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Capitals owner eyes own 'compelling event'

| Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010

Granted, it's not the big prize, but Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis appears set to land another object of his desire.

Although NHL commissioner Gary Bettman offered no commitment on a Winter Classic site beyond the Capitals and Penguins facing off on New Year's Day at Heinz Field, he did say the league's "goal" (no pun intended) is for the Caps to host the Classic in the D.C. area.

Leonsis, who makes no effort to hide his yearning for the franchise's first Stanley Cup, said he expects his team to get the Winter Classic "in a two- or three-year window."

For now, Leonsis is thrilled to be part of the fourth Classic — Caps and Pens, Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby — before a sell-out crowd expected to exceed 67,000.

"It should make for a compelling event," he said. "It should translate very well to television. ... Pittsburgh's going to be a fantastic host."

Leonsis has pushed for the event since the first Winter Classic nearly three years ago, when more than 71,000 gathered at Ralph Wilson Stadium outside Buffalo, N.Y., in a snowfall that literally sprinkled the topping on an already successful event. He was hooked long before Sidney Crosby's shootout goal gave the Penguins a 2-1 win over the Sabres.

"It really hit me how perfectly it captured all that is right and beautiful with the game," Leonsis said. "To see these professional players play with such exuberance and joy — and they really wanted to win. There was really something about the game and the fans, the way it was snowing. It was goosebump-inducing.

"(Since then,) I felt confident it would be big. What surprised me is almost how perfect it's been to date."

Leonsis, who helped build AOL in the 1990s, wanted in on the action. Shortly into that first game, he began e-mailing Bettman to lobby for a Caps-hosted Winter Classic. He also put the out the word on his blog, "Ted's Take."

"Ted is one of the most extraordinarily smart, savvy, media-driven owners in all of sports," Bettman said. "This event immediately connected to his hard-wiring. He figured out exactly what this is before anyone started writing about it."

Leonsis said the NHL had considered the Capitals to host this season's game. But that would have meant the Penguins being the road team twice in four years.

"I knew that was unfair," Leonsis said. "I said, 'Of course we'll play in Pittsburgh, but I hope you ask us to play again.' I said our fan base is worthy of it."

The NHL has looked at Nationals Park and FedEx Field as potential sites in and around Washington, along with Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium and Camden Yards. The league makes the call, but Leonsis said he believes it should be D.C.'s game.

This season's contest brings together teams that have forged a hot rivalry largely because of Ovechkin and Crosby, arguably the NHL's two best players, and fueled by the captivating, seven-game playoff series between the clubs in 2009. Three of the games went into overtime, as the Penguins overcame a 2-0 deficit en route to their third Stanley Cup.

But the roots might go back to 2001, when Leonsis, a technological innovator, wrote a computer program that prevented Penguins fans from buying playoff tickets on the Capitals' website.

Area fans were outraged. Leonsis?

"Pretty cool, huh?" he was quoted as saying, adding he would keep doing it. In 2009, some Penguins fans said they were denied tickets when ordering through the Capitals.

Leonsis said the rivalry for the most part is a byproduct of Ovechkin and Crosby, who both entered the league in 2005 as the perfect tonic for a post-lockout hangover. "Rivalries get made in the playoffs, and this set of players only played once in the playoffs," he said.

But on HBO's 24/7 reality series, discussing the need to win a championship after coming close the past few years, Leonsis said, "We have to win the Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh has already won theirs."

After becoming the Capitals' majority owner in 1999, Leonsis tried stocking the roster with well-known, high-priced players like former Penguins star Jaromir Jagr. That didn't work, so he and general manager George McPhee scrapped the plan and essentially started over, building from within and relying on young, homegrown talent. Spending the No. 1 draft pick in 2004 on Ovechkin didn't hurt.

The Brooklyn-born Leonsis, who turns 54 on Jan. 8, also is attempting to rebuild the moribund Washington Wizards of the NBA. He became majority owner in June, adding to an empire that includes the WNBA's Mystics and downtown landmark Verizon Center.

Leonsis, for now, has curtailed his work in feature films. Producing documentaries on such serious subjects as the Japanese destruction of Nanking and a national soccer program for the homeless, he coined the word, "filmanthropy," which he described as "shedding light on a big issue" while raising money for charity.

That's on hold, although Leonsis does get to sit with fellow filmmaker and highly visible New York Knicks fan Spike Lee when their teams get together.

The two go back to when Leonsis broke into movies.

"He gave me advice on editing and the like," Leonsis said. "He was very gracious with his time. We're the same age, we're both from Brooklyn. ... He was very nice. There was no trash talk."

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