With 33 seconds left in the second period, mayhem breaks loose on the ice last November. Washington Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway reaches over a referee to grab the collar of Anaheim Ducks defenseman Erik Gudbranson. The players exchange foul-mouthed insults and prepare to fight. As the referee wedges between them, Gudbranson breaks free and shoots a sucker punch across Hathaway’s chin.
In response, the Capitals player rears back his head—and shoots a thick loogie directly into Gudbranson’s face.
The next morning, sports radio is abuzz. They’re calling it “spitgate.” To a hockey world that cheers bloody brawls and thundering checks, spitting crosses a line. The Capitals get word the NHL commissioner’s office wants to talk.
Enter Washington Capitals president Dick Patrick. Whether the moment calls for someone to guide a player through league discipline or solve the mathematical riddle of how to stack a roster with superstars without busting the league’s stingy salary cap, it is Patrick, 74, who has calmly overseen the winningest NHL franchise of the past decade.
Hockey is big business. Patrick compares the league to “what I would imagine a well-run Fortune 500 business would be.” But a typical day as a team president is nothing like an executive at Walmart or CVS would experience. The Capitals offices sit unceremoniously on the rooftop of a seven-deck parking garage in the D.C. suburbs. The main entrance leads directly into two spacious practice rinks, and anyone walking into the lobby can hear the distinctive smack of pucks being fired into the boards—and catch a whiff of sweat-soaked hockey gear. On game days Patrick drops by the team’s morning skate, touching base with the trainer about players who are nursing injuries and checking in with the general manager rinkside.
After a short walk up a sleek staircase, he enters a suite that looks like a dot-com headquarters. He’s been spending a lot of time in his spacious corner office, reviewing salary figures ahead of the looming trade deadline. A three-quarter-sized replica of the Stanley Cup sits on a small end table by the door. “Every day I think, ‘This is a tremendous experience,’ ” he says. “Hockey players are a great group of people to be around. They work so hard, care so much about what they do. You can’t help but love it.”
Patrick has, arguably, one of the most unusual jobs in North America. He is part business executive, part hockey strategist, and part camp director—making sure a locker room of testosterone-fueled pro athletes gets enough sleep, stays out of trouble, and plays great hockey. “The job of team president varies from club to club,” says Bill Daly ’86, who has been deputy commissioner and chief legal officer of the NHL for 24 years. “The model Dick fits into? He’s involved in everything. He’s seen it all.”
Patrick has been part of the club for nearly four decades—including a minority ownership stake, though the exact amount is not public. And he has occupied senior posts in the front office. When he arrived on the scene, the team was a perennial cellar-dweller. The Capitals joined the NHL in 1974. After nine dismal seasons, the team had under-performed, even for a newcomer, with the fewest wins of any club in the league. Owner Abe Pollin was frustrated. “They were terrible,” Patrick says. “They had a terrible record. Pollin was losing money, and he had started talking about moving them out of town. That’s when he approached me.”
Patrick, then a young real estate lawyer, had deep ties to pro hockey. To say he is descended from hockey royalty is not an understatement. Patrick’s grandfather, Lester, and Lester’s brother, Frank, joined with their father, Joseph, to form the Pacific Coast Hockey Association in 1911, a rival league where they devised many of the early rules that define the game of ice hockey as it is played today. No less of a source than the Encyclopedia Britannica credits the Patricks for essential elements of the sport, such as the blue line, the penalty shot, even numbers on the backs of jerseys. The two brothers were well-known stars of the game who had their names etched on the Stanley Cup before rival leagues merged to form the NHL.
The Encyclopedia Britannica credits the Patricks for essential elements of the sport, such as the blue line, the penalty shot, even numbers on the backs of jerseys.
Dick mentions the time his grandfather was coach and general manager of the New York Rangers in game two of the 1928 Stanley Cup finals—and a goalie took a puck to the eye. Lester stepped off the bench and took his place. He was 44 and famously told his team, “Boys, don’t let an old man down.” The Rangers won the game and the series. Dick’s father, defenseman Muzz Patrick, helped the Rangers win the 1940 Stanley Cup before he, too, served as coach and general manager. And Dick’s cousin, Craig Patrick, had his name added in 1991 and 1992 as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Dick played hockey at Kent School and was recruited by Dartmouth. On the ice his teammates knew him as “Boomer.” At 6-foot-5, the defenseman had a thundering shot and a wingspan that made it seem he could cover half the ice by himself.
Despite his size, Patrick was more of a skill player—not a goon. Teammate Tom Long ’68 was more of an agitator, and he remembers a time he mixed it up with an enormous player from Yale. “If Patrick hadn’t stared him down, I’d be dead,” Long says. Their teams struggled on the scoresheet, and Patrick never contemplated following his family’s well-worn path into the pros, heading instead to American University for law school. He played briefly on a semipro team and “had some fun,” says the former English major. “But by then I was a lawyer and getting involved in real estate development and was really just a fan.”
Pollin offered the young lawyer a stake in the team, but he wanted more than money in exchange. Pollin wanted Patrick to “run the hockey.”
