Ultimatum Warrior: Pollin?s early-?80s threats birthed a civic phenomenon.
Ultimatum Warrior: Pollin?s early-?80s threats birthed a civic phenomenon. Credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

You know it’s a good year when the biggest brouhaha comes over your celebrations. Such is the lot of the late model Washington Capitals, who clinched a playoff spot last week. And folks are paying attention like never before: The team recently announced the old franchise record of 10 consecutive home sellouts had been broken.

Good times.

“I had a feeling that would happen in Washington,” says Steve Mehlman. “I knew there’d be a big buzz about the team eventually. I remember when you could only dream about that. I wish I was there for it.”

Mehlman now lives in Sacramento, Calif. But he was a season ticket holder the first time the team sold out 10 games in a row.

That came in 1982. While this year’s sellout streak is a sign of success, the original streak, which Mehlman had a big hand in pulling off, symbolized the franchise’s failures. It only came about after original Caps owner Abe Pollin, in a time of crisis, announced a series of ultimatums for fans and the local business community.

Pollin’s demands: Prince George’s County must cut the amusement taxes the Caps paid by 95 percent; the rent the Caps paid to Capital Centre must be reduced by two-thirds (Pollin also owned the building, so, no surprise, this demand was met quickly); at least 7,500 season tickets must be sold; and the first 10 home games of the 1982-’83 season must be sellouts.

Patty Hearst’s kidnappers didn’t play harder ball than Pollin: If all of his demands weren’t met within 30 days, Pollin pledged again and again, he’d disband or move the Caps.

“He meant it,” says Mehlman. “Abe Pollin is a man of his word. But we couldn’t let that happen.”

About a decade earlier, the NHL had given D.C. an expansion franchise over Baltimore, Kansas City, Cleveland, Phoenix, San Juan, and Mexico City. Pollin beat out a number of big-money folks, including Ted Lerner, to be named owner of the new team.

The early Capitals were the worst team the NHL has ever seen. The 8-67-5 mark of the inaugural 1974-’75 Caps remains the shit standard, as does that squad’s road record of 0-39-1. By 1982, the team still hadn’t made the playoffs, even though 16 of the 21 teams in the league made the postseason in those days.

Mehlman was a season ticket holder from the first season on. But not many folks joined him at the Capital Centre. The only Rocking the Red the team did back then came on the franchise’s books, as Pollin lost millions of dollars each year. And, by the end of the 1981-’82 season, Pollin was sick of it. Hence the demands.

Mehlman couldn’t imagine life without the Caps. His hockey-nut bona fides were secured the previous season, when he’d fought through a giant snowstorm on Jan. 13, 1982 (the night of the Air Florida crash, for you old-timers) just to get to the Cap Centre.

“Gretzky was playing,” he says.

In July, he’d heard that concerned fans were going to discuss the team’s plight at Maruk’s, a short-lived Alexandria restaurant and bar recently opened by Dennis Maruk, the Caps’ leading scorer.

“Almost nobody showed up, maybe seven people,” says Mehlman. “I looked around and thought we were in trouble.”

But it was at that small gathering that Mehlman and a trio of other fans launched the campaign known as “Save the Caps.” At the time, Mehlman was director of public relations for the American Association of Retired Persons, so he was well-versed in how media and governments operate. He took charge of lobbying and publicity chores for the ad hoc hockey advocates.

Mehlman’s effort was masterful. He appeared on WTOP-TV with the legendary Glenn Brenner to discuss the formation of “Save the Caps.” Soon enough, WRC-TV’s George Michael held an on-air telethon selling Caps tickets. Peoples Drug put “Save the Caps!” atop all its newspaper advertising. Even the D.C. Special Olympics chapter announced it would use tax-deductible contributions to buy Caps tickets.

The Washington Post not only ran editorials supporting the cause but also guaranteed to buy all unsold tickets for one of the Caps’ first 10 home games. Nine other businesses matched the Post’s pledge, thereby meeting Pollin’s demand and setting a team record for consecutive sellouts.

Mehlman personally lobbied the Prince George’s County Council to give Pollin the tax break he wanted. He also wrote testimony for other fans and businessmen to present to county officials at hearings about the taxpayers’ bailout of Pollin.

The council quickly voted to suspend the entertainment tax.

Mehlman also helped organize a volunteer posse of folks to work phone banks at the Capital Centre from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day to sell season tickets, and he showed up each night after work to make cold calls himself.

Neither Mehlman nor any of the other Save the Caps callers were paid for their solicitation efforts.

“It was a labor of love,” says Mehlman. “I always felt that a sports team was about more than sports for a town. It was about the character of the town. And I couldn’t let the team leave. I spent that whole summer on the phone.”

Pollin played the game wonderfully, too. He leaked that he was shopping the Caps for $7.5 million, and that his suitors included investment groups seeking tenants for the Meadowlands and the Tacoma Dome.

And Pollin went after any reporter who didn’t play along—including Ken Denlinger and Dave Kindred, the Post’s lead sports columnists. Neither writer felt desperate measures should be used to keep the Caps here. On Aug. 22, 1982, Pollin took out a full-page ad in the Post saying he thought about moving the team after reading the columnists’ “inaccuracies,” “half-truths,” and “slanted brand of journalism.”

Kindred, now living near Fredericksburg, laughs when asked about the squabble.

“I know Abe got mad at me,” he says. “I figured all the people that cared about hockey here were in the building.”

In the end, only three of Pollin’s four demands were met. Even after the owner extended his original 30-day limit, nowhere near 7,500 season tickets were sold.

But he backed down on his threat to move when a local investment group, headed by Dick Patrick, agreed to purchase a partial ownership stake in the Capitals that would leave Pollin in charge. He quickly hired GM David Poile, who engineered the 1982 trade with the Montreal Canadiens for Rod Langway that turned the Capitals into a respectable squad overnight. The team made the playoffs for the first time the season after the Save the Caps campaign. By the end of the decade, the Capital Centre was one of the loudest buildings in the league every spring.

Mehlman’s PR career caused him to leave D.C. in the mid-1990s. He says Pollin thanked him for the Save the Caps efforts in a big way in 1998, when he was invited back to town to watch the team’s first home game in the Stanley Cup finals.

“Abe Pollin told me back in 1982 that if the Caps ever made it to the finals, I’d be his guest,” Mehlman says. “He’s a man of his word.”

Allen Knotts has never met Mehlman, but he appreciates what Save the Caps accomplished. Knotts, a Bowie resident and current member of the Capitals Fan Club, says he believes the team would have left were it not for the fan-inspired campaign.

“I’m a product of Save the Caps,” says Knotts. “That’s why I bought my season tickets [in 1982], and I’ve had them ever since. I still believe the team was going to leave. Am I glad they didn’t? Oh, my gosh, yes!”