16 April, 2014


The Legacy of a Favored Child: Abe Pollin’s Basketball and Hockey Teams

Cup'pa JoeParents take pains to shower — equally — their children with love. Children must be so loved. Woe is the child who feels slighted with respect to the love of mom and dad.

An owner of two professional sports teams — say in professional basketball and hockey — could be said to preside over his sports assets as if they were his children. Lodging in the same arena, the same home, competing in the same calendar, the teams certainly shouldn’t be accorded any status of favorite, one over the other. This morning I wonder: with his epitaph, will it be said of Abe Pollin that his Bullets and Caps enjoyed a healthy, matching, parental love?

In CNN/SI.com’s 1,500-word Pollin obituary yesterday it’s striking — and telling — to see how infrequently the Capitals are referenced. The hockey team is an afterthought in the remembrance; a good many hockey fans over the age of 35 in this region would suggest they were with the original owner as well. Michael Jordan is more a storyline in the obit than are the Caps. There’s a good reason for this.

Pollin and business partners bought the Bullets and housed them, for 10 years, in Baltimore beginning in 1964. He negotiated successfully with Prince Georges County, Md., pols and secured land in Landover upon which to build a state-of-the-art arena in the early 1970s (Capital Centre). But with 19,000 seats to fill while seeking pro sports profit Pollin had a calendar of vast emptiness outside of the NBA schedule. The NHL was in a period of expansion. So Pollin thought: there’s an additional 40 nights of arena dates if I land a hockey team.

That was the genesis of Abe Pollin’s interest in, and fondness for, hockey in D.C. Pragmatics. More often than not, it showed. Really, there’s no denying the narrative of Washington’s hockey creation story. We were . . . adopted as opposed to being, say, a love child. The second-favorite child from the start.

But here is where this narrative will depart from perhaps where you think it will go. I believe that Abe Pollin grew to love, very much, his adopted son hockey club.

I say this because as a native Washingtonian I remember regularly observing Pollin on local television sportscasts profess his love for both teams throughout the ’80s and ’90s. In fact, I think he loved the Caps so much that he grew as frustrated and as impatient with their postseason failures as the fans. Maybe the team just broke his heart one too many times, but somewhere along the way, in the 1990s, Pollin made a clear choice of preference between the clubs with his management choices for the two clubs. And we cannot overlook this: ultimately, he sold the Caps and stuck with the Wiz.

But Abe Pollin should be remembered as a builder. He built Cap Centre. Running his two teams as a ‘Mom and Pop’ outfit he built the Bullets into a world champion. He hired David Poile, who within hours of his hiring engineered one of the most impressive trades in NHL history — one that I believe actually saved hockey in Washington. And of course he built MCI — now Verizon — Center, in a section of D.C. no one wanted to be in at night. In so doing he engineered an urban revitalization of blighted D.C. unmatched by any effort by any mayor or any session of Congress. Ever. Indeed, he did something even the mighty Jack Kent Cooke couldn’t do: relocate our teams where they ought to be — downtown.

It’s impossible to calculate, but no small number of Caps’ fans today are Washington hockey fans by virtue of hockey being played in Washington, by virtue of hockey’s proximity to big businesses and Metro and universities. We do well to remember Abe Pollin for this enormously important facet of his legacy.

But we hockey partisans cannot overlook Pollin’s wrongs on the rink. And that discussion must begin with Scott Stevens. In his draft year of 1982 Stevens was projected to be an impact defenseman, perhaps even immediately. The Caps were lucky to still find him on the board at pick no. 5. You who never saw the unbridled, unleashed Scott Stevens in a Capitals’ sweater in the early 1980s have no idea what you missed. The Capitals, with Rod Longway on one side and Scott Stevens on the other, were feared. It was Bryan Murray who tamed Stevens from a bully-beast into a controlled beast.

Stevens spent eight seasons in D.C., a lynchpin of a Capitals’ blueline regarded as boasting the league’s best talent. After two All Star game appearances he needed a new contract after the 1989-90 season, and he had the temerity to ask to be compensated like an All Star. Pollin wouldn’t have it. The rest is Stanley-Cup-raised-above-his-head-in-another-town history.

