For 113 excruciating days, hockey fans endured the NHL’s third work stoppage in less than two decades. As the lockout dragged on for months, anger over the situation turned to pessimism and, in some cases, apathy. But you’d never know that by the crowd at the Verizon Center Thursday night.
Caps fans nearly filled the lower bowl of the Arena, decked out in red jerseys, and face paint, posing with Slapshot and eating complimentary concessions as they celebrated the Caps Fan Appreciation Special Event.
While the crowd inside hummed with anticipation before the Caps’ open practice, below the stands, in a cramped media room, Capitals’ owner Ted Leonsis assured the firing line he faced that the Washington faithful in attendance were not the only ones ready to forgive and forget.
“This week has been a blur,” Leonsis said. “There’s been no discussion at all (about) looking in the rear-view mirror. (The discussions have been about) what (Capitals Head Coach Adam Oates’) new system is going to be, and who’s healthy, and what the lineups are going to look like, and who’s going to be in goal and what the schedule will look like.”
He made sure to note that his franchise player and captain, who, back in September, shaved his head and called himself a soldier of the NHLPA, was ready to let bygones be bygones.
“Alex (Ovechkin) ran over to me, gave me a big hug,” Leonsis said. “I told him I would have an engagement party for him at my house.”
While Leonsis expressed remorse over the lost games, he is “thrilled” with the deal and believes the result will help his team and the league in the future.
“I think we got a system that puts us in direct partnership with the players,” he said. “The big deliverables for me were a 50-50 deal and a long-term deal.”
Leonsis also addressed rumors about his role in negotiations.
“I think one reporter said I was a ‘hardliner,’ which I had a laugh at,” he said., noting that his nickname during negotiations became “Uncle Ted” because of his pleasant and affable nature. “It was really the league and the Union that were doing the negotiating.”
Leonsis called himself and the other handful of owners involved in negotiations a “proxy for the ownership group.”
“I’d like to tell you that we had like a really big role,” he said. “But it was mostly sitting at a table and listening. And if I said 500 words in 50 sessions in total…that would be an exaggeration.”
Leonsis also candidly talked about the Capitals finances.
“Since I’ve owned the team, we’ve never been profitable,” he said. “The system will help us to get to break even.”
While the Capitals organization may be rocking the red in more ways than one, Leonsis’ Monumental Sports & Entertainment owns the Verizon Center. Still, he wants his marquee franchise to become a leader in a new, more balanced NHL. While the Capitals will continue to receive revenue sharing money now, Leonsis has bigger plans for his team.
“I would like to be a payer,” he said, noting that getting a better TV deal is paramount to the Caps’ economic success.
At least one Washington Capital, goalie Braden Holtby, who spent the lockout playing for Washington’s AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, is not pointing fingers.
“It’s business,” Holtby said. “That happens. There’s no one person to blame. We’re just excited to get going again.”
Whatever the Capitals think of Leonsis’ role in the lockout, those issues are secondary now. Like their owner said, players are thinking about adjusting to a new coach and a new system.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Ovechkin said about possibly playing on the penalty kill this year. “It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be something new for me.”
They are ready to rebound from injuries.
“I never knew I was going to make it back to this point,” veteran defenseman Tom Poti, who has not played an NHL game since January 2011, said. “It’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of blood, sweat and tears, so to say, over the last couple years, trying to get back and figure out this injury. I’m obviously grateful.”
Poti isn’t the only one who’s grateful. For the thousands of people who attended the fan event, all that matters is that hockey is back.