On May 5, the morning after his hockey team had been swept out of the playoffs in the second round by the no. 5 seed, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, to his credit, logged in to his blog, congratulated the victorious Tampa Bay Lightning, and swallowed no small amount of pride in acknowledging that “[Tampa's] role players outplayed our highest paid players.” He added: “Clearly we know we have to improve to build a franchise that is as good as our fan base.” Those latter words especially caught my attention because a few hours earlier I’d written these: “Today this franchise is unworthy of its fanbase, which is one of the best in the league.”
In those earliest hours of the offseason I had already excoriated the Capitals, fairly, for a spectacularly failed season, again, but I wanted days and even weeks to pass before weighing in again with heavy ammo against the status quo.
Mr. Leonsis in his blog that painful morning called for patience and for a cooling off period. “The best course of action for us . . . is to let a few days pass; be very analytic about what needs to be improved; articulate that plan; and then execute upon it.”
And so yesterday, having allowed more than a few days to pass — fully two weeks, in fact — before commenting again on the Caps, Mr. Leonsis appeared on his hockey team’s web site to address Capitals Nation, offering remarks and taking questions from one of his communicators, with what was tantamount to a State of the Hockey Nation update. It did little to comfort the grieving.
For starters, Mr. Leonsis is not availing himself to media this offseason. Not yet, anyway. Capitals’ fans were welcomed to submit questions for yesterday’s streaming summit, but in no way does that approach the accountability that’s part and parcel with stepping up to the scrutiny of media cameras, microphones, and perhaps even a call-it-as-they-see-it corps of bloggers. If the President of the United States stands before the White House press corps, you can be assured of a good grilling, no matter the time of year. And when times are tough, we expect that of our President.
On the positive side of the self assessment ledger, acknowledging the widespread criticism his hockey team has cultivated in spades this spring, the owner yesterday said, “We want to change.” He pointed an accusatory finger at the power play, ranked no. 1 in the league until last spring, and said, “We might have to do something major to the power play because it has let us down last year against [Montreal] and this year against [Tampa Bay].” Big-picturing better, he said, “We’re struggling . . . in translating productivity in the regular season into longer success in the playoffs.”
To put it mildly.
But the format of yesterday’s forum undermined a good deal of discipline of message, and the owner early on in the proceedings, speaking contemporaneously and without interruption, allowed platitudes, a reservoir of accumulated good will, and I think wishful thinking to cloud and clutter what in another setting might have produced some heavy reckoning.
“I can say unequivocally that the regular season does matter,” he alleged.
Well, I can say unequivocally that at this moment in Washington it does not. I certainly said it in my season preview back in the autumn, and I was one of many voices then saying it. By the end of summer there will be four Southeast division title banners hanging from the rafters of Verizon Center commemorating the regular season feats of the past four seasons. Listening to Mr. Leonsis yesterday, I wondered: would the Capitals again try and draw attention to that on opening night in October? If they do, they might be surprised at the Red Army’s reaction to it.
To some extent, hockey’s regular season is diminished by the unrivaled-anywhere-else-in-sports glory of its ultimate prize. For every conspicuously winning-in-regular-season team in the NHL there is by late March something of an exasperation with playing out the string, an unnerving anxiety for the arrival of the true test, and given the turnaround of fortune in this past regular season’s second half for the Caps, and especially given the seeming success of the trade deadline acquisitions, there was an especially pronounced fatigue-anxiety among the Red Army. Long-standing demons of spring oh so badly needed to be exorcised. The regular season certainly seemed to matter here in 2007-08 and its following campaign. The President’s trophy seemed to give meaning to 2009-10. But that spring’s sourness cast a suspicious cloud over 2010-11 — and in point of fact, this past regular season delivered a great deal of stress and woe, infuriating season ticket holders bewildered by blowouts by the Blueshirts. And next season? Many of us in HockeyWashington regarded this spring as a referendum on the existing regime, seeking evidence that 2010′s first-round dismal was an aberration. We don’t have it — not by a longshot.
Surely everyone affiliated with the Caps will have to regard 2011-12 as more a referendum on how this organization is managed than with any previous season in Capitals’ history. But yesterday the owner was anything but aware of such a sensibility. And that is deeply troubling.
To some extent there is a tone deafness to management when it comes to acknowledging this organization’s sordid state in spring. They seem to want to be judged only on the springtimes in the Era of Ovechkin. They fail even in that limited litmus test, but the larger reality — one that reigns league-wide, and for a sizable contingent of the fanbase — is that we are the Chicago Cubs of our sport, and it’s mildly amusing to joke about in fall but something far more sinister in spring. Alexander Ovechkin’s arrival here was meant to address it. Management said as much.
Most egregiously yesterday, Mr. Leonsis said this of his club’s present standing: “There are 29 teams in the league that would trade positions with us.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. To trade places with the Washington Capitals today would be to assume their burden of spring. Sadomasochists wouldn’t take that on. To trade places with the Caps would be to reside in a media market in which John Beck — no relation to Glenn, Google informed me yesterday — is the celebrated athlete of the moment. A condition for which our market is rightly mocked.
To make no mention of the Pittsburgh Penguins, or the Detroit Red Wings, or the Chicago Blackhawks, not even the Toronto Maple Leafs would uproot themselves and trade places with us here. It’s $300-plus for a premium seat in the lower bowl of Air Canada Centre for a hockey game in October. There’s a 24-hour television station devoted to the team for goodness sake. There’s been a lot of losing by the Leafs over the years, but also, though distant now, Glory achieved. And goodness knows Brian Burke is held accountable by Leaf media and fans.
Perhaps most troubling of all yesterday Mr. Leonsis expressed an intellectual incompatibility with the notion that the window may be closing on his team’s status as contender. In point of fact, that window may never have opened. His team isn’t a contender; the Lightning proved that. And as exclamation point, the Lightning, we in Washington are suddenly learning, aren’t in fact the ’76 Canadiens after all. They’re just a good hockey team, nothing more — and better than the Caps by leaps and bounds.
Alexander Ovechkin, the franchise savior, will turn 26 early next hockey season. Today, he seems far removed from his days as a 65-goal scorer. The league seems to have figured him out. Additionally, his leadership quotient seems notably deficient. Presumed key pieces surrounding him suddenly don’t seem daunting, or untouchable. And they are all under the guidance of a man who’s failed to advance past round two of the NHL postseason, when a host of his younger, less experienced colleagues have. But fannies still are filling the seats in Chinatown, so all is good. This is the State of Capitals Nation.
*Correction:* Comment above attributed to Mr. Leonsis — “There are 29 teams in the league that would trade positions with us right now” — was erroneously reported. His full comment in context should have read: “There are 29 teams in the league that would trade positions with us right now to have three young, very, very talented players, all affordable, all with their best days ahead of them and so I’m really happy with how well-stocked we are at the toughest position in the game.”