We carried off a little Q&A with Transition Game author Ted Starkey recently. Ted’s first book, self-published, comes out this autumn, and he has a contract for a second book, Red Rising, with ECW Press out of Toronto. Folks can order the book now by dropping a line to Ted at CapitalsBook@aol.com, and it will be listed on Amazon.
OFB: At what point in the 2010-11 season did you realize that the season you were chronicling in normal fashion merited book-length treatment — was there a proverbial “light bulb moment”?
Ted Starkey: I actually came up with the idea back in March, as the regular season was wrapping up. I had a season’s worth of material, ranging from the Calder Cup finals the season before with three key players — Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Michal Neuvirth — playing a big role in the team’s second straight title, to the “24/7” series chronicling the highs and lows of the team’s psyche, to the Winter Classic. I thought it was a unique season and deserved a treatment in what has been termed a unique work.
This work tries to capture the long journey of an NHL season, from the work that begins in September that winds across the continent through a six-game preseason, an 82-game regular season and what turned out to be nine playoff games. The team saw the highs of taking the Winter Classic and the top seed in the Eastern Conference to the lows of an eight-game losing skid and a four-game sweep at the hands of the Lightning, so even with the disappointing ending for the club, I decided the book was going to be about the ride, not the result, and pressed ahead with the project.
OFB: Where do you see the Capitals in the District’s sporting landscape today? And is there any danger for the team in failing to seize on the remarkable up-surge in popularity of late, by bowing out of the postseason early spring after early spring? Put another way: are sellouts an inevitability for Ted because enough D.C. sports fans appreciate who he is as an owner relative to one or two of his less beloved owner peers in the region?
Ted Starkey: Right now, the Capitals are a strong second team to the Redskins, but the team has seen a spot like this before — although not quite to this degree.
During the 1980s, the Caps quickly became the No. 2 team in town thanks to a roster that featured four Hall of Famers and recorded three 100-point seasons. But playoff disappointment dampened what was a very enthusiastic fan base, and certainly, if this current edition of the Capitals suffers another notable playoff failure — meaning not a long run for the club — it will be interesting to see if some of the ticket demand begins to wane.
Of course, this time around, unlike the three-time Super Bowl winners, the current version of the Redskins are part of the reason the Capitals have closed the gap, and with the struggles of the burgundy-and-gold, as well as the Nationals and Wizards, the NHL franchise is the city’s best shot for a title. But to really solidify their hold on the market, they likely will have to deliver on the big promise this roster has given fans.
OFB: Everyone who follows the Caps almost certainly agrees that the team’s participation in the 2011 Winter Classic was a net positive, but in writing this book, did you get the sense that management probably couldn’t have anticipated the extent to which HBO cameras would scrutinize — as in almost annual-physical exacting detail — the overall health of the franchise?
Ted Starkey: I talked at length with the Capitals’ former VP Nate Ewell about the “24/7” experience, and specifically the demands on the team, and he said it was “shocking” to see cameras where he didn’t expect they’d be.
According to him, the team had a plan to deal with injuries that would be shown on the show — such as Mike Green’s — but even some of the small elements of the show, such as the interview with Ted Leonsis or the now-infamous talk with Bruce Boudreau, certainly became talking points around the league.
I got the sense that while the “24/7” experience was overall seen as a positive, it certainly magnified some of the growing pains as the team was shifting towards its defensive style in the midst of a losing streak.
OFB: Two-part followup: You and I were a party to more than a few discussions in the press box last season related to Bruce Boudreau’s struggles. First, do you believe, as the owner wanted us all to believe, that the Caps’ November-December swoon could have continued significantly longer without any repercussions for the head coach? And secondly, given how poor the team looked against Tampa in the postseason, however much the team’s second-half surge cooled Gabby’s hotseat, isn’t he pretty much back on it this fall — can the team get out of the gate with say a marginally better than .500 record in the first 25 games and Bruce be in good standing with management, do you think?
Ted Starkey: It certainly seemed at points that Boudreau himself was worried about his future with the team, both in the “24/7” tape during the eventual comeback win in Ottawa where he alluded to wanting to stay in Washington to his players, as well as his growing concern during the Tampa series and having to face questions about his future.
Ted Leonsis certainly has been patient with his coaches through his Capitals’ ownership, certainly holding on to Bruce Cassady and Glen Hanlon too long during struggles. But with the heightened expectations of this franchise — as well as the high payroll for his players — you wonder how much of a leash he would have had if the losing skid had reached nine or ten games with the HBO cameras rolling.
George McPhee has maintained that Bruce was his coach — both during the losing streak and the eventual sweep by Tampa Bay — but I certainly feel that a disappointing end to the upcoming season certainly could mean some deeper changes to the front office.
