July 22, 2011
When Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis picked up the phone on Thursday afternoon, we assured him that this blog hadn't written anything about the decibel levels of the Verizon Center's new sound system.
"Yeah," he said, laughing, "what was that about?"
That was a reference to a blog post by Get To Our Game, which trumpeted the new speaker system as "Ted Leonsis's War on Hearing." Leonsis used his blog, Ted's Take, to "correct the record" on the system being more about acoustics than volume, with a snippy little retort. Get To Our Game then shot back with a post about Leonsis having thin skin.
Just another day at the virtual office for Leonsis, whose candor on his blog and in the media has set him apart from other NHL owners.
Also setting him apart: The way his team conducts business in the NHL, specifically on long-term contracts.
The Capitals are capped out this summer after an impressive free-agent binge. But a large portion of their cap hit is reserved for two players: Nicklas Backstrom(notes), who has a 10-year deal with an annual hit of $6.7 million; and Alex Ovechkin(notes), who had a 13-year deal with a cap hit of $9,538,462 annually.
The value of both contracts increases as the term continues, making them exceptions to the NHL's current trend of front-loading contracts to bring down the cap hit.
Q. It seems like the NHL's owners and GMs are now in two groups: Those who dabble in the dark arts of front-loaded long-term contracts and those who choose not to. You and the Capitals are in the those that don't category; do you see the same split?
LEONSIS: I think whenever the NHL creates a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, there's a law of unintended consequences that comes out of any big jointly developed agreement. What happens is that as time goes on, people are really looking [for] how to use this agreement as a tool to further their goals. That certainly was a ruling that was open to some interpretation.
We interpreted it as we think it is: a salary cap in place. These are the rules and we decided we weren't going to push it. Some other teams have structured deals in a certain way and pushed the rules; other teams have really pushed the rules and the League stepped in and said, "No."
Our philosophy has been [to be] straight up. It was why I was offended when the guy who wrote the book on Alex Ovechkin [Damien Cox of the Toronto Star] implied that I had done something outside the rules by giving him a long-term deal. No … it's a straight line.
Still, other teams would argue that they're working within the framework provided by the League on long-term deals despite dramatically frontloading them — teams like the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers, for example. Do you ever regret not taking advantage of that wiggle room on cap circumvention in signing Ovechkin?
No. I've never had regret. I've never thought about making it longer so we could sign other players or whatever. I don't think that's what the intention of [the CBA] was.
Is there going to be a fight in the next CBA to end this practice?
I don't know how the players look at it, and I don't know how the League looks at it. We'll just try and keep what we do on the middle of the fairway.
I will say that when someone else does a deal, we don't sit around here and say "that's bad or "that's good". For the most part, we're concerned in ownership with our own teams.
When we're talking about rules and cap circumvention, it's not just about signing players but also making those players "disappear" if conditions change. The Capitals did this once with Michael Nylander's(notes) cap hit being sent to the minors; would you like to see this loophole maintained in the next CBA?
We did it with Nylander. We paid him for four years. He didn't play for us very long. That was just a bad signing for us.
Do I think that rule need to be tightened up so if you make a bad signing you can't get out of it? I think we'd have to look analytically at the history of this CBA: How often was it used? Who used it? If just one team was doing it and doing it all the time, you'd have all 29 other owners commenting on it. You have to look at the body of work.
The Olympics might be another CBA issue, and my editor wanted me to ask you this: Are you still committed to letting Alex Ovechkin play in Sochi whether or not the NHL goes in 2014, to the point where you'd fly him there yourself?
Alex is the cornerstone of our franchise, and he's the spokesperson for hockey and the Olympics in Sochi. I'm only one voice, but I'm supporting him.
The Olympics, when done right with hockey, is an incredible experience for hockey fans. Anything that's good for the fans and good for the game is going to be good for our business.
The trepidation is always [about] if you can't watch the games, or if the games are being played at 3 a.m., how does that help you? That is a very fair and legitimate question.
As I've noted before, it's not like the Olympics are a not-for-profit endeavor. The professional players go and play for the love of their county, and for the game, and for the camaraderie. The players have very noble intentions. As an owner, I admire that and I want to be supportive of my player and our players in their desire to do that.
We know it's good for the game … but we shut down for a couple of weeks! It is a really odd business equation: We shut down business so we can send players to play in these games and make billions of dollars for other people.
It's a very, very complicated equation. Every market, every owner looks at it through their own prism, and the League looks at it through their own prism.
[Ovechkin in Sochi] is a very special case. Maybe I'll look at it differently at another time.
Moving on to the Caps: Does something like getting Tomas Vokoun in for $1.5 million make Ted Leonsis the Fan or Ted Leonsis the Business Man happier?
I didn't think of it at all in a business sense. I saw it as a world-class goaltender with an unbelievable save percentage and plenty of experience becoming available. When free agency started, we didn't think we had a shot at him.
What I felt best about all of that, and I see more and more signs of it: Who would have thought a player of that caliber would reach out to us and say 'I want to come to Washington. I know how much you can pay me, but I want to come to Washington because I love the fan base and I love the city and I want a chance to win the Stanley Cup?'
As an owner, that's what you strive to create: an environment that's one of the "haves." A place where players want to play.
That it is, but do you get a sense that with the team's playoff struggles that fans are losing patience?
Well, fans deserve to lose patience. But winning a Cup is hard.
When you say "do I get a sense of it?", the answer is no. There were 3,000 fans at the end of July who came to watch us in rookie camp. We're at 98-percent season-ticket renewals. Our waiting list has grown. We just built eight suites, and we sold five of them.
Everyone wants us to do well. There's disappointment when we don't. But that's different than losing patience.
What are the signs of losing patience? There's always an implied threat that if you don't win a Cup, then fans are going to stop coming to the games. If you don't win a Cup, the media won't follow you. I sense disappointment is increasing, but no, I don't see people losing patience with us.
But no one is more disappointed than I am.
Finally, on new media: You created a blogger press corps several years ago that's still thriving today, and the hockey blogosphere has boomed since then. What are your impressions of blogging in 2011?
There are three kinds of blogs today.
There's traditional media adding blogs. The Washington Post has a whole bunch of their writers doing blogs. Comcast has a bunch of blogs. In a weird way, the blogs have become the news leaders and the newspaper follows, due to the real-time nature of the blog. I find that interesting: You'll read something on the blog at noon, and then you'll see it in the newspaper the next day.
Then there's the new media blogosphere, which you're a part of. It's happening everywhere and it's built businesses, like SB Nation. That business is growing and thriving and doing very well.
Then there are citizen bloggers, who aren't part of a network or a media company. For the most part, they're the folks that I wanted to help the most. There's nothing in that for us, but it was the right thing to do.
Do you think standards have slipped?
The two things that bother me, a lot, are the recycling [of news] and the recycling so fast.
(At this point, Leonsis recalled a story from July 1 in which his second assistant inadvertently took down a blog post that some felt was evidence of a conspiracy. That led to this rant a few days later.)
But overall if I had to do it again [credentialing bloggers], I would. I believe in it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the experience is good and positive.