Parents 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.
And 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.