We are thrilled to have had a chance to review a couple of drafts of a new book coming out early this autumn that affords a commendably wide-angled lens on the Washington Capitals’ organization, Transition Game: Story of the 2010-11 Washington Capitals, by the Washington Times’ Ted Starkey. The title is slightly deceiving insomuch as Ted’s well crafted narrative captures not only the the ups and downs of a drama-laden season for the Caps but delivers a valuable history of the franchise, dating back all the way to its inception, as you’ll see in the excerpt below.
A special first edition of the book is being sent to press right at this moment and should be shipped in September before the book is available elsewhere, and Ted will personally sign and ship each copy of the initial printing. Because of the unique nature of this project, pre-ordering helps determine how many editions to print and in return will noted as a specially marked first edition of the work.
The cost will be $25 for the book and $5 for shipping within the United States and Canada, and for other destinations please make a special request for exact pricing. If you’d like to place an order, you can either make a payment via PayPal to CapitalsBook@aol.com, or mail a check to: Ted Starkey, c/o The Washington Times, 3600 New York Avenue NE Washington, DC 20003
Now on to that excerpt. A big thanks to Ted for involving us in this project as he did. It was invigorating watching Ted pursue this project with the zeal he did. Capitals’ fans have a special voice of passion and commitment offering them an engrossing narrative of their favorite hockey club late this summer.
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For a club that has always labored in the shadow of the city’s NFL franchise, the Capitals have emerged as the trendy sports team to follow in the national capital area. While the Redskins still are the most-watched team in town – due to the team’s long tenure in Washington and the sheer brand power of the National Football League – the Capitals certainly have seized a strong second spot among the city’s four major professional sports teams.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this for the franchise that was awarded to Abe Pollin in 1972 to help the first Capitals owner solidify plans for the construction of an arena in suburban Landover to house the new National Hockey League franchise as well as Pollin’s relocating National Basketball Association franchise, the Baltimore Bullets.
With the Capitals entering the NHL the same time that the upstart World Hockey Association was beginning to draw talent away from the more-established league, the early editions of Washington’s franchise weren’t pretty.
The inaugural 1974-75 club set a record for the fewest wins in a season (8), and didn’t register a win away from the brand-new Capital Centre until March 28, 1975 – their only points away from Landover during the campaign. The next season was marginally better, recording an 11-59-10 mark – a wide 95-point gap between them and the first place team in the Norris Division, the Montreal Canadiens . . .
By the summer of 1982, with the team’s lack of success on the ice being reflected at the gate, Pollin threatened to move — or disband — the Capitals without getting concessions from Maryland’s Prince George’s County and the team selling thousands of tickets for the new campaign.
Thus, the “Save the Caps” campaign was born, and with support from the local media, fans and local businesses, Pollin eventually backed down from threats to possibly merge the Capitals with the relocating Colorado Rockies in New Jersey.
Thanks to the ticket drive, what had been a floundering franchise got more stability as a business venture, and successfully averted what to date has been the only major threat to the franchise’s existence in Washington . . .
During the 1980s, the team enjoyed a popularity that it didn’t have during its first decade in the region.
The Redskins were in the midst the best run in franchise history by winning three Super Bowl titles in 10 seasons, but the Capitals created a good following of their own and taken over the role as the second team in town, replacing the Bullets franchise. Pollin’s other franchise won its only NBA title in 1977-78 but had slipped back into mediocrity during the 1980s, creating a chance for the NHL franchise to take a solid second among the city’s three teams.
However, the wave didn’t last forever for the Caps, and the departure of two of the team’s future Hall-of-Famers didn’t help matters . . .
Although the Capitals reportedly brought in more ticket revenue than the Bullets, the NBA franchise was having more gate success in terms of average attendance – through some rather unconventional methods – and Pollin was looking to transfer that apparent success to the NHL team.
O’Malley had run the Bullets’ ticket operations and had made a point of selling ticket plans for fans to see the opposing stars – leading to some unusual sales patterns for the struggling Bullets with some large crowds when the team played league’s big-name teams, although other games drew very small gatherings. O’Malley quickly took over the hockey team’s ticket operations and instituted a similar model with the perennial playoff-contending Capitals.
“I remember in the early ‘90s, when I was working for the Caps, the Bullets were bad and they were marketing the other franchises in an attempt to get people to come to their games,” recalled Ed Frankovic of WNST radio, who was working with the club at the time of the merger.
“When the Bullets and Caps offices merged around 1995, Susan O’Malley wanted the Capitals to do the same but from General Manager David Poile on down, the hockey people thought that made little sense and so did the majority of the Caps marketing and communications personnel. To go out and market to the fans of your opposition seemed ludicrous.”
While the figures improved sell-out wise for the Capitals, a number of those tickets usually found their way into opposing fans’ hands. The problem became even more apparent as the Caps’ ticket prices rose sharply when the team moved from Landover into brand-new MCI Center in the middle of the 1997-98 season.
Even when the franchise reached its only Stanley Cup Finals at the end of their first season in Chinatown, O’Malley undercut the Capitals’ own fan base by selling thousands of tickets to a Detroit travel agency for Washington’s home games. The move left Caps fans looking for tickets for home games being required to buy partial plans for the next season, while out-of-town fans buying packages through a Detroit travel agency didn’t have the same stipulation.
The result of the move was a large Red Wings contingent for the two games that were played in Washington, including the series-clinching Game 4 in which Detroit claimed its second consecutive Stanley Cup title with a 4-1 win over the Capitals.
The following summer, Pollin sold the Capitals to America Online executive Ted Leonsis . . .
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The last time the team was together at the suburban Virginia complex had been four months before. Washington’s players met a day after its Game 7 loss to the Montreal Canadiens to meet with the media, their coaches to get evaluated and the tough task of packing up their gear and belongings before splitting up for the summer.
The team also had the difficult task of trying to explain to reporters just how its 121-point Presidents’ Trophy season came unraveled in just five short days, losing a 3-1 series edge against the eighth-seeded Habs with three straight losses.
The modern twin rink facility on top of a shopping mall in Arlington that opened in 2006 is one of the best in the NHL and has a lot of bells and whistles, but it certainly lacked what the team was really looking for that April day: a reset button to erase the previous season’s meltdown.
“They got to camp, and nobody wanted to be at camp, they wanted to be in the playoffs,” the team’s then- Vice President of Communications Nate Ewell recalled. “It was just all just long preamble that you had to get through.”
Reporters certainly got the vibe from the players that unlike previous campaigns in Washington that had seen some Hart Trophy-winning performances from their captain and three Southeast Division titles and a Presidents’ Trophy, the regular season was just an 82-game grind to get to before they could try and focus on having some playoff success.
“I think the Caps were totally focused on what they could do to be better once the playoffs started,” Ed Frankovic of WNST in Baltimore said of the team’s mood as camp opened. “It was clear that the regular season didn’t matter much to them.
“George McPhee said that to me on Media Day. He said the only thing that mattered to him was a long playoff run. So if the man at the helm is saying that, then the players were likely thinking the same way.”