OFB: Is 2011-12 a genuine referendum season for anyone in management — or everyone in management?
Ted Starkey: I think the window is certainly not open for as long as some may think, as one thing the Capitals have been fortunate to have is their top player healthy — or at least still in the lineup.
At some point, the team really needs to take the next step and elevate its game in the playoffs. One of the themes from the past season was an inconsistent effort over a game’s 60 minutes, from slow starts to slow finishes.
One thing the Capitals found out in the second round is that playing that way against talented teams can certainly lead to a quick exit. Washington had a chance to seize momentum in overtime of Game 2, but lost with a bad line change. In Game 3, they held a one-goal lead heading into the third period, but were flat in the third and lost any realistic hope of winning the series.
While Ted Leonsis has certainly been patient, at some point, with the amount of money being spent, if there is a lack of progression, you wonder if there will be the type of changes there were in the roster in the front office roster next summer.
OFB: You and I have had discussions with other members of new media all offseason, and I know that irrespective of some impressive improvements in the lineup, you share some concerns I have. What are they?
Ted Starkey: The biggest weakness of the past year’s team was at the second-line center spot with the departures of Eric Belanger and Brendan Morrison, and part of the overall struggle offensively of the club and the power play ties into the lack of production at that spot.
Marcus Johansson had a nice rookie season, but the second-line spot isn’t one where you can have occasional production — you need to have someone capable of feeding the important second line and keeping them a threat to score. Mathieu Perreault has shown flashes of being an NHL player, but he certainly has had trouble sticking with the big club for long stretches of time. Jason Arnott’s value to the late stretch run was evident, as the team finally had some consistent production from the second line when he was in the lineup.
While the addition of Tomas Vokoun was a big surprise, the tandem of Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov — along with Braden Holtby when needed — was certainly not a weakness.
The Capitals picked up Jeff Halpern for the fourth-line center, but in reality he was just one point shy of Johansson’s 2010-11 point total. The Caps certainly will need either Johansson — who has the inside track for that second spot — or Brooks Laich to produce on a regular basis or else despite the other additions, they still will be missing a key element.
OFB: Another fascinating front with this club: leadership. Is 2011-12 a referendum to any degree on Alexander Ovechkin’s captaincy? Gabby spoke to this topic this summer.
Ted Starkey: I think in some ways wearing the “C” adds to the spotlight Ovechkin operates under, as while he usually is one of the teams’ hardest workers, he certainly is blamed for the team’s playoff failures.
Ovechkin certainly would be of the mold of leading by example, but the personality of this team certainly might call for a more vocal leader. However, with Ovechkin being anointed the face of the franchise, it certainly seems that it would be difficult to make a change at this point without bringing in a proven leader from another club.
OFB: I thought one of the most important moments of the offseason came when both Matt Bradley and then Dave Steckel called out the culture of this organization. Your thoughts on the tempest created by the departed players?
Ted Starkey: During his time here, Matt Bradley was certainly was one of the more well-respected guys in the locker room, so when I had heard reports out of Ottawa he had called out Alexander Semin on local radio, I tracked down the link via Neil Greenberg and listened in.
His interview was certainly quite forthright and honest — even the radio hosts seemed a bit stunned by his candor — as Bradley went out of his way to call out Alexander Semin for not showing up at certain times, and also questioned why some of the struggling players weren’t left on the bench during the team’s playoff exit. Obviously, people around the team have heard privately the concern over Semin’s effort level — and I do address the enigma that is No. 28 in the book — but this was certainly a direct shot at him. While Joe Corvo had taken a shot of his own last summer at the team’s commitment to winning, this certainly carries a ton more weight than a rental grumbling after going back to his old team.
While Bradley certainly didn’t seem happy about the ice time, he also defended Bruce Boudreau, saying that he was in a “tough position” of having to use his most talented players instead of those — he noted Jason Chimera by name — who were playing well. But when Bradley, one of the rocks in the Capitals’ locker room is questioning some of the players’ effort level, you obviously have to be concerned.
OFB: Lastly, as exciting as your book project is, you’ve recently received doubly exciting news about a new project. Tell us about it, and what readers of your first book should expect with the next project.
Ted Starkey: I am in the process of singing a book deal for a second work, tentatively titled “Red Rising,” which will chronicle the rise of the Capitals from the pre-lockout fire sale of 2004 to one of the league’s top attractions and a contender for the Stanley Cup. While some of the themes certainly will resonate between the two books, it will be a much broader look at the recent development of the Capitals in the market and their quest for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup and what makes the Washington area such a unique place in the National Hockey League now.
It’s always been a goal of mine to do a Capitals-related work, I’m just thrilled to be able to not only do one, but two. I expect to finalize the deal in the next few days, then conduct interviews over the next two months, and turning in the final work by the end of October, with release sometime in 2012.