Ted Leonsis’ dream of winning a championship began with three men from Bergen County, New Jersey holding up an extra-long piece of printer paper with six words written on it: “NOW I CAN DIE IN PEACE.”
That was the message Mike, Steve and Dave Zaretsky brought to Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final, in the hopes of celebrating the New York Rangers’ first title in 54 years. As you are probably aware, the Blue Shirts captured the Cup, and the Zaretskys’ sign became emblematic of the bond between a team and a region – and a testament to the healing power only a championship can bring.
Ted Leonsis doesn’t know the Zaretskys. But he knows that sign. And how it perfectly encapsulates what winning a championship means for a starved fanbase. He wants the big moment for his city, his team – his fanbase. He wants to end a near quarter-century major-championship drought in Washington, D.C. He wants someone holding up a sign like that inside the Verizon Center.
“There are so many things that divide us, but nothing unites like a winning sports team,” Leonsis says. “Those are magical moments. And that’s what I envision winning a championship here will be like. This über-magical moment for the city. All of that is summed up by that sign: ‘Now I Can Die In Peace.'”
So why do the dreams of another super-rich sports owner matter? Who cares that a man worth over a billion dollars wants to win a title (or ten)? Why should what Leonsis wants even register at all? It’s simple: When Ted Leonsis wants something he usually gets it.
And that’s the best place to start, really. Because on New Year’s Day, Leonsis’ Washington Capitals will host the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL’s annual Winter Classic. It is, on the surface, just another game; but to Leonsis, it’s also something more – a showcase for the nation’s capital, and the first of many big games he envisions the Caps playing in over the next few years.
“I think our fans appreciate that we went for it on the Winter Classic,” Leonsis says. “But no one is going to cut us any slack at the end of the day if we don’t win a Stanley Cup. They’ll say, ‘Nice job in doing all that.’ But if we don’t win a Stanley Cup, they’ll consider me a failure.”
Six years ago, Leonsis watched along with everyone else as the NHL debuted its Winter Classic game concept: old-time hockey played au naturel. The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York in constant snow. Leonsis was hooked. And he wanted in. One problem: There was a waiting list.
Actually, there were two problems: Washington, D.C. was not a hockey town.
“He said, ‘We’ve got to have this in Washington,'” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman recalls. “He wanted to shine a spotlight on the city. But there were places that we felt we needed to go in order to establish this as the premier event that it is on New Year’s Day. But based on how the Capitals had grown their fanbase, we believed it was a promise we would fulfill.”
When Leonsis acquired the Capitals franchise in May of 1999, it was one season removed from making its only appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. Leonsis was seen as an immediate savior: He bought the team from longtime owner Abe Pollin for $200 million, and with the wealth he had accrued from his years as an executive at AOL, had the coffers necessary to make the Capitals an elite team.
But Washington remained stuck in neutral; they made the playoffs just three times in the first eight years Leonsis owned the team, and were never seen as more than fringe contenders for the Cup. That changed with the drafting of superstar Alexander Ovechkin in 2004 – they’ve been to the playoffs in six of the last seven years, and though they’ve yet to push past the Eastern Conference Semis, they’ve established themselves as the most consistently successful team in the nation’s capital.
“If you look at everything that happened in the city for the last decade, the most favorably looked-upon team right now are the Capitals,” Bettman says.
And while the Stanley Cup has continued to elude him, Leonsis kept pushing Bettman for the opportunity to host the Winter Classic. He could sense that the timing was right – for himself, his franchise and the city.
“He’s usually one step ahead of everybody about what the next big thing is,” Mark Lerner, principal owner of the Washington Nationals, says. “I think that’s a big part of why he’s a successful owner.”
So what does hosting the Winter Classic have to do with Leonsis’ dream of winning a championship? It’s the stage.
A big event. National television. A sold-out venue. All eyes upon the city. In Leonsis’ mind, it’s a dry run for a Stanley Cup or the NBA Finals – he also owns the Washington Wizards – and a dress rehearsal for another of his passion projects, D.C.’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.
“My ultimate goal is making lifelong memories for our fans,” he says. “And no other business delivers that but sports.”
It’s really why he wanted to own a sports franchise in the first place. (Counting the WNBA’s Mystics, he owns three, not to mention the arena they all play in, the Verizon Center.) He enjoys living in the dichotic, black-and-white world of the sports owner, where 50 percent of the people love you and the other 50 percent want to kick you to the curb.
“I think his legacy as a ‘civic champion’ will be determined on whether or not his teams win championships,” Washington Post sports columnist Dan Steinberg says. “And I think he can be that – as long as his teams are doing well.”
Leonsis knows that, too. For all his hyperbole about the Winter Classic and what it’ll mean for the franchise and the city, he is quick to point out that, “at the end of the day, it’s just one game worth two points in the standings.” The Stanley Cup or the Larry O’Brien Trophy isn’t going to be awarded to Leonsis’ teams based on hosting a hockey game in a baseball park.
But he’s hoping it’ll help stir a feeling that D.C. hasn’t had in almost 25 years. That’s why he keeps going back to that sign in Madison Square Garden 20 years ago. Leonsis knows what a championship can do for a fanbase and a city and a franchise. So if you spot him gazing off into the distance during the Winter Classic, it’s not because he’s not interested. It’s because he’s envisioning an event – and a celebration – that’s much bigger.
“Owning a team in a major media market, you can’t take that job lightly,” he says. “I want to do this because I want to do it. One of the things I have on my bucket list is ‘win a championship.’ That’s my ultimate drive.”