Inside stories of Michael Jordan's time as an NHL owner
The Breakers is an opulent resort on the sands of Palm Beach, Florida, and a frequent site for the National Hockey League's board of governors meetings. Its cathedral ceilings recall gaudy European palaces. Its ocean views are the stuff of office daydreams. But in December 2000, there was another sight to behold at The Breakers: 6-foot-6 basketball legend Michael Jordan towering over some of professional hockey's most powerful owners as he strode through its lobby.
"If you ever want to feel invisible, walk in public with Michael Jordan," recalled Dick Patrick, president of the Washington Capitals.
Jordan had retired from the NBA in January 1999. His celebrity hadn't diminished.
"I remember being at The Breakers with [Blackhawks owner] Billy Wirtz and Michael Jordan. It was crowded. Hundreds of people stopped what they were doing and turned to see Michael walking through the hotel in a suit," said Ted Leonsis, owner of the Capitals. "I could have been naked, on fire and with an ax in the middle of my head, and no one would have noticed. Everyone was just staring at Michael."
What these gawkers didn't realize was that Michael Jordan, basketball's greatest star, was actually in Palm Beach to become the National Hockey League's newest team owner.
In the pantheon of Jordan's achievements, his brief stint as a minority owner of the Capitals from 2000 to '01 doesn't merit as much attention as six NBA titles, five MVP awards or a starring role in a movie with Bugs Bunny. But it happened, and according to those who witnessed it, Air Jordan actually had an impact as a hockey boss, albeit indirectly.
"I remember thinking that it was the greatest thing ever," said Jeff Halpern, a former captain with the Capitals.
How the deal got done
After his retirement, Jordan spent much of 1999 flirting with the idea of owning an NBA team. His bid to buy the Charlotte Hornets -- a decade before he would buy the Bobcats -- fell through. So did a bid to purchase the Milwaukee Bucks. There were discussions with the then-Vancouver Grizzlies, but nothing materialized.
Leonsis spent the first part of 1999 successfully buying an NHL franchise. The group known as Lincoln Holdings LLC -- with AOL executive Leonsis as majority owner, and including current New York Islanders co-owner Jonathan Ledecky and Capitals executive Dick Patrick -- made a $200 million deal with Abe Pollin to buy the Capitals (for $85 million) outright, while getting a 44 percent stake in Pollin's Washington sports empire that included the NBA's Wizards, the WNBA's Mystics, MCI Center (now Capital One Arena), U.S. Airways Arena (the Capitals' previous home in Landover, Maryland) and TicketMaster for the Washington and Baltimore region. The deal included an option for Leonsis' group to buy the entirety of Pollin's ownership holdings if he decided to sell, which happened in 2010.
While still considering his ownership options, Jordan was increasingly intrigued by a managerial role in the NBA. Meanwhile, Lincoln Holdings was increasingly intrigued by the idea of Jordan joining its ownership circle.
"It really started with Ted and I thinking that after Michael had retired, what would be something that could be attractive to him? He was such an iconic figure," recalled Ledecky. "I was friendly with both David Faulk, his agent, and Curtis Polk, his manager. It's pretty well known that I took each of those guys to a golf course. I was schmoozing them about what Michael was up to. They were very receptive to the notion of Michael becoming a sports owner."
Those discussions led to a meeting with Jordan at a cigar bar he owned in Chicago. Then more meetings, including one at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City that became a "top that" competition between Leonsis and Jordan. "Ted would order some wine. Michael would then order something 10 times as expensive," Ledecky said with a laugh.
It became increasingly obvious there was a fit between the parties: Lincoln Holdings coveted Jordan's star power and gravitas, and Jordan was intrigued not only by the hands-on opportunities with the Wizards but the tech-savviness of Leonsis' group.
Now it was just a matter of making things work with Jordan and Pollin, which wasn't a guarantee. "I brought Michael in as our partner in that group, and the notion was that I would introduce him to Abe Pollin, and maybe Abe would hire him to work for the Wizards in a management position," Leonsis said.
Pollin and Jordan had history. In 1998, when NBA players and owners were having contentious labor talks, Jordan and Pollin had a legendary shouting match during a negotiating session. Jordan said Pollin should sell his franchise if he couldn't afford to run it. Pollin shouted back, "Who do you think you are, telling me to sell my team?"
Two years later, Jordan was trying to buy a piece of the Wizards. But he needed Pollin to sign off on his new role to make it happen.