Scott Stevens no more should have been allowed to leave town than Alexander Ovechkin would be allowed to. No reasonable, no sane discussion of the 5 or 10 best NHL defensemen of all time can omit Stevens’ name. By virtue of Abe Pollin’s business decision in the summer of 1990 we in HockeyWashington were forever denied the opportunity to see what a Stevens-Kolzig-Bondra combination might have achieved in Capitals’ sweaters. I am one to this day who holds that Pollin business decision as unforgivable.

PollinhoopsAnd in this moment I feel compelled to speak most personally: I was a Bullets’ kid before I was a Caps’ fanatic, partly because of the Bullets’ magical 1977-78 season. Back then, and for some years thereafter, it was natural to be a Bullets’ and Caps’ fan in this town. I saw many of the same faces on game nights at the teams’ games in Landover. But some great divide, some divorce between the fanbases, took place somewhere in the 1990s, and I attribute this to some degree to Abe Pollin’s stewardship over the franchises. The sociological separation between the sports is a fascinating subject and not one for this file, and I recognize that NBA commissioner David Stern plays an enormous role in it, but that break, that rupture, seemed to happen in Washington before it did in other big cities, and I can’t help but think that the Scott Stevens matter played some modest role in it.

But let us turn our thoughts back again to the positive: Pollin the businessman had the great instincts to sell his hockey club to one Ted Leonsis. What if . . . one Daniel Snyder had come calling instead?

Early in his tenure I saw Leonsis intitate and execute so many business practices that struck me as being the antithesis of the Pollin Way. He caught serious flack, for instance, when he used leading technology to ban the purchase of Capitals’ tickets by hockey fans with western Pennsylvania area codes. That was a man-crush moment for me. Now answer this: how often in recent years have you heard loyalists and local media express the wish that Leonsis owned the Nats and Skins . . . and how often over the past 40 years did you hear that wish expressed and directed Abe Pollin’s way?

So celebrate Pollin’s life as a builder if you’re so inclined. This Thanksgiving I’m going to raise a glass in salute to better ice, and Washington as a hockey town. I think I know who I have to thank for that.



12 Comments

  1. Andy wrote:

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank You. Great post – well written. Agree 100%

    25 November, 2009 at 8:06 am | Permalink
  2. eric wrote:

    A fitting reminder of what Abe did in this town. He should be remembered as a builder and an NBA owner, but never as the Caps owner. He was a great antagonist to Wilbon, which has to count for something.

    25 November, 2009 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  3. Christopher wrote:

    TOTALLY inappropriate commentary for the first days after the man’s death, let alone the first several months, or maybe even year. I’m the biggest Caps fan imaginable, but my God, WHO CARES about Scott Stevens anymore?? The man (Abe) brought an NHL team to a town that otherwise would almost certainly have never obtained one. To me, that’s achievement enough. And more importantly, he was one of the single greatest philanthropists in the history of the entire city – maybe the country. I’m not arguing any of your points; I’m saying that they’re completely out of line right now and I can’t imagine what you think we stand to gain by reading them in the wake of Mr. Pollin’s death. Come on now – it’s not ALWAYS about hockey first…

    25 November, 2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink
  4. KevinC wrote:

    Yeah, coulda waited on the personal stuff for a week or so.

    Abe was running a business. While I was unhappy to see Stevens go, he took the decision he did for good reason. Hindsight is 20/20, etc. BTW, the Blues didn’t seem to keep Stevens more than one season either. Also think it was Stevens contract with the Blues that started to run on salaries to the levels they are today. Now, the million dollar salaries were likely inevitable, but Pollin was probably going to be the one to open the floodgates.

    25 November, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  5. KevinC wrote:

    CORRECTION:

    Now, the million dollar salaries were likely inevitable, but Pollin was probably NOT going to be the one to open the floodgates.

    25 November, 2009 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  6. Patrick Hruby over at ESPN has an interesting take regarding Pollin & the way he won the battle with Michael Jordan during his Wizards tenure. Excerpt below, read the whole thing at
    http://espn.go.com/espn/page2/

    “Some people — specifically, Michael Jordan’s undead legion of media sycophants, reflected glory addicts and folks who still care about $200 basketball shoes — like to joke that the only person who could stop the former NBA superstar was his college coach, Dean Smith.

