Ted Leonsis knew his team had drafted someone special back in 2004. When everyone began to doubt whether Alex Ovechkin would be able to bring a Stanley Cup to Washington, Leonsis never did.
Leonsis, the majority owner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, bought the Capitals in 1999. He has since seen this team rise from the low years of the rebuild and the lockout to being the Stanley Cup Champions
I got the opportunity to speak with him 1-on-1 before Wednesday’s opener on a variety of topics from the Cup celebration to Alex Ovechkin’s legacy.
Here is the second part of our conversation.
For Capitals fans, the legacy of Alex Ovechkin was already secure, but in the wider hockey community there was that criticism that, as great as he was, he never won the Cup. Do you believe last year cemented his legacy as an all-time great?
Oh, yeah. It's in many ways understandable and many ways unfair. I heard some banter on the NHL Network that said well Alex was a top 25 player of all-time, now he's won the Cup he can be in the conversation of being one of the top five or 10 players of all time. I think it removed that impediment that's also driven him to know if you can win it a second time, you're in a whole different kind of conversation and that's frankly what's driving him now. He had the long-term contract, he had the MVPs, he had the all-star nomenclature if you will, he loves the city so now there's this purity of pursuit which is, OK we won a Cup, we think we know how to do it, we know it starts with make the playoffs so let's be focused on coming back and staying healthy and whole vying for the playoffs and then we start all over again. So as he said in one of his interviews, find another team, another person to write that about. That narrative no longer works here. It's a different narrative which is how hard is it to repeat?
You look in the recent past, Chicago won three Cups but never back to backs. What Pittsburgh did was magnificent and my respect level for them has always been high, but it's through the roof because to have won back to back and be competing for a third championship back to back, that was an amazing accomplishment by that team.
With a few more years remaining on Ovechkin’s contract, is your position that he is going to be a Capital for life?
The great thing about Alex, and he's got three more years, he's a man with great, great pride. He also knows his place in history. If at the end of his contract he's playing as a first line player and he's all-star caliber, he'll want to continue his career and of course we'd want Alex here for the rest of his career. But I do not believe you will ever see Alex Ovechkin 'hanging on.' If he can't be a great, great player, he's not going to play for the money. He's managed his money and his career very, very well. He wants to be a great player and be able to compete for Cups. We're blessed that that's the kind of motivation that he has and he's in shape. He scored a goal the other day in preseason and I said to Dick Patrick who I was sitting next to at the time, I think that shot was heavier and faster than it was five years ago. It's this supernatural gift that he has to still be able to just score goals and play with such dynamism and enthusiasm and to stay healthy.
Alex and [Nicklas Bakcstrom}, they're such a big part of our team and culture and history, but neither of them is going to play if they can't play to a really, really high standard. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, but knowing them as well as I do, that's what I believe.
There was talk after last year’s loss that maybe it was time to move on from Ovechkin and the core. Was there ever a moment when you began to doubt that this core would ever win the Cup?
No and I think that's why Alex gave me that kind of hug and if you talk to Nick Backstrom, he's not as emotive as Alex, he'll say the same thing. My belief in being steadfast and trusting and believing in these players and our core never wavered. Their payback to me, Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom have never told me fire this coach, trade for this player, trade me. Never once. And we've been in this together all the way through.
I told Alex how hard it was going to be to win the Stanley Cup, but if we stayed together and we had each other's back and if we believed in the plan that when we won it, it was going to be the most unbelievable feeling, and when we gave the rings the other day, Alex really, it hit him. It was like, how many times in life do you get to believe and trust and share in something like this? It's not often, right? So there was a real release and bond there. And it's not just with Alex.
Alex and all his teammates and all of our ownership group with the players, we were in it together and it worked. It's few and far between when you have that kind of experience. Alex will go down in history as one of the great players, but I think he'll also go down as being one of the great leaders and also one of the highest integrity players because he always plays, he doesn't whine. And he took a lot of [expletive] from people, right? Mostly unfairly.
I think I said to him, remember that article? He said yeah. Do you remember who wrote that? No, no idea. I don't either. And so when the pixels are flying and you say to somebody it won't matter after we win the Stanley Cup, just keep your eye on that prize. That happened and he's very happy, but I'd say he's more self-actualized now than happy. That weight's been lifted off of his shoulder and I really think he's going to enjoy this part of his career where you're the defending Stanley Cup champ and all of your focus is on one thing which is repeating or, in future years, winning it again and that's very clarifying emotion.
You mentioned your respect for Pittsburgh for being able to repeat, when you look at your team this year what do you think their chances are to pull off the repeat?
The unbelievable thing about the NHL is the parity and the belief by every fan base as the new season starts that they can win the Cup. I'm sure there's lots of people around the league that said look, Washington was not picked to win the Cup last year and they ended up being the best team. There are 30 other incredibly competitive teams and every year there's a surprise. Certainly Las Vegas last year turned out to be the surprise of a lifetime. Who would've thought a first-year team could be that good and we had to beat them in the Stanley Cup Final.
Any team that has generationally great centers and great goaltending will always be a threat to win the Stanley Cup. That's how the game is played now and they have great centers. I think we have great centers. Everyone talks about Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, but probably the reason we won the Cup last year was our goaltending was stout and the save was the pivotal play in the Finals, but Evgeny Kuznetsov may be our best player. He might be the best player in the NHL right now. He's almost overlooked. Lars Eller became an unbelievably important and great center and we woke up and we've got really, really great strength down the middle with Nick and Evgeny and Lars Eller. We have good defensemen, John Carlson's certainly one of the best defensemen in the NHL and our goaltender's won [a] Vezina Trophy.
I laughed, we had the best record in the league over 10 years and we have these great players, why was it such a surprise that we would win the Stanley Cup? It's hard to fathom that, but alright, so we surprised everyone. We certainly won't surprise people this year who will be gunning for us.
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