I didn't get much sleep last night after the Caps' loss in game seven to the Canadiens, but I imagine that you got even less. What a disappointing end to a fantastic season! It is indeed sometimes gut-wrenching to be a Washington Capitals fan, yet you have a very loyal and knowledgable fan base.
I am not only a Capitals fan, but I am a Ted Leonsis fan. I have read "The Business of Happiness" and have purchased the book as a gift for several colleagues. Seeing the Capitals win the Stanley Cup is near the top of my life list, and you are reading now one of my outlets of self-expression. From my vantage point here just west of St. Louis, I see how you have packed the Verizon Center with a sea of red-clad fans. I have faith that you will finally bring a Stanley Cup to D.C.
I offer you some thoughts below not only as a fan since the Caps' early days (my Dad has season tickets in section 108, row T of the Capital Centre), but also as a denizen of corporate America, like you were. I was a consultant to several large companies for 10 years, before joining my current company in 2002, which is in the Fortune 100. I will not be telling you to acquire specific players that are free agents, proposing trades, or detailing your salary cap numbers down to the thousands. The ideas below are more general and some are very high level.
- Get on the public relations bus NOW. Get Paul or Nate or anyone else to book you (not George, not Bruce, not OV- but you) on channels 4, 5, 7, and 9, and on CSN. Appear on Versus with Bill, Keith and Brian during the Wings-Sharks game tonight. Get on XM Home Ice and on NHL on the Fly. Smile during those interviews and offer your apologies to the Capitals Nation. Congratulate the Canadiens and wish them well, admit that we could have done things better, talk about how nothing ever comes easy, and vow to get farther next year. Be honest about the negatives, but don't dwell on them. Your fans need to see you, and it would show a tremendous amount of professionalism and maturity.
- Get the players out to meet their fans NOW. Do this before the players scatter. Don't wait until the fall. We all know that the Verizon Center has some open dates (sorry). Invite fans in at no charge (but give priority in line to season ticket holders). Get OV up on a stage to apologize to the fans and thank them for their support. Set up tables where the players can meet fans, take photos, sign things. The fans need this closure and they'll remember how, even in a moment of defeat, the team faced its public and, to a certain extent, its demons. The players need this closure as well and need to hear "It's ok. We'll be back in October" from the fans. Who knows? You might even find some new fans as well with this type of outreach.
- Don't get lulled into a quick fix mentality through massive change. Don't fire BB. Don't cut Semin or Green or Fleischmann in rash moves. Talk to your friend Dan Snyder about how those high-priced free-agents and multiple coaches worked out all these years for the Redskins. You haven't gone there yet, so don't now. You have built a team, and I urge you to continue to do so. I know you will add some free agents, but this team does not need to be blown up, nor should you give up on the great young talent and the strong coaching you have.
- But -- sign Backstrom NOW. What another great sign to your fan base. Don't come close to the deadline. Get it done and let the public know that, alongside their #8 jersey, they can add a #19 jersey and wear it for years to come.
- Aggressively seek outside input to improve the capabilities of current players and coaches. You are an experienced corporate executive. When you have a talented executive who is rough around the edges, you might invest in an executive coach. When someone needs financial skills to go to the next level, you might send them to training. Many corporations, including AOL, I bet, have comprehensive training programs. Follow this idea with the Caps. Bring in experienced coaches to review the season with Bruce and offer outside opinions. Maybe Bruce trusts John Anderson, or you bring in Mike Keenan or Andy Murray or Ken Hitchcock - not as assistants, but on a consulting engagement. Maybe you get Dale Hunter or Joe Sakic down over the summer to teach Ovechkin about leadership. Maybe you get Rod Langway or Ray Bourque in to help Mike Green with defensive coverage. There are certainly other examples. Again - I'm not suggesting they come in as permanent assistants, but as consultants, perhaps on retainer, just as corporate America does.
- Build on the asset you have in Alex Ovechkin. He just doesn't have the same image as other high profile players (e.g., Crosby), and I am concerned that the negative press weighs on him. I know it weights on the fans. There was a tweet last night that counted how many times OV answered "I don't know" to questions last night in defeat - suggesting that's a negative. That's how ridiculous it is. He is the face of your franchise. Whether this starts with getting him to put a fake tooth in or with classes on how to deal with the press or even a campaign to highlight his charitable activities, you need to work on this.
- Recognize the asset you have in John Carlson. I can see Carlson now, more than Green, as a core face of the Caps, alongside OV, Backstrom and, perhaps, Varlamov, for years to come. Here at the Rink, he's been called Captain America and the Greatest American Hero. He's close to beloved already. He's the early leader for the 2010-2011 Calder. You need to build on that. Make him a better defenseman with training. Call Mike Gartner and ask for permission for Carlson to wear #11 as a link to the Capitals' past. Maybe give him an "A" next year. Don't lose this opportunity.
- Make roster decisions as early as possible. Tell Alzner and Carlson that they will be in DC next year permanently. Decide early whether you are bringing Theo back, bringing in a different veteran goalie, or going with some combination of Varlamov, Neuvirty or Holtby. If you want to resign Belanger or Corvo or other RFAs and FAs, get it done now. Greater stability and fewer unknowns will improve the team. You know in your businesses that a more stable team usually translates to greater success. No doubt the same can be said for hockey.
As painful as it might be, today is the first day of the 2010-2011 season. It starts with talking about 2009-2010 as a way to put closure on the season and, despite the awful circumstances of the season's end, leaving with your heads held high. You know you need to improve. Don't be afraid to think this as you would at AOL or any other company and take similar steps. Look ahead with optimism and continue to go in the right direction.
I strongly believe that loyal fans here at the Rink and in the Verizon Center will be behind you as you figure it out.
Thanks for reading.