“He wanted no part of it at that point,” says Patrick, who accepted the job of team president even though he considered it a sideline. “I didn’t even take an office. I was still doing real estate.”
Patrick tapped into his network of relatives for advice. He brought in a new general manager and began guiding the team on a slow climb up the standings. His “sideline” gradually grew into a fulltime job. Patrick’s son, Chris, now director of player personnel with the team but then just a grade schooler, remembers how each season would end—Dad talked as if the adventure were over.
“Every year I would ask him, ‘Dad, are you going to do this thing with the Caps for another year?’ And he would make out like he was thinking about it,” says Chris, who played hockey at Princeton. “He probably knew the whole time he was going to keep it going.”
The Capitals evolved, and Daly eventually sought new ownership for the team. Patrick helped identify tech mogul Ted Leonsis as a replacement for Pollin, which Daly calls “the greatest thing that ever happened to the franchise.” In 1999 Leonsis paid Pollin $200 million for the team and a minority share in Pollin’s Washington Sports & Entertainment holding company.
Leonsis modernized and rebranded team operations. Patrick remained a minority owner as Leonsis formed Monumental Sports and Entertainment. The privately held company, valued at more than $3 billion, also owns the Washington Wizards of the NBA and the Washington Mystics of the WNBA. For a time, Patrick’s portfolio extended into every aspect of the business.
Today that includes a fledgling e-sports and video gaming franchise. “Know what those are?” he asks, laughing. “I didn’t either.”
In 2016 the company bought an interest in Team Liquid, a roster of more than 50 professional gamers competing in StarCraft 2, League of Legends, Dota 2, Hearthstone, CS:GO, Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch, Halo, Street Fighter, and Super Smash Bros. Melee. The team raked in $2.5 million in prize money that year. Patrick marvels at the entirely new field of play. “These men practice 10 hours a day and they compete in arenas,” he says. “It seems so odd to me, but even our hockey players follow it closely.” Patrick used to worry about Capitals players breaking curfew during road trips and finding trouble in the local bars. “Now they’re in their rooms and you worry—are they going to get enough sleep because they’re up playing Fortnite until 3 or 4 in the morning? You have to call and tell them, ‘Turn off your computer! Go to sleep!’ ”
Perhaps the most significant moment of Patrick’s effort to rebuild the hockey club came in January of 2008, when the Capitals signed Russian prospect Alex Ovechkin to a $124-million deal. It was the first NHL contract worth more than $100 million, but its length—13 years—grabbed headlines. The average NHL player lasts five years. As one blogger said of the deal: “It probably goes down as either the smartest or dumbest decision in Capitals’ history, but we won’t know for a long time.”
Now we know. The durable winger has notched eight league scoring titles and gone 11 seasons with more than 40 goals. Patrick says Leonsis considers the contract the best decision of their ownership tenure. “A lot of people thought we were crazy,” he says. “What if he falls off as a player? What if you don’t like him? You’re really committing yourself to a long, long time.”
Of course, no achievement in pro hockey means as much as winning the Stanley Cup. After multiple playoff appearances without winning it all, the Capitals busted through to defeat the Las Vegas Golden Knights and take the cup in 2018. Patrick recalls floating, dreamlike, onto the ice to lift the trophy and getting doused with champagne spray and euphoria in the locker room. Adrenaline kept him up until the wee hours, when he read emails and messages of congratulations from hundreds of people, including Tom Long and other Dartmouth teammates. He stayed up the rest of the night writing thank-you notes.
That Stanley Cup replica in Patrick’s office, as well as the real one, now has the names of seven Patricks on it. But the president isn’t living off past glory. The range of topics on his desk is dizzying. He may look at the tactics needed to improve a poor-performing power play or assess the progress of players moving through the team’s farm system. He plans on talking with a “sleep manager” about players’ schedules when they travel to the West Coast. “How should you plan to make sure the players have the most energy at the right time?” he wonders.
Then there’s the salary cap. Patrick has a color-coded spreadsheet that shows each player’s status with the team: blue for players under contract, white for restricted free agents, red for unrestricted players. “We have to get everything to fit,” he says. “You’ve got to plan ahead.”
And, on occasion, he has to deal with gritty wingers who spit on other players. Patrick did not care to talk about spitgate. But there was little doubt he would spend time to counsel Garnet Hathaway through the lapse, as he has with so many other young players who have run into disciplinary trouble. (After a public apology and a quiet negotiation with the NHL brass, Hathaway received a three-game suspension.)
Patrick still attends every home game. Around 5 p.m. he crosses the Potomac and heads to the arena in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown. Inside awaits a sensory experience that extends well beyond the hockey, with laser lights, pounding music, and videos to pump up fans. “When I was growing up you didn’t have any of that,” Patrick says. “There was an organ that played once in a while. It’s a much bigger business now than ever. We’re still not the NFL or Major League Baseball, but we’re a long way from where we were.”
Matthew Mosk is a senior investigative producer for ABC News and lives in Annapolis, Maryland.