The Business of Hockey: An Interview with Washington Capitals Owner Ted Leonsis

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The Business of Hockey: An Interview with Washington Capitals Owner Ted Leonsis
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The office of Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis sits in the corner of the Kettler Capitals Iceplex, where the sun shines brilliantly through a large stretch of glass overseeing the historic city of Arlington, Virginia.

Framed photographs and posters adorn the office like a mosaic of memories and accomplishments, including snapshots of Leonsis and President Barack Obama, celebratory pictures of his Capitals team and playbills of films he has produced in his very fruitful life.

The author of The Business of Happiness is just that: a happy person. Fresh off a 3-2 win over the St. Louis Blues the previous evening, Leonsis was all smiles when he sat down with me to discuss his thoughts on the business of hockey, 24/7 and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A glance at Leonsis' history in the workforce illustrates a man who has dedicated his life to the expansion of knowledge, be it in the ever-growing media age or social issues haunting today's world.

However, sports have always been on his mind. Owning a sports team had a place on a list of 101 things he wants to do in life.

When the opportunity arose to buy the Washington Capitals in 1999, Leonsis almost didn't bite. Owning a team is expensive, and the scrutiny that comes with becoming the head of a franchise is daunting. Despite his reservations, Leonsis is now the proud owner of not one, but three professional sports teams.

Greg Fiume/Getty Images

But that doesn't mean he's immune to the pressure.

"[Owning a team] is a civic and public trust," said Leonsis. "And it's a much bigger responsibility than just running a business.

"20,000 [people] were at our 94th sellout last night. If we lose 3-2, they go home mad. If we win 3-2, they feel great today. That's a big responsibility."

Coming from a business-heavy background, this type of responsibility is a huge change for Leonsis and what he saw as the norm. In fact, what is often considered conventional in hockey is counterintuitive in the business world.

"Never in business would you say, 'I have to fire every one of my employees and rebuild this company from scratch.' In sports, for the most part, you become really good by becoming really bad so you can pick high in the draft," said Leonsis.

Regardless of the clashes between running a business and owning a sports team, Leonsis feels a certain level of fulfillment by owning the Capitals, and it comes from the natural ebb and flow of the game that makes it so exciting to watch: "There's no high like winning a game and no low like losing a game.

"You don't get that positive or negative buzz from any other business."

Leonsis knows his fair share of positive and negative buzz, especially after the tumultuous ride that was the filming of the HBO series 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The two teams were very clearly divided, as filming took place amidst one of the Capitals' worst losing streaks in recent history, while the Penguins were amidst one of their longest winning streaks in recent history.

According to Leonsis, HBO went with where the obvious plot was heading: one team happy winning while the other team was stressed out losing.

"We were organ music, the Penguins were piano music," Leonsis noted.

24/7 generated enthusiastic discussion throughout its unprecedented behind-the-scenes view of the NHL locker room and how players and coaching staff deal with the ups and downs of an NHL season.

Of course, Leonsis is no newbie to the world of production and entertainment.

"It was compelling television," he said. "I just think it kind of stereotyped people, mostly our coach."

In the series, Bruce Boudreau became the notorious curser because of his extensive use of the F word when he was on camera. Many also mocked him for certain scenes—for example, when he took his sons on a Christmas shopping trip to Tyson's Corner Center that seemed more focused on getting some ice cream at Häagen-Dazs than finding a Christmas present for Mrs. Boudreau.

The clip made for a humorous scene, but Leonsis felt that it didn't represent the coach in a fair light, especially to an audience who may not know his past accomplishments with the Capitals.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

"He was coach of the year one year," said Leonsis. "People who don't know him are thinking, 'This is what the coach of the year does?'

"He just implemented an entirely new system. We're sixth in the NHL now in goals against. That's really hard to do with the team we have constructed which was an offensive juggernaut...that is really fine coaching, but most people think of our coach as the guy who couldn't figure out what to get his wife for Christmas Day.

"If he was like that all the time, would the players love him? He's beloved by the players, he's considered a players' coach."

For these reasons, Leonsis has made good use of blogging where he knows he has complete control of the persona he projects without the worries of editing for the sake of entertainment.

But the Capitals managed to have the last laugh when the Winter Classic ended in their favor, thus closing the series on a good, redeeming note for the team...

Right?

Leonsis didn't think so. "I thought the weakest of all of the episodes was the last episode because they had vested so much in the story line up to that point and we didn't play the role they wanted us to," he said.

There was one indisputable point in the series, and that was the intensity between the Capitals and Penguins. It's no secret that the players don't like each other, and that has carried over to the fans, especially on the Capitals' end, who have seen Pittsburgh claim seven of eight playoff series in the last 20 years.

Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Rivalries, according to Leonsis, are made in the playoffs, but the rivalry has hardly changed his view of the city.

"I don't hate Pittsburgh," he emphasized. "It's that the Penguins beat the Caps in the playoffs and the fanbase feels that."

There might also be a bit of resentment from Caps fans for when Pens fans would fill up the Capital Centre and MCI/Verizon Center every time the Pens came to town. Leonsis took note of this and in 2001 wrote his own computer program to block residents of zip codes outside the DC Metropolitan area from buying tickets.

Leonsis took a lot of heat for his actions, namely from Pens fans, but he wanted to make sure that Caps fans were the ones filling the building.

"There's a lot of anger [over the zip code block] but [Pittsburgh] did it to Detroit fans in 2009," he defended. "And it was celebrated.

"Isn't that what you would want your owner to do?"

However, the zip code block is no longer used, Leonsis pointed out, because it's no longer necessary.

"We don't have any tickets to sell anymore," he said. "Pittsburgh fans can buy tickets now. Who they buy them from is our fans."

This fact excites Leonsis because it is proof of the growth of hockey interest in the DC area, something he has fought for since buying the team.

"One of my goals is to unabashedly make this a hockey town and we see proof points of that. We'll end this year with our 100th straight sellout."

Yet even with the sellout numbers, expectations for the Caps have been high since the drafting of Alex Ovechkin in 2004, and reminders of the shortcomings aren't necessary. It is a barrier the team hopes to break through soon.

"We just haven't met those expectations yet," said Leonsis. "Until we win a Stanley Cup, we're a wannabe."

"Wannabe" is something Leonsis has and never will aspire to be.

 

Laura Falcon is a Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Follow her on Twitter or email her at lfalcon@mail.umw.edu with any comments or questions.

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