[Read Part One]
With a dwindling following and a losing record, the Caps could count on one group of loyal supporters who would always be there with a supportive pat on the back or a hard drink – the Capitals Fan Club, of which my father was a member and later president (and naturally as a kid I was a member of the junior fan club...).
GH: I remember going to road games and we used to joke when we were on the bus that we just hoped nobody got hurt. We weren’t really expecting them to win the game. Bus trips were fun – we went through a lot of Baileys and we commiserated with each other and said that someday this team might be good...but not this year. At the time the fan club was run by the team so you were kind of dependent on them for everything we did. We decided early in the second season to set up the fan club ourselves so we could have some independence from the team so we could schedule things on our own.
The fan club even developed a fight song that was sung on road trips [this incidentally was one of my favorite parts of the conversation with my dad – I’ve never heard him use some of these words before!]:
We’re fans of the Washington Capitals, we’re riders in the night
Dirty sons of b*tches who would rather f**k than fight
Oh, hidey didey Christ almighty who the hell are we
Zim zam goddamn, rah, rah sh*t!
GH: [laughing] It wasn’t exactly Shakespeare...it was written by one of our rowdier members and I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t really composed, it just happened to come out one time.
We actually got to be fairly close with some of the players back then because they were just happy somebody recognized them. There was a lot of carousing with the team on the road back then because they didn’t have a lot of hope of winning these games so they decided to have fun. [We were] in Pittsburgh after one of the games in the restaurant of a Howard Johnson’s and we got to have breakfast with Bruce Cowick – we had picked him up from the Flyers. He had been on the Cup-winning team but was not a major part of that and was very grateful to have the ring, I’m sure.
We were talking about his style of play. He was one of these rough tough forwards but every time he got out on the ice it seemed he got a penalty. He said it was really tough because they wanted [him] to play very physically and it’s tough to do that when you’re only out there 3-4 minutes a game. [He] seemed to spend more time in the box than anything else and he wished they would give him more ice time.
CC: So where did you travel most? Pittsburgh, Montreal...
GH: Yes, we were in a division with Montreal and Pittsburgh [as well as LA and Detroit] and we’d travel up there but it didn’t really matter to us where we were. I don’t like to think about being in a division with Montreal because they were very good back then. I think Ken Dryden shut us out 4 or 5 times that year. We did get to see Bobby Orr play when he was with Chicago – he was still a good player but he had no cartilage in his knees and he was barely able to skate well. It was kind of sad for me to see that. But we were so much worse than everyone else anyways...One fan club trip we were in Philadelphia and our section was surrounded by police because people were throwing things and yelling things. Then in a later year when we got a little better we were in a game that was scoreless going into the 3rd period. The Flyers scored but then we scored three times after that to win the game. As we were leaving the arena, we heard smashing bottles – people were throwing beer bottles at us. These sorts of things just seem to happen in Philadelphia, you know?
CC: Was there already a division rivalry with the Penguins at the time?
GH: Kind of, but it really goes back to the playoff meetings when they always seemed to knock us out. The original rivalries were really nonexistent in those early years – it wasn’t until Rod Langway came along and we actually got to be competitive that we developed some rivalries. We really just hated everybody but it didn’t do us any good.
Expansion drafts worked much differently than they do today. Back then every existing team could protect 16 players and two goalies – so the best player available in the draft was the 17th best player on any given team. The result was a mish-mash of players that went on to form that infamous roster.
GH: We had the first pick in the amateur draft and we drafted this young defenseman named Greg Joly, and the second pick was a guy by the name of Mike Marson, who was a forward. These two players probably would have been great starting in the minors but because of the way the team was formed they really needed to start off in the majors, and they suffered for it and the team suffered for it too.
Tommy Williams was one of the old hands on the team. He was already in his mid-30s when he played for us. He was a scorer but he really didn’t pay much attention to the defensive side of the ice, he just liked to try to score. Our captain the first year, Dougie Mohns, was famous for his hair piece – he wore a helmet so nobody noticed, but when you got to take pictures of him you could tell – it wasn’t the greatest piece in the world. He was 41 when he came to the Caps.
A lot of the players that first year were pretty forgettable.
CC: And Yvon Labre?
GH: The best comment made about Yvon Labre was that he would have been a great fighter if his arms were about 6 inches longer. You hear about guys being the heart and soul of a team - Yvon gave everything he could, he really tried. He scored the first goal here at home but he was not a great player and he’d be the first one to admit that. But he tried and that’s why he’s been honored. He was the closest thing to a defenseman that we had – he worked his butt off, it was obvious every game he was doing the best he could.
