Prior to the Washington Capitals’ open practice at VerizonCenter Thursday night, team owner Ted Leonsis met with members of the media to discuss his role in the NHL lockout, his thoughts on the Capitals and the possibility of Alex Ovechkin playing in the 2014 Winter Olympics. Here are excerpts from Part Two of the interview:
On a shortened 48-game season:
I think it will be a big positive. For me, I believe that when you have a season where the playoffs are decided like the last day of the season, and every team is bunched together and every game matters, that’s when fans come to every game. That competitiveness, what the NFL has, where on any given Sunday, it doesn’t matter what size your market is, how big your stadium is, every fan base and every team thinks it can make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. We have a system that should allow every team to do that. The revenue sharing is very aggressive. I think it’s the most aggressive of the four sports, and so I think if you’re a well-managed team and you have involved ownership and the fans believe in the team, they’ll turn out. We’re still a sport that the gate really matters, that you need people in the building. We see that. 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. All of these things we’re doing like tonight … Tonight is a very innovative and frankly, expensive thing. To open the building and say, ‘Anybody who wants to come into the building, come on in. And it’s really cold out so I’m wondering how many people are going to be here who don’t even like hockey, they’re just getting out of the cold. We just want to continue to give back as much as we can, but the [home] season starts on Tuesday. I mean, we’ve had six days, really, to get prepared and get the season going. So I want to be apologetic, I want to be contrite. But I also want to look forward and start the season. They’re leaving [Friday] for Tampa. It’s totally amazing. We open Kettler and ore people were at Kettler every day for this week than I was expecting. A lot of people are going to be here tonight. Our fans will come back, but we know we didn’t do right by them. Missing 34 games is not what you want to do as an owner of a team or the commissioner. [Gary Bettman] has been apologetic, we’ve all been apologetic, but it’s now time for us to move forward.
On whether he was surprised by the fan turnout at Kettler Capitals Iceplex:
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 ‘99-2000 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.
On the NHLPA charge that the Capitals were audited:
It’s very, very important you word this correctly. So, 2011 we bought the Verizon Center and the Wizards and the union asked, ‘Can we come in?’ which was their right, and look at the accounting to make sure that the accounting was proper. They did their accounting and they said the accounting was proper. End of story. That’s it.
On negative reaction from fans:
I was just upstairs and I was getting asked for autographs and to take pictures. Don’t mistake Twitter for the real world. 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 what he learned about himself after going through an NBA and an NHL lockout:
Say no when they ask you to be on the negotiating committee. That the business side of owning a team is really of no interest and should be hidden from fans. And that fans don’t care about that and they shouldn’t care about it. Fans only care about the team, the players and winning a championship. That’s how it should be. So I’m hoping there’s decades of seasons for both teams, that we can do that. And that would be a good thing.