For a night, Adam Oates, Calle Johansson and Olie Kolzig weren’t in suits directing the Washington Capitals. Rod Langway wasn’t mingling with fans in the crowd at Verizon Center, and Craig Laughlin and Alan May weren’t breaking down the finer points of a goal on a television broadcast.
The Capitals celebrated their past Thursday night in front of a packed house at the team’s practice facility in Arlington. A total of 29 players, with careers spanning over four decades, gathered from across the globe to reminisce and get some new bragging rights.
The organization's fourth alumni game was arguably the most star-studded thanks in part to the members of the current coaching staff, who made their mark in Washington as star players, and the team’s encouragement to grow the connection between its past and present. In addition to those who are involved in Washington’s day-to-day activities, Bengt Gustafsson flew from Sweden to take part in the festivities, and Brendan Witt jumped at the chance to catch up with former teammates.
“By having older players working for you or just involved, I’d say that means the organization is healthy and people want to come back, which means that it was a good organization to play for,” said Johansson, who is the Capitals’ all-time leader in games played and an assistant coach on Oates’s staff. “It proves that the organization was good before, so we want to come back.”
In the greater scope of the NHL, which will celebrate its centennial anniversary in 2017, the Capitals are still something of a young team, having played their inaugural season in 1974-75. Building a history and a community around a franchise takes time, and part of developing such a connection is the bond created between teammates within an organization, from generation to generation.
“It’s tradition. It’s part of everything,” Oates said. “It’s great the guys want to come back and be a part of it. It shows how much they care.”
Alumni associations exist all around the NHL, and most take part in charitable events. Some are more prominent than others.
Storied franchises like the Montreal Canadiens ooze a lore and mystique that is brought to life when greats like Jean Beliveau or Henri Richard stroll the hallways at Bell Centre. Many former Philadelphia Flyers live in the Delaware Valley region, working to give back to the community and remaining in touch with the organization as a whole. The same is true in Vancouver, Chicago and St. Louis.
“If you look at teams like Chicago, Montreal, Toronto there’s a big community around each team,” Peter Bondra said. “The Caps are growing. You look from the past, and we’re close to getting the recognition of a hockey town. It’s good to be a part of that, being a part of the community, staying involved, and we get to have fun, too.”
While some made the Washington region their home, including Laughlin, Langway, Bondra, Yvon Labre, Bugsy Watson and Gary Rissling, the growth of the alumni involvement has been more by word of mouth.
It has been only three years since Witt last suited up in the NHL, but when May invited him to reunite with former teammates, he didn’t think twice.
“I’m a newbie to this, but in the past, when I played with the Caps, there were always alumni around,” said Witt, who lives on a ranch in Montana with his family. “Yvon Labre was always being seen and Rod Langway. It was a part of the organization. It reminded you of those who represented it before you, and I think it’s always a good thing to be involved. When I got asked to come do this, I was really excited. I’ve never been on this side of the coin before.”
Current players enjoy the stories and experiences of those who came before them.
Troy Brouwer saw the Blackhawks maintain the connection between generations of star players with Bobby Hull, Denis Savard, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito positioned as ambassadors of hockey. For Brooks Laich, getting to know some of the older players or swap stories reminds him of how fleeting a career in the NHL can be and how important it is to maintain that sense of camaraderie even after it ends.
“It’s a privilege to be here, and I think sometimes people lose sight of that, and it starts to hit players near the end of their career and certainly when their career is over. Those guys really appreciate it,” Laich said. “The fact that an organization is loyal to players like that goes a long, long way. It’s something I really believe in, and also as players, we’re talking to guys who have been to the Stanley Cup with this organization. . . . With all those guys around you get a sense of hometown pride.”