NHL at a big loss to escape its mid-zone bad-news trap

May 29, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

AMERICA ONLINE kingpin Ted Leonsis has been called a lot of things -- especially since AOL's marriage to Time Warner plummeted the darling NASDAQ stock 1,000 acres below the Mendoza line.

So the merger between new and old media didn't win the new economy's equivalent of Lord Stanley's Cup. But Leonsis is Exhibit A of what's wrong with the National Hockey League. It didn't go unnoticed by the Washington Capitals' owner that a big spread in The New York Times featured Leonsis' unfortunate misadventure with a Capitals fan this season as the lead item.

Then again, when an owner fights a fan ... "I've answered 28,000 e-mails since I bought the Capitals. I've been the most accessible owner in sports. I see no reason to change that stance and outlook," Leonsis said this week from his New York hotel room. "I've had a million personal positive experiences. One five seconds turned into a negative. I think we've turned that into a positive, too."

Considering the current state of the NHL, Leonsis and the Capitals are, by embarrassing default and ingenious design, sitting rather pretty.

Let's recap an NHL season that's now reaching a "crescendo" with a Stanley Cup Finals being contested between two teams that don't have Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, John LeClair, Joe Juneau, Adam Oates, Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Bure, Martin Brodeur, Brett Hull, Paul Kariya or Dominik Hasek.

Get the picture? No wonder ratings are down.

The black marks also include Atlanta's Dany Heatley crashing his Ferrari -- an accident that killed teammate Dan Snyder, and Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi suspended for a vicious hit that sent Colorado's Steve Moore to the hospital with a broken neck.

Tabloid fodder comes courtesy of the St. Louis Blues' Mike Danton, who was arrested in April on charges that he allegedly attempted to hire an assassin to murder David Frost, an agent and former junior hockey coach that Ontario Hockey Association officials once suspended.

Also, attendance has dropped among a third of the league's 30 teams, with two bankruptcies and several other close calls.

Television ratings are still the lowest -- by far -- of any of the major sports. In fact, Calgary's 4-1 win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday night tied for the lowest-rated Stanley Cup Finals game on ESPN since 1990.

And, the piece de resistance: NHL commissioner (and NBA commissioner David Stern protege) Gary Bettman is currently daring the NHL Players Association to go ahead, make his day. If the players don't start negotiating a salary cap, Bettman promises he'll shut down the league after the Sept. 15 deadline -- for however long it takes.

Good news, anyone? At least with the Lightning and Flames, the dreaded mid-zone trap that held hockey hostage for the past decade appears dead.

"The mid-zone trap is like having $10,000 and putting it under your pillow," Swedish hockey great Anders Hedberg once said. "You risk nothing, you gain nothing."

Which brings us to the Capitals, who know a thing or two about bad traps, plummeting ratings and hemorrhaging money. Leonsis figures he has lost $100 million since buying the Capitals, though he remains in it for the long haul. But since the trade deadline, the team has turned 180 degrees in economics and philosophy in an attempt to position itself for the new world order of the NHL -- if and when it comes.

The Capitals fessed up to failure this winter by dealing Jagr and his $11 million annual salary, along with a bevy of other veterans, including Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar and Peter Bondra.

Losing the salaries was a smart move, considering the lockout that looms, but more important is the decision to rebuild the Caps in the name of fresh-legged forecheckers. Like it or not, this year's Stanley Cup finalists (Calgary and Tampa Bay) are built in this "star-less" mold.

"We were stuck between a rock and hard place. We were getting older, we were expensive, we didn't connect with the fan base and we were in last place. We felt that with the specter of the [labor talks] hanging over the league, we felt many other teams would be sellers. So we shed stars with high payroll, we moved quickly in order to get value back," Leonsis said.

Most of the Caps' value is in draft picks. They own five choices in the first two rounds of the June draft, which means they're in a position to determine their own future, fast -- especially since they own the No. 1 pick, which will be used to take Russian forward/phenom Alexander Ovechkin, aka The Second Coming of Mario Lemieux.

"Economically, things turned out best for us. We were able to move higher-priced players, get picks and prospects. If there is a lockout, it will only accelerate the maturity process of our club."

Of course, everyone thought the Capitals were headed back to the Stanley Cup Finals when Leonsis made the bold trade and even bolder contract extension for the talented Jagr.

Leonsis is insistent that the Capitals' contract with Jagr not be compared to the Minnesota Timberwolves' then-record $126 million contract with Kevin Garnett -- the contract that set the resolve of NBA owners to lock out players in 1999, which led to a salary cap.

"The first two years I owned the team, we lost to his team for the chance to go to the Finals. We had the opportunity to add him and take steps forward. The opposite happened. We had a better record without Jagr. I just looked at results. We were paying him top dollar in the league but not getting output," Leonsis said.

But at least with Jagr now property of the New York Rangers, it won't be Leonsis' problem to figure out how to fit an $11 million player into a capped payroll. This is progress in the NHL, where big stars are missing this Stanley Cup season, emboldening owners to think cheaper, leaner, faster, younger.

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