Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Little Perspective, A Little History

The 2006-07 season has admittedly been a tough one for Caps fans. If you listen to the nay-sayers, this was one of the worst, most tragic seasons in Capitals’ history.

Yet anyone who knows their Caps’ history or even general NHL history knows that couldn’t be further from the truth. You only have to look back to the infancy of this organization, the inaugural season of 1974-75, to see what has gone on to become the worst franchise start in NHL history. It’s a dubious distinction to be sure but it has taken on a strange kind of folklore element among true Caps fans. Even those of us who had yet to be born when the team arrived can look at this season, wink at one another, and say “It could have been worse.”

It could have been worse.

8 wins. Numerous NHL records set (and not the good kind). A goalie who never won a game. Winless streaks on the road that make the last few years of Caps’ road records seem like those of Stanley Cup contenders.

To get a true feel for what the season was like, I wanted to see it from the perspective of someone who lived through it, who suffered every single loss and celebrated the rare victory right along with those hapless warriors of three decades ago. And for that I only had to look as far as my own father - we'll call him GH.

Being a Caps fan has always been kind of a thankless pursuit – but for many of us it is all we know, and we would have it no other way. In my dad’s case, the stars simply aligned, the timing of his arrival in DC from New England coinciding with the creation of the team. Their paths clearly connecting he turned away all former allegiances to become a Caps fan even at the darkest time in the franchise’s storied existence.

When I came to DC I had been a Bruins fan, back in the days of Orr and Esposito, and I was a college hockey fan. Ken Dryden was my college goalie when I was [at Cornell]. The day that I got my apartment [in DC] was the day of the first exhibition game against Montreal at the new Capital Centre. I went to that game and that same night bought my first season tickets. So I had the opportunity to be there right from the very beginning.

CC: Tell me about the first exhibition game against Montreal.

GH: I think it was a tie - the team looked okay. It was obviously an exhibition game and both teams were trying a lot of things. The league was experimenting with a rule that when there was some sort of infraction they had a one-sided faceoff. So the team that committed the infraction wasn’t in the faceoff circle and the other team was. They decided very quickly not to go with that one because basically it was like getting a clear shot on goal with no defense.

The very first [regular season] game was against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden and the first goal was scored by a guy named Jim Hrycuik. That was the highlight of his whole hockey career, I think. We ended up losing 6-3 and Ron Low [the goalie] ended up making 45 saves or something outrageous like that, which would be pretty typical for the whole season. The whole season our GAA was somewhere between 5 and 6.

We started the season 1-1-1, actually. People were encouraged and had a bit of false hope, because we really didn’t have much. [After the loss to the Rangers] we tied the Kings and then beat the Blackhawks 4-3, including 2 goals off the butt of one of the Chi d-men (who was heard to comment afterwards that he always did have a big butt).

After that it all went downhill. Our backup goalie, Michel Belhumeur, never did win a game for this team. It was really difficult. We lost a lot of road games. We went 37 road games with no ties, just losses, losses, losses. We finally won one towards the end of the season against the California Golden Seals.

There just wasn’t much on this team to cheer for, and there wasn’t much in the minor leagues to bring up. The GM was Milt Schmidt who had come in from the Bruins and we had this coach named Jimmy Anderson who didn’t last the whole season as you would expect – when you can’t fire the whole team you fire the coach. It was a very long season.
We won 8 games all season and tied 5 and I think I saw all the points. We didn’t have a whole lot of firepower and we didn’t have a solid defense. One of our defensemen, Bill Mikkelson was -82, which was obviously significant but it was pretty much indicative of the way the team was playing.

There weren’t big crowds; for a long time we were averaging 5-6000 per game. We didn’t have a product. Washington is a winner’s town and you can’t expect to draw big crowds. Also, other than Atlanta there were no teams in the South and we were still a little southern town then. Around here ice was just something you put in your drink.