Pollin was adamant that Wes Unseld, whom he treated like a son, remain the team's general manager. He wanted Susan O'Malley to remain president of business operations. Leonsis worked behind the scenes to bridge what Jordan and Pollin wanted, and the result was a five-year contract for Jordan as president of basketball operations, answering only to Pollin.
On the ownership side of the deal, Jordan received a reported 10% stake in the Wizards that had the option to grow to 20%. As part of his ownership stake in Lincoln Holdings, Jordan ended up owning a "substantial" 12% of the Washington Capitals.
By buying into the Wizards, Michael Jordan, NHL owner, was born.
"I thought it was really neat," recalled George McPhee, the Vegas Golden Knights' president of hockey operations who was GM of the Capitals in 1999-2000. "I knew he was a part-owner, but I didn't know how involved he was going to be. With the Wizards, I didn't know if he was going to manage the team at some point, or even play. But it was a remarkable thing that Ted pulled off there. It created a lot of excitement in the market."
Selling Jordan to the NHL's other owners
Michael Jordan rarely seeks validation. But he needed to receive some from the NHL.
"We had an owners meeting [in December 2000] at The Breakers, and then we had to bring Michael Jordan in. He met the ownership group and mingled. Then we walked to a separate room on the other side of The Breakers hotel, where he was interviewed at length by the executive committee," said Leonsis.
The executive committee's approval is the first step toward getting confirmed by the NHL's board of governors. The executive committee is a small group of the league's most influential owners; at the time, few were more influential than Bill Wirtz, who owned the Chicago Blackhawks for 41 years until his death in 2007.
"When we went into the board meeting, Billy was effusive in his praise, talking about Michael Jordan being the epitome of success and competitiveness. How he felt Michael being around hockey, and coming to some games, would be a fantastic benefit to the league," recalled Leonsis. "Billy was star-struck, and just had so much respect for Michael and what he had done with the Bulls."
Wirtz was a sports icon in Chicago. But Jordan was sports royalty.
"I remember going into the meeting and Bill Wirtz wanted to talk about some golf club that Michael got into, that apparently was really exclusive. So I got the impression he was trying to get the lowdown [on getting in] from Michael," Patrick said with a laugh.
The executive committee gave Jordan its unanimous recommendation, a rubber stamp of approval before the full board of governors signed off on Jordan as a pro hockey owner about a month later. "It was no surprise to me [that it was] unanimously recommended having the transaction approved," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Jordan met with the media afterward at The Breakers.
"I get to learn another game. A lot of my friends are hockey players. I have a good understanding for the game. My kids are hockey players," said Jordan, before adding, "they play basketball, too."
Jordan's addition to the NHL came at a time when prominent players were involved in team ownership. Wayne Gretzky was approved one day earlier as a part-owner of the Phoenix Coyotes. Mario Lemieux, who owned the Pittsburgh Penguins, had just announced he was returning to play for the first time since 1997.
"Mario and I are very good friends," Jordan said at the time. "He actually notified me a week ago of his announcement. I support that. Obviously, he has a love for hockey like I do for basketball. We all wish him well -- except when he's playing our team."
As was his reputation, Jordan didn't shy away from his newfound hockey rivalries with Gretzky and Lemieux. "It's definitely going to be competitive," he said. "They have an advantage because they understand the game a little better than me."
Thus began Jordan's tenure as an NHL owner.
Such as it was.
"I probably see him more around here now than I did back then," said former Capital Adam Oates, who today lives 10 minutes away from Jordan in Jupiter, Florida.
'The Jordan effect'
There's no question Jordan added prestige to Leonsis' ownership group. "He was an iconic brand. He brought attention that no one had experienced before," said Declan Bolger, senior vice president of business operations during Jordan's time with the Capitals.
But what tangible benefits did he bring to Washington's NHL franchise?
"At the time, I didn't own 100% of the Wizards. I wasn't in management. I wasn't making any of the decisions there. So there really was a church and state thing between the Capitals and the Wizards. Michael was the president of the Wizards. So he wasn't adding a lot of value to the Capitals," said Leonsis.
"He was a basketball legend. He wasn't asked to do anything with the Capitals, really," recalled Patrick.
So he wasn't "hands on" -- but he also wasn't an absentee owner. When there would be a Capitals game sandwiched in between Wizards games at the arena, Jordan would sometimes attend them. Patrick and Ledecky recalled sitting in the owners' box, watching Jordan as he watched hockey, and seeing the wheels turn in his brain as he witnessed athletes performing in another sport at a high level.
