By Adam Kilgore,
LAS VEGAS — LAS VEGAS — Ted Leonsis stood on the T-Mobile Arena ice, no one around him, a rare moment of quiet inside a dream come to life, between the completion of a two-decade quest and riotous celebration. He had seen the photographs from back in Washington, of streets flooded with red, a city in total communion. He held his right hand on his cheek. His eyes welled with tears. “Nothing’s easy,” he thought. And then, after a beat, another thought: “What do I have to do next year to do it again?”
Leonsis bought the Washington Capitals in 1999. He believed in the civic purpose of a sports franchise, how it could weave a city tighter. But he also understood how tied to winning those ideals were.
“I’ve always believed nothing brings a city closer together than a winning sports team,” Leonsis said. Washington came together for the Capitals, but it also suffered collective anguish at annual early exits. Leonsis once said he knew he’d be considered a “failure” if the Capitals never won the Stanley Cup. He felt the sting his fan base felt, over and over, layered with responsibility.
“It makes it taste better,” Leonsis said Thursday night, standing on the ice after the Capitals’ Game 5 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights. “It’s much, much sweeter to go through all of the pain and suffering to get to the top of the mountain. That’s the way life is. That’s the way great businesses get built. It’s never easy.”
[The Capitals’ season — from bitter disappointment to a Stanley Cup]
Since Leonsis took ownership of the Capitals from Abe Pollin, he has grown enmeshed in the city’s fabric, an ever-present driver — and cheerleader — of Washington’s sporting fate. He is compulsively connected to fans and sometimes, in his deference to patience and loyalty, detached from their sentiments. He made hubristic statements about never missing the playoffs and winning multiple Stanley Cups. The majority owner of the Wizards since 2010, he once declared Andray Blatche and Jordan Crawford part of the team’s “new big three.” He sits next to the Wizards bench, hollering at officials and encouraging players. He wears Capitals jerseys in his suite.
With Redskins Owner Daniel Snyder increasingly removed from the public eye, Leonsis has become the clear dean of sports executives in Washington. His Monumental Sports portfolio has become an empire, a massive influence on nearly every sector of the city’s sports scene. Monumental partially owns NBC Sports Washington, which gives Leonsis a platform to make an imprint on local media, a favorite target of his complaints early on in his ownership. The new basketball complex he opened in Southeast Washington may help revitalize a neighborhood. Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner, who became a minority Capitals owner in 2004, called Leonsis “a dear friend and a terrific mentor to me” and “truly a visionary — a man with big ideas and the patience and fortitude to accomplish anything he sets his mind to.”
The weight of losing
Leonsis, 61, had turned the Capitals, by many measures, into a raging success well before this week. Their sellout streak passed 400 games this year. They made the playoffs in 10 of the past 11 seasons. They have three times won the Presidents’ Trophy for most points during the NHL regular season since 2010. But they never won the Stanley Cup, and those successes made the failures feel weightier.
“It’s similar to the entrepreneurial journey he’s had,” AOL founder and Leonsis’s longtime friend and business partner Steve Case said. “There’s occasionally overnight successes in the start-up world. Usually they’re long journeys with lots of ups and downs. That was the case with Ted and I and our team at AOL. It was a struggle.”
“Never lost confidence in the group and the core,” Leonsis said. “To be honest, I never lost confidence in myself and our leadership group. I just think if you attack things with integrity, and you have stick-with-it-ness, then good things will happen.”
[What happened in Vegas: All night with the Capitals and the Stanley Cup]
But there was only so much solace to take in the building. The wins and losses in sports are visceral and final. In entrepreneurial pursuits, a slow sales month is unaccompanied by another company celebrating in the lobby, and it is followed by another month rather than a long offseason of customers debating your mistakes and your future on talk radio. If you lose money, you do not feel the letdown of an entire city.
“Any of us who own businesses feel a responsibility to win, whatever business we’re in. You want to do the best job you can,” Leonsis’s friend Seth Hurwitz, the owner of 9:30 Club, the Anthem and other local concert venues, said before Game 5. “In sports, that’s measured by winning a championship. He knows how much joy it would bring people in the city, and I think that when we don’t, he feels like he’s let people down. Which of course, he hasn’t.”
“I don’t know if it wears on him what other people think,” Hurwitz added. “I know it wears on him personally, that he’s disappointed. The early exits have been really crushing. I know he’s sad about it. I think it’s more that when people don’t think he’s sad about it, or think he’s satisfied, it probably hurts him. He wants to deliver a championship for everyone here. He wants to make everyone happy.”
