Originally created 07/13/01

Can Jagr turn D.C. into a hockey town?

WASHINGTON -- Wayne Gretzky created a sensation in a non-hockey town when he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. Ted Leonsis is spending more than $25 million in hopes that Jaromir Jagr can do the same for his Washington Capitals.

"I would like all the people here to go like this, please," said Leonsis, bruising his shoulder with his hand as if he were wiping away dandruff. "Let's wipe the chip off our shoulders.

"I hope we can get rid of the stigma that D.C.'s not a hockey town, that we can compete with the elite teams, that we can be a 'have' as opposed to a 'have not.' I think we've answered that question. Frankly, I don't want to hear it any more."

The biggest trade in the Capitals' 27-year history landed the best player in the world, a hockey superstar who's headed for a place that's never had one.

"It's going to be strange for sure," said Jagr, who has played only for Pittsburgh in his 11-year career. "It's going to be a new experience for sure. Hopefully I'm going to get used to it."

The Capitals will assume Jagr's $20.7 million salary over the next two years and are expected to pay the cash-starved Pittsburgh Penguins $4.9 million. But Leonsis thinks it makes good business sense for a team that lost $20 million last season.

The Capitals sold 300 season tickets within three hours of Thursday's announcement, an unprecedented run. Those fans better get their tickets in a hurry. Leonsis said prices will go up Monday, probably about 10 to 15 percent.

"I think we will lose less money this year than we did last year," Leonsis said. "I would expect that if we do a good job, Jaromir can pay for himself. This was a good business move. This guy is a brand. Brands win. Jagr is a global brand."

Jagr had grown disgruntled with the Penguins and asked to traded more than once last season. He was reluctant to discuss what went wrong in Pittsburgh during a call Thursday from the Czech Republic, but he did say that pressure from media and fans made the situation intolerable.

"It's tough to explain," Jagr said. "It was a lot of things. The playoffs were like a storm to me. ... I knew if I wanted to be close to the player I was before, I had to move on. I had great memories for about 11 years, but it's over now. Now I'm ready to start a new era."

Jagr said he was shocked to hear he was going to Washington because rumors had him going to the New York Rangers. He initially expressed concerns about the Capitals defensive style to Czech reporter, but later downplayed those remarks.

"Everybody changes. I change," Jagr said. "It's different hockey than we were playing in the '90s, '80s. It's harder. Every detail is important. I understand after my experience, that with defense you can win."

The team gives the Capitals the two players who have scored the most goals in the NHL since the start of the 1993-94 season: Jagr (346) and fellow Czech Peter Bondra (305).

Since buying the Capitals in 1999, Leonsis had tirelessly worked to attract attention to his team. The club's national profile is almost nonexistent, despite an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, and it has struggled to attract even modest attention in Washington, where there is mass loyalty for the NFL's Redskins and little else.

Thus the Gretzky comparison, which also occurred to Capitals president Dick Patrick.

"L.A. wasn't really a hockey town. It kind of put it on the map," Patrick said. "There are players who attract the casual fan. Jagr seems to have that sort of magic here. The e-mails are saying, 'I hated this guy, but now I love him.' "

The Capitals lost in their bids to sign several prominent free agents this month, including Jeremy Roenick, Pierre Turgeon and Doug Weight.

One of the biggest surprises of the deal was that the Capitals didn't have to give up a player from their current roster. Jagr and defenseman Frantisek Kucera were acquired for three minor league prospects: Kris Beech, Michal Sivek and Ross Lupaschuk.

General manager George McPhee said he initially felt the Capitals wouldn't get Jagr because the asking price was too high. The price came down when the Penguins called back this week.

"My position was I just didn't want to take anything out of the lineup to do this," McPhee said. "I didn't want to tear our team down to bring this player in."


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