Q&A With Transition Game Author Ted Starkey

Posted December 6, 2011

Me with my copy of “Transition Game” by Ted Starkey (photo credit: Melanie Riggio)

I haven’t had much time to read books lately (unless you count business and accounting textbooks), but when I received by copy of “Transition Game” by Ted Starkey, I decided that I could take a slight break from my studies and read a few pages. Bad mistake, because it was a great book that was very hard to put down. It’s a great book for not only Capitals fans, but for hockey fans as well. I had the opportunity to talk to Ted about the book and he was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me regarding it. Questions after the jump.

What inspired you to write Transition Game and Red Rising?

I’ve always wanted to do a book, and after collecting a year’s worth of notes, I decided in March to write a book profiling the grind that goes into a National Hockey Lague season, starting from being on ice during the Hershey Bears’ 2010 Calder Cup celebration in June to the offseason into training camp, “24/7” and the season itself. I didn’t know what the outcome of the season would be when I decided to undertake the project, but thought the was going to be more about the journey than the result. Even though the Capitals didn’t win the Stanley Cup last spring, the book involves what goes into a season rather than the rehashing of a playoff run.

Red Rising came about from a desire from ECW Press in Toronto to explore the growth of a sport in a non-traditional hockey market, so the Capitals were one of the best examples of growth since the lockout, selling out regularly in a building that certainly had some empty nights with some of the rebuilding teams around the lockout. Having covered the Capitals off and on since 2000, it’s an interesting tale of how several components came together to help create one of the league’s recent success stories both on the ice and in the stands.

While doing research, there must have been some memories that you were happy to recall and some that you just wanted to forget about altogether. What were some of them?

Doing Red Rising, I had forgotten how miserable a season the 2003-04 edition was, from not only trading away most of the team’s core, including Steve Konowalchuk, Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar and Mike Grier, but also the firing of Bruce Cassidy and an altercation with Ted Leonsis and a fan in the hallway of then-MCI Center. The team took a real risk with the slow and painful rebuilding process heading into the lockout, and it certainly was a forgettable season.

The recent play of the club certainly puts some of those old seasons in perspective, as although the team certainly is one of the most intriguing around the league with the personality, it certainly is preferable now – even with the ups and downs of a season so far where the team has been .500 – than it was back in the dark days before the lockout.

You mentioned in Transition Game how bad the Capitals were when they first entered the league and got into the “Save the Caps” movement a little bit. How does that compare to how bad the team was before Alex Ovechkin was drafted and the team started to turn their fortunes around?

The early edition of the Capitals certainly weren’t pretty, starting off with the NHL’s worst regular season in history and getting just 8 wins in their first campaign. The “Save the Caps” movement was essentially a demand by former Capitals owner Abe Pollin for fans to buy more tickets to games – despite not making the playoffs in the team’s first 8 years – and also to get some tax breaks from Prince George’s County, where the Caps played at the time.

Despite that, there was a sense the team was progressing into a playoff club. 2003-04 was a bit more striking since the team had qualified for the playoffs nearly every season since 1982-83, and quickly dismantled into a team that was filled with AHL and ECHL talent by the lockout. Certainly, the Caps benefited from the lottery, leapfrogging both Pittsburgh and Chicago for the right to draft Ovechkin, but there was a big risk by Leonsis to totally gut the team for what turned out to be a four-year period without sniffing the playoffs.

The 1970s Capitals were new and the expectation was slow progression, while the 2000s Caps were a self-inflicted rebuild, and although not as long a period of lack of success as they had between 1974 and 1982, the stakes were higher to risk the fan base.

There was a book you talked about written by Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox called “The Ovechkin Project” and a rather public feud between Cox and Ted Leonsis. Do you mind getting into that a little bit?

The “Ovechkin Project” certainly was a project I think the Capitals thought would be a more favorable view of their superstar, but it certainly didn’t seem to turn out that way. The book was negatively viewed by a number of people in the organization, and certainly didn’t put the franchise player in the best of lights. (Editor’s note: The negative reviews also included Caps Outsider, via partner site Gunaxin.com)

Several critics noted a comparison in the book between Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, and of course, marketing-wise, it wasn’t the best idea to try and sell a book on Ovechkin with putting that comparison as a prominent feature, since Crosby fans aren’t likely to pick up a book on Ovechkin and it has limited appeal to its target audience.

The book didn’t do particularly well, and the author engaged in a rather public spat with Leonsis over some elements of the work. It certainly wasn’t the book the Capitals were hoping for, and I’m sure sales-wise, it wasn’t what Cox was looking for either.

Do you think that the Capitals being under such scrutiny in December of last season with being taped for “24/7” played a major role in the team struggling so much, which in turned, forced Boudreau to change the system that the team played?

I certainly think the external pressure not only from “24/7” to media criticism caused Boudreau to adopt a more defensive system, and in some ways, it is what eventually led to his ouster in 2011. While the players bought into it, giving up offensive numbers – and in many cases answering questions on what was wrong with their production – in the hopes it would lead to greater success in the playoffs. However, when the team lost to Tampa Bay in four straight, it certainly put some doubt in the room how effective it was.

Coming into the season, the Capitals started off well – playing a style rather like their pre-defensive days – but once the emphasis on defense returned, the message certainly didn’t seem to take this time around.

Personally, my philosophy is you have to have players to fit the system you use, not try and fit players in the system you want. The Capitals are built right now to score goals and not overly strong in their own end, and they need to exploit their advantages rather than conform to a style that they may not have the most adept players to utilize.

Dale Hunter would be wise to certainly take advantage of the team he has and use that edge rather than compound some of the problems both Glen Hanlon and Boudreau had using a defensive system with this group. While they can be responsible, they certainly should avoid a passive system as they showed in Boudreau’s final games.

Is there anything else you would like say that I haven’t already talked about?

If fans want to order Transition Game, it’s available at Transition-Game.com, and gives fans a good look inside what goes into an NHL season. Red Rising is slated to be out in summer of 2012, and there will be a sequel to Transition Game that chronicles this season coming in 2012 as well.
So don’t forget, there is still plenty of time to order the book for the holidays for that hockey fan in your life. And give Ted a follow on Twitter.