Sunday, February 05, 2006

Thinking Inside The Box

Just before the midway point of the third period Ben Clymer, straddling the goal line to Ed Belfour's immediate right, waited for a puck that Brian Sutherby had sent behind the net. Clymer's patience paid off, as he quickly took the puck, brought it out front and deposited it in the goal behind the Maple Leaf's netminder. The goal gave the home team Capitals a 3-1 lead in a game that was tight and hard-hitting throughout, but a two-goal lead felt worlds better than the margin the team had held just moments earlier.

As soon as the goal light went on and the crowd of more than 15,000 erupted, everyone in the owners' box was on their feet. Lincoln Holdings partners were shaking hands as if they had just consummated a multi-billion dollar merger deal, and Caps' majority owner Ted Leonsis high-fived me. Let me repeat that last part: Ted Leonsis high-fived me. And for some reason, it wasn't weird. At all. In fact, it was perfectly natural. We were two hockey fans celebrating our favorite team scoring a big goal. That, in and of itself, tells you a lot of what you need to know about Leonsis as the Caps' owner - he is, first and foremost, a fan. But what happened next tells you a lot of what you need to know about Leonsis as a man.

Before the crowd had settled back into their seats, Leonsis had headed, with purpose, towards the suite door. Did he suddenly get an invite to play St. Andrews? Was the AOL Running Man in trouble? Luckily for me and my somewhat infamous impatience, I wouldn't have to wait long to learn the answer. Leonsis had left the suite empty-handed, but reappeared moments later with a white replica Caps jersey that he handed to the 10-year-old son of one of his guests for the evening. In the middle of the game, Leonsis left the owners' box, walked across the concourse to a concession stand and bought a brand new jersey for a kid he'd probably never met before, all to make that kid's night and to add to what was undoubtedly already an unforgettable evening for the youngster.

Making people happy and comfortable seems to come effortlessly to Leonsis. This was apparent as soon as he greeted my wife, Meg, and me outside the suite a few minutes before game time (for background on how this invitation came about for us, click here). "I love to watch the fans funneling in," he said. "Are there a lot of Toronto jerseys?"

"Too many for my taste. But then again, one is too many," I responded. We briefly chatted about what I do in my non-hockey-blogging life and about the team's injured players and Olympic participants as he gave us the grand tour of the suite, from the light buffet, to the bar to the hot buffet. "Make yourselves at home," our host implored us. And he meant it. Luckily for everyone in the suite, I only partially took him up on his offer and kept my shoes on.


Once the game started, I was in modified fan mode (watching as intently as I usually would, but mindful not to curse... too loudly). Leonsis was tending to other guests and Meg was tending to the shrimp cocktail. A chippy first period during which the teams each scored once passed fairly quickly, and a handful of celery sticks later the second period was set to start. Before it did, however, Leonsis sat down next to me and we spent the entire period talking hockey much like my friends and I do on a Saturday night in front of the television.

"How about that Mike Green goal? Nice to see him get that first one of his career out of the way."

"Our defense is going to be really good in a couple of years with him, [Steve] Eminger, [Shaone] Morrisonn and [Jeff] Schultz. Can you believe Boston gave us Morrisonn and [the pick that became] Schultz for [Sergei] Gonchar?"

For the record, the first voice was mine, the second Leonsis's. But it was just two fans talking hockey.

"I really like [Brooks] Laich. He's going to be another [Steve] Konowalchuk-type guy."

That was him again.

"Look at this Toronto team. Do you think they are really $15 million a year better than us?"

Him again.

"Meg, can you get me a couple more shrimp?"

Me, though she'd gladly have snagged a couple for our host.

At one point, a melee of sorts broke out after Bryan McCabe continued in his futile attempts to intimidate Alex Ovechkin [for the record, this is probably the longest I've ever gone in a post before mentioning Alex]. With the fans on their feet straining to see Clymer and Andy Wozniewski (who?) fighting, a fan sporting a white Caps jersey in the section below the owners' box turned in our direction and yelled to get Leonsis's attention. "Hey!" he cleverly shouted, and after catching the owner's eye, turned and pointed at the name and number on his back, those of a former pseudo-tough guy the Caps had employed until fairly recently, ostensibly implying that the Caps needed him as an enforcer to protect Ovechkin. Leonsis playfully answered, "Him? I'm tougher than he is." Just a fan talking a little trash.

As a testament to how comfortable Leonsis makes everyone around him feel, Meg had no problem at all talking to him. This may not sound like much confirmation until you consider that Meg is prone to being quite star struck. Considering that meeting D-listers like Real World alums Norman and Coral causes her to randomly wander off starry-eyed, the fact that she was able to sit in her seat much less carry on a conversation with Leonsis was a minor miracle. The two beers must have settled her down.

I want to stress that this time was very much not an interview. Given my lack of journalistic background and my legal education, I'm sure any attempted interview would have come off as an awkward combination of a deposition and The Chris Farley Show ("Do you or do you not recall drafting Alex Ovechkin first overall in 2004? That was awesome. [Smacks self] Idiot! That sounds so stupid!").

