley Cups along the way.”

Already the majority owner of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, Mr. Leonsis also has the right of first refusal on the arena and the Wizards when Mr. Pollin either chooses to sell the team or passes away.

For now, however, he is focused on the upcoming National Hockey League season and the chance to improve on last year’s result, in which the Capitals fell at home to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

“We know what it feels like, and we know the intensity level and the commitment,” Mr. Leonsis said. “The guys, they know what to expect. I’m not going to say we’re going to win the Stanley Cup this year, but there’s no surprises now. We know.”

• Tim Lemke can be reached at tlemke@washingtontimes.com.

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