If Mother Nature needs a public relations man to make the Midwest forget about that blizzard, she should call Pierce Gardner. He's the chief flack for the Washington Capitals, this city's natural disaster on skates. The Caps have won nine games this season. They've lost 28 and tied 11. And here's the phone ringing and a voice says . . .
"Dave, this is George Allen, and I want the people of Washington to know I'm available to help out the Caps. Excuse me a second, Dave, I have to lick my thumb. There. Yes, Dave, the Caps have all their draft choices for the next few years. We could trade them for some old guys like Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard. I'd get the Caps going again."
Pierce Gardner is a scream. And here we are at Capital Centre, two hours before the Boston Bruins begin another destruction of the Caps. Last time these teams played, the Boston coach, Don Cherry, said the Caps were so bad the Bruins ought to wear five-pound weights on their skates, just to make it more even.
The Caps' coach, Tommy McVie, didn't like that. He said Cherry ought to shut up. The Bruins are long-established winners, not an expansion team like the Caps. Cherry ought to walk a mile in my shoes, McVie said. Anyway, McVie said, if Cherry coached the Caps, he'd soon be back selling Cadillacs in Rochester.
So here's Pierce Gardner, two hours before Friday night's game . . .
"We had an anonymous phone call today. From somebody calling himself 'Cherry Pie, Inc.' He said he was going to hit Cherry in the face with a cherry pie tonight."
Gardner just loved it. Well, the Bruins won the game, 5-2, and neither George Allen nor the cherry pie hit man showed up. But 17.561 paying customers did. The hockey game wasn't much. The Bruins are the Caps' superior at skating and puck-handling. Unhappily for the customers, the evening's best entertainment came after the game when Cherry met with reporters and proved What Tommy McVie intimated: Cherry's mouth is so big you couldn't hit him in the face with a pie: he'd simply open wide and the whole thing would disappear.
"Maybe, If i was walking in his shoes," Cherry said of McVie, "they'd win more than 100 games. Ten, isn't it? What have they won - 10, 11 games? "
"Nine?" Cherry is red faced man with thinning hair carefully arranged to conceal a receding forehead. "Guarantee it. That's a good-looking hockey team. There's a lot of talent out there."
Cherry knows how to hurt a guy. Here's Tom McVie struggling to win with an expansion team that's been struck by a series of injuries and an inexplicable break down on offense. And here's Don Cherry, riding high in first place, saying that the Caps have a lot of talent and he could win more games with them than McVie has. Nice guy.
"Strange to me that they've won only nine games," Cherry said, twisting the knife slowly and with apparent great pleasure.
What, specifically, would Cherry do to make the Caps a better hockey team."
"I know one change I'd make," he said quickly.
And what's that?
"Guess." This guy never lets up.
"You'll have to go into that one," Cherry smiled thinly. "I've said my piece."
Then he went on talking.
"The fans here are very imaginative. They're great fans. They have to be. The Caps had three shots in the first period tonight. So they're three times as good as they were the last time (when the Caps managed only one first-period shot)."
Cherry said lots of other stuff. He said McVie had said "awful bad things about me, but 17,000 people were here tonight . . . When they come to Boston, there'll be 10,000." And he said, "Dont' forget, at the end of your writeup, put still lguhih'"
McVie hunched over a yellow legal pad making out a practive schedule for his belagureded team, was told what the winning coach said.
"On yeah, good." McVie said. "I got no comment on that. I've got lots of problems right in this room." McVie nodded toward his players' locker room.
This has been the longest season for McVie and the Caps general manager, Max McNab, both lifelong hockey men. Neither had endured a 40-day winless streak. They have now. In his office before Friday night's game. McNab talked about the injuries ("We started with 11 defensement, but at one point we were down to five - and none in the minors"). "And we went through a complete drought by our offensive players," he said.
Yet . . .
"We never felt anu sense of panic . . . This is a hell of a franchise here. We're going long with 10-11,000 people staying right with us in every way. We need another 6-7,000 people, and they are there. There's no question what kind of box office we'll do when we win more often than we lose. Look at Philadelphia. It was five years before they won more than they lost."
McNab said the Caps, even winning only nine times, are "only three points behind where we were last year. And we're only 11 points out of the playoffs right now. That's a hell of a challenge, but it's not insurmountable. We have the best schedule of all. Of our last 25 games, 16 are at home. So it does give us an opportunity to close some ground."
One thing more.
Boston returns to Capital Centre March 28.