Meltdown

Labor Dispute Cancels Entire 2004-05 Schedule

The Nhl's Lost Season

For Caps owner, resolve and regret

The D.c. Reaction

February 17, 2005|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The cancellation of the NHL season was an action that Washington Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis had long planned for, while hoping it would never happen.

Yesterday, when a salary cap dispute indeed ended the season before it began, Leonsis reacted with a combination of frustration and relief.

The frustration is probably easier for the team's fans to understand. Like many of them, Leonsis said he was left with "an empty feeling" by the failure of the league and its players union to reach a deal that could have put the Capitals back on the MCI Center ice.

But Leonsis has a concern that fans need not worry about: the bottom line.

And so even as he lamented the loss of the season, the Internet mogul said he was consoled that the owners and players hadn't reached a deal that would cause the Capitals to lose so much money that they couldn't compete.

"It might be a dark day, but it was a necessary day," a resolute Leonsis said at the club's downtown headquarters a few blocks from MCI Center.

Given that the Capitals don't attract the revenue of larger-market franchises, Leonsis said the latest salary cap proposals of the players and owners - $49 million and $42.5 million, respectively - would have been too much for the Capitals to bear.

"At $42 million, we would lose a lot of money. That was not appropriate for our market," Leonsis said.

In the past year, the Capitals have cast off high-priced talent and signed young players to accumulate enough cash to prepare for any eventuality - be it a problematic salary cap or a season-ending battle with the players union.

Leonsis said the team lost $20 million last season and $35 million in 2001-02 - the first season after trading for now-departed superstar Jaromir Jagr.

"We made some very painful decisions to get younger," Leonsis said. "The irony is that we're in the best financial position we've been in" in his five seasons as majority owner.

But he knows he has some work to do to rebuild the relationship with fans.

Fans said they were disturbed that progress made in negotiations came so late. It was as if their team trailed badly, then mounted a furious comeback that fell tantalizingly short.

"I am disappointed that the NHL and players could not come to an agreement, especially after the progress that was made over the last couple of days," said Connie Schneider, president of a Capitals fan club. "Yes, I think hockey will survive, and, yes, I am still a fan."

Other fans' moods were darker.

"Nothing can really prepare one for the swift kick in the solar plexus of seeing the stark words on a banner on the NHL Web site: `NHL Cancels 2004-05 Season,' " a fan wrote on a Capitals Internet message board.

Vic Ignacio, a suburban Virginia printing company executive, said as the announcement canceling the season loomed, "I now feel both sides are equally guilty of canceling not only this season, but possibly the NHL itself."

The lockout has led to 130 season-ticket cancellations, the Capitals said. There are about 8,000 to 9,000 season-ticket holders.

Leonsis said he plans "town meetings, one-on-ones, dinners" to try to lure fans back.

The Capitals have tried to sustain fan interest. This month, the club has been holding an essay contest for students in grades 7 to 12. It coincides with the league designating February as "Hockey is for Everyone Month."

Everyone, it seems, but NHL players.

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