Opportunity, After 24 Years of Hard Knocks
By Ken Denlinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 1998; Page C04
Yvon Labre. A season with only eight wins. Ace Bailey. Bill Mikkelson. Shaving-cream mischief. Pat LaFontaine and Billy Smith. Four coaches and two general managers the first two seasons. No playoffs the first eight seasons.
And even when playoff berths became routine, there was frequently failure that defied belief.
Such was the history of the Washington Capitals.
"I talked to my dad once," said former general manager David Poile, "and he said the Caps were a tough team to cheer for, because they broke so many hearts. The hockey gods always seemed to be against 'em."
No longer. After Joe Juneau nudged the puck less than 12 inches, past the best goaltender on the planet and into the net late Thursday against the Sabres in Buffalo, the formerly forlorn, formerly luckless Capitals had realized the dream making the Stanley Cup finals owner Abe Pollin first saw 26 years ago when he bought into the NHL before seeing his first hockey game.
"It started in 1972, when we applied for an expansion franchise on the last day," Pollin said. "We got to Montreal on a Sunday and didn't get to sleep until Thursday."
Eleven cities applied for two franchises and Kansas City got the other one. Pollin needed a hockey team to join his basketball Bullets and provide the anchors necessary to borrow enough money for the grand new arena, Capital Centre, he wanted to build.
Pollin paid $6 million for the franchise. The goalie Juneau beat with the spellbinding, spell-breaking shot, Dominik Hasek, will make $7 million next season.
Two years after Pollin secured his franchise, the Capitals started playing and few teams in any sport ever matched their futility. There were some good players that first season and one of them, Labre, eventually had his jersey retired by the team. But that 8-67-5 record got the first two coaches, Jimmy Anderson and Red Sullivan, fired during the season and was the reason one player blended a liter of rum and a can of Coke soon after the final game.
"The most poignant picture of that first year and most of the first eight was of Ace Bailey," said Ron Weber, who broadcast every Caps game until this season, when the team moved to MCI Center. "The Capitals had given up a late goal to lose and he immediately smashed his stick over the crossbar of the goalpost. He skated a few strides, then sank down on the ice at the right wing circle. You couldn't see his face. His whole body just sagged and the shaft of his broken stick was still in his hand."
The Capitals lost 67 games that first year and circumstances caused the decently competent Mikkelson's plus-minus rating to stop at a stupefying -82. They lost 59 games the second season and did not lose fewer than 40 until the seventh.
Still, the players had some fun. Sleep on airplanes often was risky, because Tommy "The Bomber" Williams might drop by with a can of shaving cream and start decorating heads. He knew how to float the foam without causing a stir and sometimes would borrow some small drink umbrellas and orange wedges to top off what resembled a human sundae.
The Capitals were not lovable losers, so small crowds led to modest revenue and caused Pollin to cut corners whenever possible. "I'm gonna have to buy myself some more comfy shoes," Bailey said during one no-frills flight, "because we might be standing up on the next one."
When their play did improve early on, the Capitals rarely seemed to catch a break. When the top 16 teams made the playoffs one year, the Capitals finished fourth in their division but had the 17th-best record. When the rule was changed so that the top four teams in each division made the postseason, the Capitals had the 15th best record overall but ended up fifth in their division.
Langway anchored the Capitals defense for more than 10 years and won the Norris Trophy in 1983 and again in '84, the last time anyone won the award for defensive excellence without also scoring quite a lot.
"Timing is so important," said Poile, who was replaced by George McPhee when the Caps failed to make the playoffs last season and is general manager of the expansion team in Nashville. "The Caps hadn't gotten to the playoffs for so long, but there was a good base of players. They were on the verge. With Rod and the others, we were off to the races."
Already on hand was the coach who also would help make winning a habit, Bryan Murray. Murray was the last of three Caps coaches during the 1981-82 season and led the team to 63 points in 66 games.
During Murray's seven full seasons, the Caps accumulated at least 92 points five times and at least 101 points three times. However, with the playoffs came a different kind of frustration. Ahead three games to one, they lost first-round series to the New York Islanders in 1987, to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992 and '95. When they made the conference finals, in 1990, they were swept by the Boston Bruins.
"So many times we thought we were there," said Murray, who was replaced by brother Terry in mid-January of 1990 and just ended his fourth season as general manager of the Florida Panthers. His Panthers reached the Stanley Cup finals two years ago.
Bryan Murray had unpleasant flashbacks when he watched the Caps dominate the shots on goal during Game 5 of the Buffalo series and still lost, because Hasek was so marvelous.
"We once outshot the Islanders 42-21 and lost, 2-1," Murray said of one playoff loss. The reason: a Hasek-like performance by goalie Billy Smith. Murray also still sees playoff-turning goals by Bryan Trottier and others. But there are pleasant playoff memories, such as the overtime goal Dale Hunter shoved under Ron Hextall that won Game 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round in 1988.
"But not as many as you'd like," Murray said.
Poile cites his reasons for so much playoff futility.
"Two things," he said. "The other teams were a little more lucky. And they had better goaltending. No question, Olie Kolzig is the best goaltender ever in Washington. If we'd had [his type of performances] in any number of years, the whole history of ups and downs, the lack of playoff success might have been totally different."
Poile built the core of the team that provided the Capitals with their greatest glory and McPhee fine-tuned it by adding veterans Brian Bellows and Esa Tikkanen during the regular season. Also in his first year, Coach Ron Wilson has been innovative on and off the ice.
"I go with my gut feelings," Pollin said of his latest choices of general manager and coach. "Wilson reminds me of my friend Red Auerbach [whose playoff success with the Boston Celtics is unmatched in NBA history]. He knows how to win. He knows how to get his players to win. That ability is a gift. You either have it or you don't."
Among all the people ever involved with the Capitals, the only one whose joy may exceed Pollin's is Labre, now the team's director of special programs.
"It sure is nice just to watch the fans," Labre said. "I get goosebumps when they start cheering."
For Pollin, this is the 20th anniversary of his basketball team winning its only NBA title.
"I know what it feels like to be a champion," he said. "I sure hope I can feel that way again."
Staff writer William Gildea contributed to this report.
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