"I think Michael was impressed by the aerobic nature of the athlete in hockey. That the athlete was out there for 45 seconds and then the shift was done," said Ledecky. "He was also fascinated by the notion that in basketball, you come in and out of the game. In hockey, all the stuff is done on the fly. So there was an appreciation of the skill level."
He was also fascinated with the mechanics of the sport.
"In basketball, the rules are fairly steady: You get fouled, you go to the foul line. The notion that you would take someone off the basketball court for a penalty would never happen, right? I think he was interested by the fact that a player would go to the penalty box and the other team would play with more players. As an elite athlete, how do you take advantage of that advantage?" said Ledecky.
"He was always talking about the notion of 'advantage.' It didn't matter what it was."
That was never more evident than on the golf course, where Ledecky and others spent time with Jordan during his stint in Washington.
"We were at a golf outing one day. Michael, as he often does, asks one of the guys if he wanted to play for money. And the guy asks him what he wants to play for. And Michael said, 'Whatever makes you nervous,'" said Ledecky. "Everybody cracked up, but that's who he was. So competitive. Always wanted to win. And wanted the Caps to win, too."
His desire for the Capitals to succeed was obvious in his interactions with the players: Jordan wanted to impart his experiences in winning to a franchise that hadn't won much at that point.
"The whole room took a breath when he walked in. It was different. You could feel it," said Halpern, a Maryland native who played from 1999 to 2006 with the Capitals and is now an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"I've tried to describe Jordan to the next generation that didn't get to see him. And I'm learning more about him through this show," said Halpern, in reference to ESPN's "The Last Dance," a 10-part series on Jordan's Chicago Bulls. "He was going to win. He was going to push the game. If you weren't part of that, he didn't have time for you. So his teammates didn't just keep up with his play, but his attitude."
Ledecky said that "once [the players] understood he was a normal guy, they could exhale. All of a sudden, there would be these great, intense conversations about sports, being an athlete, training, the difference between hockey and basketball."
That included everything from his approach to competition to training.
"Our players wanted to pick his brain on becoming a better athlete. Like you saw on ['The Last Dance'], there was a very real feeling that Michael decided to go to the weight room because he was getting pushed around by the Pistons," said Ledecky. "That was one of the topics they would have: What are the differences in working out between hockey and basketball? How do you sustain yourself in the weight room hockey-wise vs. basketball-wise? So there was a lot of that banter."
There were also some humorous moments, including one born out of Jordan's unfamiliarity with hockey culture.
"One time we took him down to the Capitals' locker room, about an hour-and-a-half before game time. We introduced him to a couple of the guys," recalled Patrick. "So at that point, one of the equipment guys comes through pulling a cooler of beer, taking it to the off-ice officials room for after the game. Michael was like, 'What's that?' [Winger] Chris Simon was standing there, sees this and he goes, 'Oh yeah ... we like to have a few beers before the big games.' And Michael didn't know whether to take it seriously or not."
Did Jordan's time with the players have an impact?
"I think it elevated the play of our players. I did notice that after January 2000, our players strode in with a little more pride because Michael Jordan was one of the owners of the team," he said. "The benefit to the Capitals was being in the presence of this greatness, and understanding what was possible."
McPhee recalled one game where "the Jordan effect" was evident for the players. "He was going to come to the game, and they were having dinner early. I remember thinking this could be some nice motivation for our guys, because it was an important game: We were playing the Florida Panthers, I think, and both going for first place," said McPhee. "He walked in and the players were awestruck. He was grabbing sticks, handling the sticks and talking to them. And we came out flying that night. It was as well as we had played all year."
'I would have loved to play with a guy like that'
For the Capitals' executives, interacting with Jordan was a revelatory experience.
Bolger remembers being tasked by Leonsis to update Jordan on the business side of the Capitals, and was impressed with how engaged he was, considering this was neither his wheelhouse nor his job.
"He was an amazing and thoughtful guy. Very attentive. He'd ask significant, really interesting questions. We were talking about brands and structures, and he would ask me about how we were 'living the brand.' He got it. He understood what we were trying to do," he said. "I was taken aback by that level of engagement. He was in the moment, instead of like, 'yeah, yeah, yeah ... let's get this out of the way.' I'm not a basketball star. I was just some guy from the front office."
McPhee remembered getting a chance to do what so many others wished they could do with Jordan: Take him on, one-on-one.
In a small locker room at MCI Center, that is. Not on the practice court.
"We were there for some meetings, and there were enough people around that Michael wanted a little privacy. So he and I ducked into one of the auxiliary locker rooms, and we got a chance to just be a couple of guys talking for 20-25 minutes," said McPhee.