    “These people are wrong.

    “In reality, two individuals memorably put the kibosh on Jordan. One is Smith. The other is former Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, who died Tuesday at 85. The latter is more interesting, because while Smith trumped Jordan through power and authority, Pollin earned a checkmate the old-fashioned way: by playing the hoops assassin like a wind-up toy.”

    25 November, 2009 at 1:36 pm | Permalink
  7. Donald Durbin wrote:

    Shall raise a glass with you this Thanksgiving!! In THIS case, Yes, hockey first.

    26 November, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Permalink
  8. Dave wrote:

    I agree with Chris and Kevin. Without Abe we might not have our Capitals to cheer on. Chill on the negativity right now and focus on the good that Mr. Pollin did including turning a run down part of town into a destination, giving thousands of people opportunities, and like I said before, bringing us the best team in the NHL.

    26 November, 2009 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  9. Aaron wrote:

    Great article, I’ve always had mixed feelings about Abe Pollin. Yes he brought the Caps to town, but I always felt that the team was the ugly stepchild. Until Uncle Ted bought the team we were like a minor league team bidding time between Bullets games.

    The most telling moment about Abe’s double standard was the respective last game’s at the old Capital Center. I believe the Capital finale was in the middle of the week and only televised on HomeTeamSports(HTS) At the time HTS was part of the premium cable package with the likes of HBO and Showtime and thus unavailable to a large percentage of the population.

    The Wizards finale was broadcast on WB50, an over the air station available to anyone rabbit ears and a pulse. It was billed as the “final event” at the building and the ceremonies were far better produced than those of their ice skating predecessors.

    One would think that they would thus get the distinction of playing the first game in the new place. That first went to the Hoyas…

    26 November, 2009 at 8:51 pm | Permalink
  10. LetzGoCaps wrote:

    I don’t take great affront to your comments; I think they’re spot on in fact. Abe Pollin was a good man who did a lot of good things but his stewardship of the Caps left much to be desired. Not like anyone is dancing on his grave over anything, some of you need to lighten up sheeesh.

    26 November, 2009 at 10:26 pm | Permalink
  11. pucksandbooks wrote:

    Spot on, Caps’ fan, spot on.

    26 November, 2009 at 11:21 pm | Permalink
  12. Ben wrote:

    Honestly, this post reeks of nothing more than a backhanded attempt to vent some bitter frustrations. It’s cautious praises sandwiched around some empty assertions in the middle there.

    “Pollin made a clear choice of preference between the clubs with his management choices for the two clubs. ”

    Exactly how? What did he do in the 1990s that could possibly back up this assertion? Not spend on free agents? Guess what: he didn’t do that for the Bullets/Wizards either. He did not discriminate with his management choices – if anything, he was more reckless with the Bullets/Wiz, keeping Wes Unseld on for way too long.

    “that rupture, seemed to happen in Washington before it did in other big cities, and I can’t help but think that the Scott Stevens matter played some modest role in it.”

    Another empty assertion. What on earth would Scott Stevens’ departure have to do with Caps fans not being Bullets fans anymore? Or Bullets fans not being Caps fans? Are you saying Abe’s lack of commitment to star players turned away casual, Bullets-first DC fans? If that’s what you mean, say it. And if so, if “losing star players” causes cross-over fans to drop, then Abe’s mismanagement of the Bullets is just as if not more culpable for this divide. Remember C-Webb for Mitch Richmond?

    It’s great to have perspective in death, and give an honest assessment. But I see little more than bitterness stemming from a two decades old personnel decision.

    This just can’t be the case. I can’t help but think that the primary motivation for this bitterness is really the financial divide between the two clubs. Abe chose to tie himself to the Wizards and Verizon Center in 1998, and it nearly cost this city the team. Well I hope you’re happy. Scratch that…I can read between the lines. I know you are.

    27 November, 2009 at 1:55 am | Permalink

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  1. [...] • On Frozen Blog with a long, interesting piece on Abe Pollin, the former Caps owner who died yesterday. [OFB] [...]

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