‘Respect the process’
After the Capitals beat the Pittsburgh Penguins to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, Leonsis revealed a telling insight into his thinking. Asked about finally making it out of the second round of the playoffs, Leonsis said, while standing in the dressing room, “It’s almost embarrassing it’s taken this long for us to get past it.” It was a stark admission from an owner who rarely, if ever, expressed anything but positivity and confidence in his teams and his ability to guide them.
“I think when he bought the team, he expected, as any new owner would have, that the path to victory would have been shorter,” Case said.
Do you think? As the Capitals rose, Leonsis frequently made statements that, in the eyes of fans and NHL insiders, dripped with hubris. Case explained the mind-set as Leonsis’s expression of faith in what he was building, not dissimilar to the pair claiming all of America would eventually go online in the early 90s. It was not arrogance, but belief in his long view.
“Alex [Ovechkin] and the Caps are going to win Stanley Cups,” Leonsis said in a 2010 radio interview. “We’re either going to win it this year or next year or the year after. We’re going to get better, too. That’s the thing. I promise the team will be better next year than it is this year.”
[Svrluga: Alex Ovechkin wins the Stanley Cup — and secures his legacy]
Before the Capitals had escaped the second round, Leonsis was casually guaranteeing multiple championships.
“The team will make the playoffs, as I promised, 10 to 15 years in a row,” Leonsis said in 2011. “There is a 10-to-15-year horizon.”
The Capitals missed the playoffs in 2014.
“I think now we are truly educated through experience,” Leonsis’s wife, Lynn, said, smiling. “It is definitely not easy. There is a lot of unpredictable variables. We totally respect the process. We totally respect — and love — the process.”
“Humbled is a strong word,” Capitals President Dick Patrick said. “I would say he’s just a little more seasoned in his view of things. We’ve seen how difficult and almost arbitrary it is to be standing at the end of the day with the Cup. They did have the potential to win multiple Cups. They had great players. It’s really hard to win the Stanley Cup.”
Humbled, indeed, may not be quite right. Asked if he had been humbled over the years, Leonsis paused, gave a quizzical look and then started talking about what a wonderful experience winning had been. And then he said, “Our fans deserve to have this done again.”
A deep connection
José Andrés, the famed D.C. chef and a Wizards season ticket holder, has been close with Leonsis for years. “I love the man,” Andres said. This week, in response to a broad question about Leonsis’s demeanor as he homed in on the prize of his career, Andres rattled off a list of good deeds he had observed.
Andres said Leonsis had donated money and set up connections to help his massive efforts in feeding people after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. “He would kill me if I talk about it,” he said, before talking about it. He told a story about how Leonsis met a homeless man outside Capital One Arena, offered him tickets and pressed Andres to give him a job and teach him the food industry. When the man faltered, Leonsis persisted, wanting to help him without giving him a handout. Andres still employs him today.
“I bet you’re thinking, ‘Jose, what does this have anything to do with the Caps?’ ” he said. “You know, my friend, it has a lot to do with the Caps.”
Both Andres and Hurwitz said they have felt an uncommon communion at Capitals games, especially during this playoff run. Andres said watching fans react has made him proud of the city, reaffirming his belief in the connectivity of Washington. He thinks it filters down from Leonsis.
“It tells you a lot about the way he runs the Wizards and Capitals,” Andres said. “The persistence Ted has in life, it seems reflected in a series of small gestures of goodness. I think what Ted brings into the team — it’s difficult to think a person that owns the team has zero connection with what happens on the field.”
Leonsis’s hoarse voice caught on a few occasions Thursday night, but only when talking about Ovechkin or the Capitals’ fans. At one point, Lynn found him on the ice, wearing her Nicklas Backstrom jersey. She fell into his embrace, and tears formed in her eyes and they hugged for 13 seconds.
“I still don’t feel like a success,” Leonsis said later. “I think that’s an important thing to always drive you. If you become satisfied, give it up. This is such a high. Our fans love it so much. I’ll enjoy for a couple of days, but then it’s, ‘What do we have to do next year to do it again?’ ”
More on the Capitals: Tracking the Caps: Where did the Stanley Cup go on Alex Ovechkin’s wild Saturday night? Details on the Caps’ Stanley Cup parade down Constitution Avenue. You’ve got to hand it to ’em: The Capitals’ Stanley Cup pass stuck to convention D.C. Sports Bog: So this is what it feels like