They didn’t really sell the team very effectively either. It took a while before you had players you could actually market. The first couple of years we didn’t really have anyone with any marquee value – once we got someone with that marquee value they got traded because they wanted to build up the franchise. We did have one guy who was a relative of "Boom Boom" Geoffrion who was also noted for his own slapshot – except you never knew where it was going.

CC: When Abe Pollin built Capital Centre it was proclaimed one of the most high-tech, state of the art buildings in the league at the time.

It was - the Caps Centre had if not the first then one of the first giant TV screens. It wasn’t the greatest picture in the world and compared to modern screens it was pretty low tech...but it was there and you could see it from the ice. It was a very nice arena but compared to a lot of the other arenas it was very dark. It was also in the middle of nowhere and the parking situation was absolutely abominable. It would take me 35-40 minutes to drive there from Virginia, and then it would take me an hour to get home because it took you 15-20 minutes just to get out of the parking lot.

Abe had the reputation, sometimes deserved, sometimes not, of not wanting to spend money on the team because he was a basketball owner first and foremost. The main reason he built the Caps Centre was for the Bullets but he needed a hockey franchise to help fill the dates in the building. We always felt that the Caps were a bit of a stepchild for him in that he paid much more attention to the Bullets than the Capitals.

I had the opportunity to meet with him [as president of the Fan Club]. I had contacted him because we had had some problems arranging for players and members of the organization to come to fan club meetings. He was just a blunt, straightforward guy. When he said something was going to get done, it got done. But he was not really a hands-on owner as far as the Caps were concerned and he didn’t spend a whole lot of money on players. Back then the whole market for players was totally different anyways, no one was making multimillion dollar salaries...especially on this team.

CC: What was the media coverage like at the time?

GH: This was before the Times - we had the Star and the Post. Bob Fachet was the beat writer for the Post, he was good – kind of starchy, not very outgoing but a good writer and he knew hockey. The first season the Post tried to sell the game. They had stories on the rules of hockey, booklets put out about the game. Because hockey was still a novelty they were able to get a little more space in the sports section...until they started losing and no one really wanted to read about it. At first there was always a front page article but as they kept losing it started to fade.

Games were mostly on the radio at that point, right?

Yes, Ron Weber was the voice of the Washington Capitals of course – the thing I liked about Ron was that he got very excited about the play and he had these little sayings he would come up with like “way to go Ms. Twiddle”. He would come to Fan Club events and I got to know him and his wife, and after he retired he had seats in the Verizon Center in our section. Ron was great at making the game come alive on the radio. You could practically picture what was going on and I asked him how he was able to do this, and he said that you can’t possibly pick up every little thing that’s going on, so you kind of watch it and condense it – the puck changes hands so much, you can’t just go “he’s got it, he’s got it, now he’s got it”. I remember being very upset when he was replaced by Kolbe, and I like Kolbe, but it wasn’t the same.

Every game was on the radio and TV had maybe 10 or 15 games which is how I got to see the one [road] win. It was on late because it was a West Coast game and I remember staying up until 1 a.m. and seeing them actually win a game away from Caps Centre.

The first mention of the Caps in The Hockey News

To be continued...more about the worst team in history and of course, the infamous white pants.

[Read Part Two here]


Anonymous said...

That was really neat, thank you.

Ari said...

I don't go quite that far back - was born a few days before that first game - but I have very fond memories of the early 80s and the pre-Langway team.

Still miss Ron Weber - my family didn't even have a color tv when I was growing up, so most of my memories of the Caps are associated with him. The real treats were the games on channel 20, and I would plan my homework around those...

Great stuff, thanks for posting this trip down memory lane, and looking forward to the rest.

pucksandbooks said...

I am conferring on you an honory doctorate in Caps' puck history. (I'm not credentialed to do so, but I'm pretty sure no one else is taking up the task.) I don't know how old your father is, but I'm sure I'm younger, and my memory isn't anywhere near as crisp as his. He deserves a Caps' quick turn toward a victorious future as much as any of us old-timers.

DCSportsChick said...

Oh, the Golden Seals! My favorite old team!

Love seeing the old stuff.

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