Before Thursday's "Fan Appreciation Special Event" at Verizon Center, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis addressed local reporters for the first time since the 119-day NHL lockout ended earlier this month. During a 20-minute press conference, Leonsis touched on a variety of issues, from his role in the labor negotiations to the state of the franchise both competitively and financially.
On the deal that the NHL and NHL Players' Association agreed to:
Well, I think we got a system that puts us in direct partnership with the players, a system very analogous to the NBA and NFL where it’s a 50-50 deal. We come out of it, I believe. with a system where all 30 teams and all 30 fan bases feel that their team can qualify for the playoffs and win a Cup, and that was very, very important to me. I served on the negotiating committee, which is really being a proxy for the ownership group and the big deliverables for me were a 50-50 deal and a long-term deal. I was very, very adamant that we could get a decade of peace, that that would be terrific, and we have that. So I’m thrilled with the deal. There was a lot of give and take on both sides. I’m sure that there’s things in the deal that the union doesn’t like, the players don’t like, the owners don’t like. That’s usually the sign of a good deal that was negotiated the right way. I’m very apologetic that we lost 34 games but I’m not apologetic that we had to get a new system that was good for everyone and I think we achieved that.
On his specific role as a member of the owners' negotiating committee:
You know I’d like to tell you that we had a really big role. It was mostly sitting at a table and listening. If I said 500 words in the 50 sessions in total that I attended I think that would be an exaggeration. I think one reporter said I was a hard-liner, which I had to laugh at. I received an e-mail the other day from someone who was involved in the negotiations and he said my nickname was Uncle Ted. And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Well, you were really nice. You’re not a hard-liner.’ The two things I wanted were a 50-50 deal and a 10-year deal. We basically served as proxy. It was really the league and the union that were doing the negotiating. I learned a lot, it was a really great process, but it’s behind us. And that’s the great thing about long-term deals. We don’t have to think about the CBA, we don’t have to think about what went on. Now we can just worry about growing the game and be in partnership with the players.
On the economic viability of the Capitals, who have reportedly lost money in recent years:
I’ve never made a penny of profit with the Washington Capitals, not [just] in recent years. Since I’ve owned the team we’ve never been profitable. This system will help us to get to break even.
On the reaction that he received from his players once the lockout ended:
We hashed it out. I showed up, Alex [Ovechkin] came in, ran over to me, gave me a big hug. We talked about our families and I told him I’d have an engagement party for him at my house. There’s no overhang at all. The players want to play. The players love playing for our fans. They frankly like being in Washington. We’ve built a world-class franchise and the only thing missing from the resume for all of these players is getting to the Finals and winning a Cup. That was the most frustrating thing for everybody; that we weren’t playing and we weren’t able to take that next step. So this week has been a blur. There’s been no discussion at all looking in the rear view mirror. It’s purely about what Adam [Oates’] new system will be, who’s healthy, what the lineup’s going to look like, who’s going to be in goal and what’s the schedule look like. This is a compressed season and everyone understands that being distracted is not the right way to get success in a 48-game season. They’re all focused on listening to the coach and getting ready for [the season opener] Saturday night.
On the reaction that he has received from fans and his thoughts on the large turnouts at training camp:
I was surprised, not on weekends. But I couldn’t find a parking spot [Thursday] when I went to the office. Then I had to go to Verizon Center and there were like a hundred people waiting for autographs. I was kidding, I said, ‘What’s wrong with you parents? You take your kids out of school? They’re playing hookey to come see the Caps on a weekday?’ They’re fanatical fans; they miss the players and to be honest, personally, I miss the fans. I was upstairs greeting people when they were coming in and I had a big smile on my face. You forget the energy that the fans bring to you and the relationships that you have with these people. I’ve owned the team now since ‘99-'00 and I know a lot of these people. They walk in and they have their kids and you remember their kids when they were five, and now they’re 16, 17 years old going off to college. You feel like you’ve grown up with a lot of these people. So there’s a real deep personal connection between ownership and the fans, the players and the fans. I watched the players leave the building from my office the other day and they didn’t leave until everyone’s autograph was signed. They know that’s a social responsibility they have. I also find it remarkable that I get asked to sign an autograph and I’ve already signed their shirt two or three times. They just want that bonding with the franchise and with the players. That’s a real daunting responsibility that everybody feels and it made it doubly tough to lose those 34 games.
People understood. People knew we were going to come back and we’re back. We’re sold out. They’re happy. They’re happy to be here among their friends.
On the resiliency of the fanbase, particularly season-ticket holders:
I’m really pleased to say that we went into the lockout with 14,500 or so full and equivalent season ticket holders We could have more but we do that by design so that we can have single tickets to sell for fans to be introduced to the game. We sell a couple thousand tickets every game to groups. We want to be loyal to the groups that have supported us over the years. I think during the lockout we had about 150 [unrenewed] seats, that probably represents about 70 accounts. Three of those accounts have already emailed me personally asking for us to reinstate them. We’re doing our best there because we honestly had to sell those seats to people on the waiting list. So our fans remain very, very loyal and I appreciate that, but we’re not going to take that for granted. We know we have a lot of work to do.
On his expectations for the Caps on the ice this season:
I think it's unclear for all 30 teams. We're all in the same boat. We've had six days to get ready. Health will play a role in the success of a lot of these teams. I was very grateful when I heard that Nick Backstrom was healthy. That, to me, was very concerning because we missed him for 40 games last year and we saw how the team performed without your first-line center. Now we have a lot of strength down the middle with him and [Mike] Ribeiro, so if we can stay healthy and the players can integrate what Adam [Oates] wants...and what Adam wants is pretty basic hockey. We're going to play aggressively offensively and our players like that. But the payment for that is more responsibility in the defensive end. And that was the system that they had in New Jersey last year. All the players in New Jersey loved playing in that system. It's a lot of fun and it involves everybody. You have to roll all four lines. And they had great success; they went to the Stanley Cup Finals. So Adam's got immediate buy-in from our players. And like any team, your best players and your highest-paid players, if they buy in and buy in with enthusiasm, that trickles down to the rest of the players. And Alex Ovechkin is psyched right now. Adam told him, 'I'm gonna use you in every situation. You're gonna play a lot of minutes. But to those who much is given, much is expected. And I trust you, Alex, that you can be one of the best players in the game. You're gonna have to play hard in every one of those situations.' And he's psyched. You can see it in his eyes.
What I've learned is that teams win, but your stars have to buy in, and right now, our stars have bought in.
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