Mrs. GH (Guest Interviewer): Who do you think was the first player in Caps history who really mattered in terms of hockey history?
GH: I have to say Ryan Walter. Ryan was a 1st round pick and he was a real character player. He became the captain and being captain of a bad team and he and Mike Gartner did a lot to make the team respectable. Ryan was always a class guy – he would come to fan club meetings and talk to the fans and he was very down to earth.
His importance to the team was really twofold to me – first it was what he brought to the team and second, if he hadn’t been here we would never have gotten Langway. We traded him and Rick Green, another first round pick...both of whom ended up getting rings with Montreal. We traded them to the Canadiens for Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Craig Laughlin, and Doug Jarvis. Jarvis was one of the best defensive forwards I’ve ever seen...and Locker was Locker. But that’s really what turned the franchise around, getting Langway.
Gartner was a great player obviously, he ultimately became a Hall of Famer but there was always a mark against him that he never seemed to be able to take the team to the next level. He was a great scorer in the reg season but his scoring always dropped off in the postseason.
CC: Do you think that was a fair mark against him or was it more a product of the team he was playing for?
GH: Probably a little of both. He never won a Stanley Cup with any of the teams he went to. Garts was a great player though and he did have some good playoff years – it’s hard to put the burden just on him.
CC: Were there any enforcers?
GH: We didn’t really have anyone that big that first year – there were fights, but no one was given that role. Everyone was just trying not to get hurt.
CC: It was during the era of the Broad Street Bullies in Philly, so I’m guessing they had some fights.
GH: Oh, they beat up everyone. It got to the point where guys were just skating out of the way of their players.
GH: I remember one of the Montreal games where the Caps had a 2-1 lead going into the last couple of minutes. Montreal pulled their goalie and tied the game with a little over a minute left. Then I watched as Larry Robinson took the puck behind the Montreal net after the faceoff and suddenly there were 5 Canadiens skating towards the Caps goal and I remember turning to your mom and just saying “Oh my god, here they come” – and bing bing bing bing bing it was in the net.
CC: Obviously a lot of people scored against the Caps at the time, but were there a handful of players that maybe tormented them more than others, Cap-killers like a Sundin or a Brind’amour who just consistently had the Caps’ number?
GH: Oh, everybody beat up on us – when you’re allowing 5-6 goals a game, everyone is in on it. If there were one or two it’s just gotten lost in the blur. Obviously LeFleur, Bobby Clarke, those guys had their share of goals against us. It got so bad that our goalie, Ron Low, who went on to be the coach in Edmonton and a really good goalie coach for other teams, came to be known as Red Light Ronnie. We used to say the back of his neck was sunburned from the glow of the goal light.
CC: Okay, let’s hear about the white pants...
GH: The first year they experimented with white pants for away games, where they wore the red jerseys. I think that experiment lasted one or two games largely because the white pants became translucent when they got wet, which wasn’t so much of a problem for the Caucasian players...the contrast between the translucent pants and the dark skin of a guy like Mike Marson, however, kind of made them get away from that. They wanted the game to still be a G-rated event.
CC: So the last game of the season, after 79 games with only 7 wins...
GH: It was an 8-4 win over Pittsburgh. We had picked up a player named Stan Gilbertson from Pittsburgh during the season who had been playing okay for us, not great, but he scored 4 goals in that game. It was very unlike anything that happened throughout the year.
They started a tradition that year that lasted about 10 years or so where the fans were allowed out on the ice at the end of the last game and the players would towel off and they’d be behind ropes – you could get autographs and pictures with them.
It’s a great feat to stick by one team like the Capitals for 33 years of ups and downs (more downs than ups) – through trades, management changes, coaching changes, ownership changes, new jerseys, and countless, countless Penguins games. Yet it’s something I aspire to, to hold the love of one team long enough until it finally pays off, and then beyond.
My dad has been a season ticket holder since that first season and while his seats have gotten better and his hair has gotten thinner, the one thing that remains the same through all these years is the passion he feels for this team. Hearing him describe those dark days with as much love as one would use to speak of a great dynasty shows that being a fan means not noticing the numbers, the records, the punchlines – only the emblem on the jersey. It's a lesson I think we all could learn.
Special thanks to my dad for not only taking the time to be interviewed but also for instilling in me the love of hockey, the Caps, and the eternal underdog. It is by his example that I learned what it meant to be a true hockey fan and for that I will always be grateful.