This is a story from my beloved birthplace of Washington, D.C. about two proud professional sports franchises that are going in opposite directions.
One, the Washington Capitals, are on the cusp of a Stanley Cup because their owner, Ted Leonsis, did all the right things. The other, the Washington Redskins, are a perpetual disappointment because their owner, Daniel Snyder, did everything wrong.
So what did Leonsis do right and what can Danny boy learn from his success?
First, let's get one thing crystal clear for those of you readers who aren't familiar with the sports obsessions of our nation's capital -- Washington is a football town, not a hockey town. There are many historical and demographic reasons for this that I won't get into. But when it comes to sports, despite their current state of mediocrity, the 'Skins are number one and the Caps are somewhere behind the Wizards and in front of the Mystics and D.C. United.
That said, Leonsis has turned a night at the Verizon Center into an event where loyal Caps fans and bandwagoners alike "Rock the Red" to cheer one of the most exciting and talented teams in the NHL.
And how did this happen? Listen up Danny boy.
Leonsis and General Manager George McPhee built this franchise through smart (and lucky) drafting, smart trades (or not trading) and a solid developmental system. But when Abe Pollin sold the franchise to the AOL exec in 1999 Leonsis made some of the same mistakes that Snyder continues to make -- namely throwing heaps of cash at over-the-hill or simply unmotivated players. In this case, it was signing Jaromir Jagr to the largest ever contract in NHL history -- $77 million over seven years with an option for an eighth year. Jagr didn't live up to expectations, playing uninspired and mediocre hockey during his time in Washington.
Then in the 2003-2004 season Leonsis and McPhee made a decision to unload all the high-priced talent (or former talent) in what some refer to as a "fire sale."
This is where luck came into play as the Caps nabbed the number one draft pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft and chose Russian sensation Alexander Ovechkin. The rest as they say, is history. Ovechkin has turned into arguably the greatest professional hockey player in the world and his playful personality and fun-first attitude has created a buzz in D.C. not seen since Joe Theismann was taking the Redskins to Super Bowls and setting team records. Oh, and Theismann just happened to be the last D.C. pro athlete to win league MVP back in 1983 before Ovechkin won the first of two Hart trophies in 2008 and was given the keys to the city by Mayor Adrian Fenty.
The Capitals have developed and signed young talent such as Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Simeon Varlamov. They also hired head coach Bruce Boudreau who took the team from the bottom of the Eastern Conference to the playoffs, earning him the Jack Adams Award as best coach. This past offseason the Caps mixed in some veteran talent with the addition of Mike Knuble, who is not afraid to crash the net and score dirty goals, something the Caps were missing in the grind of the playoffs.
And the fans are excited for a long playoff run this year. And why shouldn't they? They have watched their owner and GM guide this team the right way, methodically putting all the pieces together over the years. And this is the result -- an electric atmosphere on the streets of Gallery Place-Chinatown around the Verizon Center and loads of talented young players on the ice who are growing together into a Stanley Cup contending team.
On behalf of all Caps fan I want to say a big thanks to Ted Leonsis for rebuilding this franchise the right way and putting the fans first.
Now what not to do.
Our $1.3 billion Bethesda native Daniel Snyder really, really wants to win. But all he gets is mediocre and sometime horrific results (anybody watch the Lions game?). So why is that? It probably starts with how he was able to buy the team and the stadium following the death of Jack Kent Cooke -- borrowing $300 million from a French investment bank and assuming $155 million in debt.
What does he do next? Strips off the name of beloved owner Jack Kent Cooke from the stadium in Landover, Maryland for a naming rights deal with FedEx. I find it ironic that Snyder has no problem getting rid of the Cooke name but when it comes to the name Redskins, which many consider a racist slur, he won't budge. This despite the possibility of losing millions of dollars because the group fighting the name is taking it all the way to the Supreme Court. These Native Americans are trying to get the high court to deny the Redskins trademark because they consider the name and logo to be offensive.
The name Redskins by the way was coined by their racist owner George Preston Marshall who refused to integrate the team until 1962 when he was forced to by the federal government under the threat of revoking the lease on D.C. Stadium (now R.F.K. Stadium). But will Snyder change the name like Pollin did with the Bullets? Of course not.
Just a side note -- there actually was another professional football franchise in Washington before the Redskins arrived from Boston. The Washington Senators played for one season in 1921 and were also referred to as the Washington Pros or Washington Presidents. So there you go, three nicknames that could replace the unfortunate name Redskins.
So how does Snyder treat the fans and employees? How about suing season-ticket holders. I must be kidding right? Nope. The 'Skins sued 125 season ticket holders for $3.6 million. Because of the economic downturn the ticket holders asked to be released from multiyear contracts and instead of negotiating the Redskins sued.
And the employees are treated even worse. According to the Washington Post, six former ticket sales agents have filed suit against the Redskins arguing that they are owed thousands of dollars in overtime pay that the Redskins won't pay because of "a federal exemption for amusement and recreation workers."
And on the field and the sidelines it gets even worse. Poor decisions by Exec VP of football operations Vinny Cerrato and the impatience of Snyder in building the franchise through the draft and smart trades has led to a team of overpaid and underperforming players who talk a big game but consistently have nothing to show for it where it actually counts on the scoreboard.
Let's run through the list of awful free agent signings -- Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, Mark Carrier, Adam Archuleta, Dana Stubblefield, Jeremiah Trotter, etc... And now Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall signed to astronomical contracts, and guess what ... underperforming.
Then there is the questionable decision to replace Joe Gibbs with an untested quarterbacks coach named Jim Zorn. His bizarre play calling is starting to reveal what a mistake that was.
And quarterback Jason Campbell has never been able to get the confidence he needs and the creativity a pro quarterback needs to make plays on the fly.
So, to all those disgruntled 'Skins fans who are furious at the organization after ending the Lions' 19-game losing streak -- there is hope in the District and it comes from a bunch of Cup-hungry young hockey players who are poised to bring a championship to Washington, D.C.