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Leonsis deferred to GM on firing

by Eric Fisher
The Washington Times
Saturday, 11 May 2002

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has been involved in nearly every minute detail with the club since buying it three years ago. The organ at MCI Center. The cleanliness of the glass surrounding the ice. The size and look of the ticket stubs. Virtually nothing has escaped his voracious appetite for detail and execution.

But on firing coach Ron Wilson — arguably the Caps' biggest move of the Leonsis era — the owner said he deferred completely to general manager George McPhee. When briefed on the decision late Thursday, Leonsis said he, team president Dick Patrick and the club's minority owners did not attempt to sway McPhee in any way.

"This was George's call. He came to us [late Thursday] with his decision, and he was very strong in his conviction," Leonsis said. "We made no move to [override] him. You can't do that."

Leonsis said overriding McPhee would have required either firing him or leaving the general manager with a coach he didn't want. Neither of those options was palatable, Leonsis said.

The hands-off approach on Wilson runs counter to not only Leonsis' normal operational style, but his stance on the coach in particular. Leonsis gave Wilson, as well as McPhee, a public vote of confidence at the end of the 2001-02 regular season, a highly disappointing campaign that left the Caps with 85 points and out of the playoffs for the first time in three years. But Leonsis left open the possibility of making a midseason switch if the Caps reverted to their usual ways and started the 2002-03 season slowly.

"I think Ron did a heck of a job with a lot of his troops missing so going into next year there won't be any changes," Leonsis said on April8. "But this was a very, very disappointing season all the way up and down the organization."

Questioned about the fairly abrupt change in stance, Leonsis yesterday deferred again to McPhee.

"George was very clear about wanting to find someone who could give us that spark and allow us to continue toward our organizational goal and contend for the Stanley Cup by year five [of Leonsis´ ownership]," he said.

McPhee confirmed the decision to fire Wilson was his, and added Leonsis' public support of Wilson last month was essentially a simple echo of McPhee's prior belief in Wilson.

"It was my opinion then not to fire Ron, and I think Ted was reflecting that," McPhee said.

McPhee yesterday declined to detail what specifically changed his mind about Wilson. But the decision came following season-ending exit interviews with the players and team staff, some of which were critical of Wilson, and a trip to Sweden to watch the World Championships.

"It's hard for me to do this, but I have to separate personal from professional. I just thought [Wilson´s coaching style] had run its course," McPhee said.

Unlike the club's pursuit of star forward Jaromir Jagr, a process in which Leonsis was deeply involved, McPhee said the search for a new coach will be done almost exclusively by him. Like the Wilson firing, McPhee will make a decision and then present it to Leonsis and Patrick for final approval.

Leonsis said the Wilson firing was not influenced by market or fan concerns. In fact, renewals on the club's 11,800-seat season ticket base have approached 70 percent, roughly twice the level at this time a year ago, Leonsis said.

"Whenever you fire a senior executive, it means the entire organization has failed," Leonsis said. "I take this firing, and any firing, very seriously. It's a call for all of us to get better."