Credit: Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

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Ted Leonsis was inside the Verizon Center last Tuesday, so he heard fans booing the Caps against the visiting Islanders, even while the home team was down 1-0.

As it turned out, Brooks Laich scored with 47 seconds left in regulation, and Alexander Ovechkin went on an Ovechkinesque coast-to-coast run to put in a game winner in the second minute of overtime.

Leonsis watched Sunday’s Caps/Panthers game on TV at his Northern Virginia home. He checked his e-mail just after his team beat host Florida, also in OT. At the top of his inbox he found a pair of tirades from what he describes as “self-professed big fans of the Washington Capitals.”

The first began, “You’re chokers!”

From the time stamps, Leonsis figured out that both rants were typed after the Panthers scored on a 5-3 power-play with 2:48 left to play in regulation to tie the game, but before Alexander Semin won it for Washington just 48 seconds into the extra period.

“All told it’s about five minutes between when Florida scored and we scored,” Leonsis says, with a chuckle of the last-laugh variety. “It’s human nature and it comes with the territory…But shouldn’t you wait to see if we win or lose before you tell me I’m a moron?”

The two haters, of course, weren’t speaking for all sports fans around these parts. Leonsis is probably as popular and definitely as beloved as any athlete in town. His quasi-deification can be traced to the middle of the last decade, when he blew up the Capitals. In early 2004, he gave away the team’s underperforming superstar right winger, Jaromír Jágr, to the New York Rangers. And he proceeded to get rid of every other player that fans cared about, with the exception of goaltender Olie Kolzig. The moves were initially a disaster with the fans. Hard as it now is to believe, the rancor was such that Leonsis proverbially dropped the gloves with some analog hecklers in an arena concourse after one game.

But Leonsis eventually won everybody over by publicly confessing that before getting the team to where he wanted it to be, the Caps would have to be lousy by design. And he cut ticket prices to make the rebuild more palatable. Coming out of the NHL lockout season of 2004-2005, the Caps had among the cheapest tickets in the league. A Washington Times reporter asked Leonsis in 2006 how long the reductions would stay. Until management could “build a good team,” Leonsis answered. (The Caps announced this week they’ll be raising ticket prices for the fourth straight year.)

The Caps lived down to Leonsis’ predictions after jettisoning Jagr, et al. But the lousiness paid off, just as he said it would. The team used its enhanced position in the NHL’s 2004 draft to get Ovechkin, Mike Green, and Jeff Schultz, then took Nicklas Backstrom, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, and Mathieu Perreault in 2006, the post-lockout draft. You’d have to go to Bobby Beathard’s Redskins drafts of the early 1980s to find a local talent harvest so bountiful.

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The success of the rebuild—the Caps have won three straight Southeast Division titles, and after Monday’s win at Tampa Bay were leading the division by 2 points—and the transparency with which Leonsis carried himself left the owner’s goodwill tank overflowing. His word became bond with fans.

But just as Leonsis once declared the Caps would be lousy, he has in recent seasons often said the team is on the verge of greatness.

In an April 2009 New York Times feature story about the Caps, Leonsis said he was “certain that the core of this team will win a Stanley Cup at some point in the not-too-distant future.” They were knocked out of the playoffs in the second round after losing Game 7 at the Verizon Center to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Then in April 2010, with the Caps headed into the postseason as the top seed in the entire league, Leonsis told The Washington Post, “Alex and the Caps are gonna win Stanley Cups. We’re either gonna win it this year or next year or the year after.”

The Caps were knocked out in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens, the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.

Then this fall, as pucks were about to drop for the 2010-2011 season, Leonsis went on WTEM-ESPN 980 to say that he and the team will “get our fair share of Stanley Cups.”

Take away the Caps, and our city’s sports scene is awful barren right now. But if you’re willing to go back a ways, D.C. can claim major championships in football (Redskins), basketball (the Bullets had “a pretty good year back in ’78,” as Abe Pollin said, ‘til the day he died), baseball (Senators, ’24 World Series), soccer (D.C. United’s four MLS Cups) and, heck, even team tennis (Washington Kastles!).

But not hockey. As a franchise, the Caps are in the NHL record books for single-season marks for worst overall record (1974-1975 squad, 8-67-5) and worst road record (same season, 1-39-0). They have never won a Stanley Cup.

Yet now we have the spectacle of Caps fans booing during one-goal deficits at Verizon Center and spreading e-disharmony during ties on the road.

The Red Wings’ successes once led to Detroit’s being nicknamed “Title Town.” Is D.C. on the verge of becoming hockey’s Entitlement Town?

“I think ‘entitlement’ is too strong for the Caps fans,” says longtime local sportswriter Greg Wyshynski, who now edits Yahoo! Sports’ Puck Daddy, the top hockey blog in the land. “Everything that’s happened to this franchise [in recent seasons]—the steady improvement, all the playoff appearances—is on the timeline that could have lead to a Stanley Cup by now. Then you add this unprecedented movement to hockey in Washington, where every game is sold out and the fans are all ‘rocking the red’, and it feels like all this is leading somewhere.”

Wyshynski does, however, see a potential danger in Leonsis’ optimistic soothsaying: If the Caps don’t bring home some hardware soon, serious resentment will set in.

“Washington actually has done a great job building a team for the long-term, not for some quick playoff push,” he says. “But they can’t sell the fans on how strong the kids in Hershey are or tell them to be patient. They have to say, ‘We traded for [recently acquired center] Jason Arnott! It’s a Cup year!’ The problem is at some point the fan base will actually want to see one of these Cups.”

Leonsis stands by his championship forecasting fetish. He says management has put together a team talented enough to inspire “expectations” of a Stanley Cup in recent seasons, this season, and for seasons to come.

“I’d rather be positive, state what everybody who owns a team should be feeling,” he says.

If his predictions do indeed incite a couple more boos or nasty correspondences, well, bring ‘em on.

“What’d they say in ‘The Godfather?’” he says. “‘This is the business we have chosen.’”

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