The second period ended and we all got up to stretch our legs, only to be confronted near the suite entrance by the most amazing dessert cart the world has ever seen. Seven-layer carrot cake. Triple chocolate cheesecake. Why did I fill up on shrimp? Meg excused herself to use the facilities and I went back to my seat empty-handed. As I sat waiting for her to return and for the third period to start, I felt my cell phone vibrate. I took it out and didn't recognize the number, so I didn't answer it, but did check it once I noticed that a message had been left. "Hey. It's me." It was Meg. "I'm calling from the phone in the owners' box bathroom!" Of course she was.

The third period saw the Caps extend their lead and hammer a nail into the Leafs' coffin with a Chris Clark goal with less than two minutes left. As the final horn went off, everyone in the suite was back on their feet, shaking hands and gathering up coats. As Meg and I prepared to thank our host for a most incredible night, Leonsis pre-empted me. "Want to go downstairs and meet the guys?" he asked. By "the guys" he could have meant the janitors and I would have gladly accepted - anything to extend the evening. But he didn't mean the janitors (though I'm sure they do incredible work and are well-worth meeting). He meant the team. So we got on the suite's elevator along with the 10-year-old and his parents, and went down to the locker room.


Actually, not all of us went down to the locker room. Two of the group - the ladies - went down to the hallway just outside the locker room where they would have to wait, lest they be exposed to things they'd surely never seen before (though Meg later excitedly reported seeing from afar Matt Pettinger wearing nothing but a towel). For the rest of us - the owner, the father, the kid and me (sounds like a Dylan song) - the first stop was the coach's office, where we found the coaching staff mauling a pizza. Leonsis introduced us to assistant coach Dean Evason and then to head coach Glen Hanlon. "What a game. That was like old time hockey out there. How about that Mike Green?" asked Leonsis.

"I'm trying not to get too excited," replied a broadly-smiling Hanlon.

"That's ok. You stay calm, I'll get excited," said Leonsis, as Hanlon left to face the media and our little gang of four headed to the locker room.

I'd read an account that sometimes the locker room sounds like a "Moscow night club," and while I've never been to a Moscow night club (nor Moscow or even really a night club for that matter), I'm certain that description was accurate for the room we walked into next, full of extremely sweaty and extremely large men in various stages of undress. There was Olie Kolzig throwing his pads in a duffle bag (which probably smells worse than just about anything you could imagine). There was Mike Green, looking every bit as young as his twenty years. There was Chris Clark, grinning ear-to-ear undoubtedly the result of a big win and a big new deal. Everyone was there, really, with one notable exception. And as I made my way around, shaking hands and doling out congratulations, our ten-year-old companion was getting his brand new jersey filled up with autographs and Leonsis was being the attentive host, making introductions and taking in a scene that probably never gets old to him.

We left the locker room after a little while and went to the player's lounge where Pettinger was watching highlights (though he could have fired up the Xbox and played some Halo). Across the hall were the weight room and trainer's room. "Wait here. I want you to meet Alex," said Leonsis as he disappeared behind the door. A few minutes later he re-emerged with the first moderately bad news of the night. "Unfortunately, Alex is on the trainer's table right now, so we can't go in." I can't recall whether I was more disappointed not to be able to meet the young phenom or more concerned for the health of the team's most valuable skater (probably the former), but we were quickly assured that it was nothing serious so I could briefly indulge my minor disappointment, which was almost immediately forgotten.


Leonsis escorted us down a long hall where we picked up the rest of our original party and headed for the elevator back to the concourse level and the exit. As the elevator made its way up, I couldn't help but thinking how kind it was for Leonsis to invite Meg and me to the game and how much he went "above and beyond" once we were there. He didn't know me. I could have looked like Travis Barker. I could have looked like Bob Barker. But I have a feeling it wouldn't have mattered.

I often hear about ex-convicts who have trouble re-entering society after serving their sentences, and before Friday night's game I feared I might have similar problems sitting with the unwashed masses of Section 111 after spending a night in the owners' box. But truth be told, there won't be much of an adjustment at all. I mean, sure, there won't be leather seats. Or a wait staff. Or shrimp. But there will be hockey fans, and, at the end of the day, that's the same thing I found in the owners' box.

As we shook hands and tried to thank Leonsis for everything, knowing full well that our words could never convey the depth of our gratitude, Meg leaned in and gave him a kiss on the cheek goodbye. And for some reason, it wasn't weird. At all. In fact, it was perfectly natural.


TJ said...

Nice write up. I envy you, what an experience it must have been to be in the box with Ted. Doesnt hurt that the Caps played an awsome game.

Good stuff.

DK said...

Excellent job recounting your experience...Envious indeed...Ted sounds like a passionate owner, who's involved in the team...and not an absentee owner who's in it for the bottom line. As a long time Leafs fan, relocated to the DC area...AO,Ted,and Japers'Rink are turning me into a Cap's fan...

Tom L said...


Congratz on a great evening. This post made staying home from work sick a little easier to handle.

*just a little green with envy*


Adam said...

Great post. I always imagined the owner's box to contain a bunch of suits that couldn't care less about the game. Glad to hear that I'm wrong (at least for Washington).

I'd like to think that Melnyk (I'm from Ottawa) cares the same way....

Also, *so* happy you guys beat the Leafs.