He remembers walking away from that meeting in the mindset of a player -- McPhee appeared in 115 games over six seasons in the NHL -- rather than that of a general manager.
"I thought, 'Wow, would I have loved to play with a guy like that.' There was a real magnetism to him, and the leadership was unbelievable. You could tell he was one of the guys. He was an athlete, and he enjoyed being with his teammates and everyone else. But there was a real precision about him. It was no-nonsense: working hard, practicing hard, playing hard. It was all about winning," said McPhee.
"I've been in the business for a long time. I can read people pretty well. And that was the takeaway: that the great athletes who were great leaders, they end up winning. The ego and the swagger, I never found it offensive. It doesn't come across in an offensive way. It's just knowing 'I'm going to lead, and we're going to win.'"
That competitive fire still smoldered in Jordan. It wasn't long until he was back on the court and, in turn, out of NHL ownership.
Ironically, it was one of the Capitals' biggest rivals that influenced that decision.
Return to the court means the end of an era
Lemieux and Jordan would see each other on occasion, to play golf and drink expensive wine. But after Lemieux returned to the ice for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2000, the two friends started having more in-depth conversations about that journey back after retirement.
"Seeing me come back and the excitement, and me doing pretty well right off the bat, gave him the confidence to start training," Lemieux said in 2001.
Speculation about Jordan's comeback started raging -- ESPN began running a daily "Jordan's Return-O-Meter" -- and the Penguins star started fueling it, too. "He's going to give it a shot and he's working very hard. He's taking his time, he's taking a few months to get ready, but I'm sure when he gets back, he'll be the best player again," Lemieux said.
On Sept. 25, 2001, Jordan, 38, officially announced he would return to the NBA and play for the Wizards, agreeing to a two-year deal and donating his $1 million salary to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "I am happy to welcome Michael Jordan, the player, back to the NBA, although, as commissioner, I am sorry to lose him in the boardroom," NBA commissioner David Stern said at the time.
The Wizards' gain on the court was also the Capitals' front office loss.
"When he decided to come back and play, he could no longer own a piece of the team. You can't be in ownership and be a member of the union. So he had to sell back his position to me, which he did. That all worked out in a fair and legal manner," said Leonsis.
To help commemorate his time with the franchise, Leonsis recalled Jordan putting his signature on some hockey keepsakes.
"I remember as a nice gesture, he gave every one of the players an autographed Michael Jordan puck. Those were the only pucks that Michael Jordan would have signed. I look all the time on eBay to see if anyone sold their puck, because that's certainly a collector's item," said Leonsis. "I've yet to see one for sale."
Jordan's official ownership of the Capitals lasted less than a year. His comeback with the Wizards lasted two years. But knee injuries cut one season short and they limited his role in the second, sometimes having him appear as a sixth man.
After his playing days were done, his tenure with the Wizards ended ignominiously: Jordan figured he would still have the director of basketball operations role again, but Pollin ended their relationship after the Wizards failed to make the playoffs with Jordan in the organization.
"It came to a bad ending there. But that was out of our control," said Patrick.
"Michael didn't stick around for specific reasons, having to do with Abe," said Ledecky.
Jordan's time with the Capitals came during a transition period for the franchise. From 1997 to 2002, Washington went from a loss in the Stanley Cup Final to being sold to Leonsis to having Jaromir Jagr as its franchise player.
"I thought it was a really savvy marketing move by Ted to acquire Jordan for basketball and Jagr for hockey. Two of the best athletes out there at the time -- although maybe a little bit past their prime -- coming to Washington," recalled McPhee. "Although, you learn that the best way to win championships is to develop your own stars and get their best years."
The Capitals would struggle to find their footing and craft an identity until 2005, when a brash rookie named Alex Ovechkin arrived in D.C. and immediately started toppling offensive records at a Jordan-esque pace and ignited a surge in fan interest that the team still maintains today.
In 2018, roughly 18 years after Leonsis purchased the Capitals and Jordan was their part owner, Ovechkin led the franchise to its first Stanley Cup championship.
The following season, Ovechkin was photographed wearing a bright red hooded robe at the Capitals' practice rink. He wouldn't elaborate on the slogan emblazoned on the back in vivid white lettering, claiming it was an inside joke.
Maybe it was a reference to the continuing chase for championship glory.
Maybe it was an acknowledgment that he had done what others failed to do in Washington.
It read, simply: "Well, I'm not Michael Jordan."