- The Washington Times
Saturday, October 3, 2009

This weekend presents D.C. sports fans with the best and the worst of their passion. It is like night and day.

On Saturday night, they will get a chance to embrace the best of that passion when the Washington Capitals play their first home game of the season against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center.

The next day, they will be faced with the worst of that passion as they enter FedEx Field in fear that the 1-2 Washington Redskins - coming off an embarrassing loss to the Detroit Lions - could somehow lose again, this time to without a doubt the worst team in the NFC, the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Fans will be filing into the stadium Sunday in fear of what could happen, not in anticipation of what may take place.

The contrast is startling.

Whether it’s the Capitals or another sports franchise in this town, like the Wizards, everything is compared with the top dog in the pound, the Redskins. It is their blessing and their curse because along with most of the attention come the expectations and the demands. When those are not met, the disappointment far exceeds any other in town among the fans of other teams. So the Redskins find themselves being compared with the Capitals these days, and it’s not a comparison they should welcome.

The Capitals went up to Boston on Thursday night and manhandled the Bruins - a Stanley Cup contender - in a 4-1 season-opening win. It was such a great team performance that coach Bruce Boudreau said after the game that he would like to bottle it, because he would take that every night.

It was as if the Redskins had gone to New York for their season opener and beaten the Giants - Super Bowl contenders - by a score of, let’s say, 24-7. We know that didn’t happen.

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis met with editors and reporters at The Washington Times this week to talk about his team and how his franchise has grown from an afterthought in this town to a marquee attraction, with season tickets sold out for the first time. And when he talked, even though he never mentioned the Redskins by name, it was impossible not to think about the rise of his Capitals and the fall of the Redskins.

Given the level of rage flowing through this town because of the state of the football team - along with the indifference and disappointment over a second straight 100-loss season for the Washington Nationals - I asked Leonsis if he hears from fans that the Capitals are the lone saving grace right now in the District. The owner said he has heard it from fans but is careful not to put too much stock in such accolades.

“I am making sure we don’t listen to it for a couple of reasons,” Leonsis said. “I’ve been in last place, and I know what it feels like. The only thing I can’t say professionally is this - we took a lot of risk in blowing this team up. And what I am proud of is that I was upfront with the fans. I said, ‘Here is what we are going to do, and I am doing it because we want to build a great team for a long time, and I can’t do it with what I have right now, so we’re going to blow it up.’

“There were a couple of years where I was the butt of jokes. We took the risk because we didn’t have that strong of a fan base to begin with. Now we have this great team, and I do think people like the way we’ve done it, the transparency, they trust us. We delivered on what we said we were going to do.

“What is surprising is when teams… Toronto, they are going to sell out whether they have the worst team and the worst record, and so I am surprised when the other day their general manager said, ‘I am not going to do to our fans what they did in Washington: Make them suffer, and be bad and load up on the draft. I am going to try to win the Stanley Cup next year.’ I never understood why a team just doesn’t fess up and say, ‘We are going to build for the draft, and it will be good for you, like eating your vegetables and exercising, getting eight hours of sleep - you’ll feel better.’ ”

Leonsis may have been talking about the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it was hard not to think about the Redskins.

“Fans do like us right now,” Leonsis said. “But what we are missing is the Stanley Cup. If we were to win the Stanley Cup this year, next year or the year after, then I think we would capture a generation of fans. You go to Philadelphia, the Flyers are just as popular as the Eagles and the 76ers and the Phillies. … They talk about them in the same breath. It is not the NFL team and everyone else. The reason for that is they remember their relationship with their father when they won the Stanley Cup, they grew up with the expectation of something fun and important was going to happen at their games. If we can do that and win a Cup, then everything will take care of itself.”

There is a widening chasm in the relationships between D.C. sports fans and their teams - except for the Capitals, who have built strong relationships within their growing fan base. The Redskins would do well to pay attention and do what they can to repair their fraying relationship with their fans.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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