- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On New Year’s Day in 2008, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis was watching the inaugural Winter Classic on television with his family when he first had the thought: What if this was happening in Washington?

That afternoon, with the game still playing on a nearby television, Leonsis emailed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman about the prospective arrangement for the first time. What followed was a six-year odyssey, a constant exchange of emails and phone calls, discussions and agreements, prodding and pushing.

“There’s two things you know about Ted: he’s passionate and he’s persistent,” Bettman said. “Most mornings when I get up, the first email I see is from him.”

Leonsis stood in front of a podium at Nationals Park on Tuesday and knew that in exactly 100 days, his idea would finally become reality. The sight behind him was one final confirmation. In the center of the baseball field, barriers and goalposts outlined the dimensions of a future hockey rink. The official logo of 2015 Winter Classic flashed on the jumbotron.

“It’s a great day for the city,” Leonsis said. “These events really are made for the fans, and our city deserves it. So it feels good to finally know that we’re going to drop the puck New Year’s Day — and we’re just hoping for snow.”

The process of bringing the Winter Classic to Washington was a lengthy one. It took the joint effort of not only Leonsis and Bettman but also Major League Baseball, the Nationals and the city. Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner and general manager Mike Rizzo were on hand Tuesday, as was Mayor Vincent C. Gray. All parties involved seemed excited about the result.

“I’m pretty pumped about it,” Lerner said. “Commissioner Bettman always promised [Leonsis] we would get one, and he honored that commitment.”

Bettman said the argument Leonsis made to him on Washington’s behalf was pretty straightforward. The city has experience hosting major events. It has the aura of the nation’s capital. It has a passionate, devoted and, perhaps most importantly, growing fanbase.

“And he pushed a little harder than that,” Bettman said with a chuckle, “but that’s it at 10,000 feet.”

The event’s presence in Washington says as much about the emergence of D.C. as a hockey town as anything else. “This game, if it’s not already, will be sold out very quickly,” Bettman said.

Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said he has seen tremendous growth in the team’s fanbase since his arrival in 2005, both in numbers and enthusiasm.

“My first year, I can do whatever I want and nobody was here,” he said. “But right now, like last night we went to restaurant and people was getting crazy like, ‘Hi Alex, how’s everything?’ And they start asking [for] pictures, autographs. Hockey’s going up right now. And we do good job to help that.”

Ovechkin sported baseball pants and flip-flops in addition to the special jersey he will wear during the Winter Classic. Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby were also on hand to model the jerseys, which are a deep red with a large “W” on the front. All three players later went down to the Nationals’ clubhouse and took batting practice in the indoor cage. Holtby also posed for a photo with Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper.

The Winter Classic is more than three months away, separated by at least two playoff games at Nationals Park next weekend and perhaps many more. Plenty of baseball remains before it is time for hockey. But with the rink outlined on the field and the jerseys fresh out of the box, Leonsis couldn’t help but think ahead.

“For hockey in Washington D.C.,” he said, “it’s a big moment.”

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