As Stanley Cup rings are delivered and a banner prepared for revealing, it is appropriate to reflect on those responsible for bringing a Stanley Cup to Washington. Of course, fans can thank the players, coaches, General Manager Brian MacLellan, and team owner Ted Leonsis. But, there is one man broadly responsible whose name was not etched on the Cup. No, not George McPhee, though he did have an integral role in building a Cup-winning roster. There would be no Stanley Cup in Washington without Capitals’ founder and former owner Abe Pollin.
Mr. Pollin and his wife, Irene, began their quest to bring hockey to the nation’s capital in 1972. Mr. Pollin was not even a hockey fan, admitting to the Washington Post in 1991 that, “I had never seen a hockey game in my life.” But Mr. Pollin wanted to bring an NBA franchise, the Baltimore Bullets, to Washington and needed a second tenant for the Capital Centre arena he planned to construct in Landover, Maryland. Long before the National Hockey League’s Sunbelt expansion, Washington was considered a long shot to get a team. Thankfully for D.C. Metro area hockey fans, the Pollins successfully lobbied the National Hockey League’s Board of Governors to grant Washington an expansion team for the 1974-75 season.
It’s no secret the Capitals’ formative years consisted of many lean seasons. The Caps won only eight of 80 games in their inaugural season. Things didn’t improve much in the ensuing years with the team posting a losing record in each of its first eight years of existence. Abe Pollin, having won a championship with the Bulllets in 1979, shepherded the Caps through dark times including mediocre attendance and chatter about moving the franchise. In the early 1980s, as the team improved, attendance improved, and the Capital Centre was rocked not just by big concert acts, but terrific Patrick Division rivalries. During the second decade of Mr. Pollin’s ownership tenure, Washington was consistently among the most successful teams in the NHL, yet always fell short of the pinnacle. Mr. Pollin sold the franchise to Ted Leonsis in 1999 for approximately $85 million. Of course, Abe Pollin’s other contribution to Washington, D.C. in general, and to the Caps specifically, was the construction of the downtown arena now known as Capital One Arena. With the bulk of construction costs paid by Pollin himself, the arena spurned a revitalization of the Chinatown neighborhood. Fans today may take for granted the downtown sellouts, the easy Metro access, and amazing postseason outdoor watch parties, but none would be possible without Mr. Pollin’s vision to bring his teams downtown. Wednesday night, as we witness the dawning of a title defense and cheer the raised banner, we would be wise to raise a toast to the man who brought our beloved team to D.C and who built the building in which the Stanley Cup banner hangs. Thank you, Abe Pollin.
By Bryan Hailey