Ted Leonsis built a new house for his favourite pets, the Washington Capitals. Nice and furry the Capitals are, harmless, but with enormous appetites. One great hairy orang-utan eats his way through eleven-million dollars worth of grub per annum even though he hardly moves a muscle from one end of the week to the next.
The Caps found themselves in the Stanley Cup Final in June 1998 then marched into their shiny new arena in December. Success beckoned but Washington resisted her entreaties. The following five seasons saw the Caps out of the play-offs twice and losing three times in the first round. After the third fruitless season following their Cup appearance, Leonsis ran out of patience and decided a splashy move was required to reverse flagging attendance.
Leonsis. extravagance was doomed from the start. Instead of fixing the underlying problem, an unimpressive general manager, he rushed after a quick fix. And so began the disintegration of the Washington franchise. We.ve seen this before: build a flash arena, fill it with expensive orang-utans, panic over spiralling debt, sell the expensive pets, re-stock the team with gerbils and hamsters, then convince ticket buyers this is progress.
Leonsis insisted feckless gm George McPhee engineer a trade with Pittsburgh Penguins for super star/matinee idol/selfish/sulking winger Jaromir Jagr.
Thy will be done.
McPhee shipped off three players who couldn.t play in the NHL in exchange for Jagr. The winger was being paid roughly 9.5-million but the Caps wanted to present him with a tangible demonstration of their affection. So he was re-signed through 2007/08 and now earns 11-million.
Unwittingly, the Caps were hooped. Washington management had no idea how to deal the sultan of sulks. Jagr produced a 31-48-79 scoring record even while taking numerous nights off. His last year in Pittsburgh, Jagr scored 52 goals. This season he.s potted 16 and Leonsis wants to bail. In 2001/02, the first year of Jagr, the Capitals scored five less goals than the previous season; last season saw another four goals disappear. Washington finished second both Jagr-years in the feeble South East division, missing the play-offs once and being bounced in the first round last spring.
Jagr.s massive contract shackled McPhee.s hands. The team.s highly-regarded defence corps aged, crowds dwindled; a vicious circle spun ever more rapidly. This season the Caps collapsed.
Capitals. management has begun singing the Bye-Bye Blues. Jagr has to go. Centre Robert Lang, brought in to spark Jagr, is going too. Lang is tied for the NHL scoring lead.
Tom Hicks, owner of the Dallas Stars, has followed much the same path. He has the new arena, spent wads of cash on free agents and his star players, and is now snivelling he isn.t getting his money.s worth. Part of the process involves firing a coach and replacing him with a cheaper, desperate, and inexperienced rookie. Hicks fired Ken Hitchcock and hired Dave Tippett. The Capitals have done the deed twice - first hiring bonehead Bruce Cassidy then gassing him in favour of Glen Hanlon.
Leonsis has proved beyond reasonable doubt he knows nothing about hockey. If he wants a model upon which to rebuild the Capitals he could do worse than copy the Vancouver Canucks example. Club owner John McCaw doesn.t know a crease from a cross-bar. But McCaw hit one decision right on the nose - he hired a quality general manager and kept out of his way. Brian Burke demanded latitude to operate and then delivered - the Canucks have improved every year under Burke.
This lesson has fallen on deaf ears. Ted Leonsis can promise Washington supporters nothing but misery the next few years. The only silver lining in all this is long-long-long, long time scout and former player Archie Henderson still has a job.