When the Washington Capitals arrived in the Mile High City at 4 o'clock Tuesday morning, they were a mile low-a ragged, wretched, weary band on the run. The way they had been playing hockey on a heretofore dismal road trip, even the majestic Rocky Mountain looked like just another abyss.
The Caps had flown here, tired and "down" from Los Angeles, where the L.A. Kings had made them look like cabbages a few hours earlier.
There was nothing funny about the things that happened to them on their way to the Forum, or once they got to Jack Kent Cooke's Roman ice palace. The 10-2 mugging inflicted by the Kings Monday evening disgraced the Caps in every way. It was the worst humiliation of a young but already depressing season, and if they sank any lower they would have become the world's first underground hockey team.
But when they left today for Vancouver, where they will play the finale of this four-game Western trip Saturday, the Caps were on a Rocky Mountain high-physically battered but psychologically renewed.
Their 4-1 victory Tuesday night over the Colorado Rockies-the hockey team, not the mountain range-was hardly a work of art. But it snapped a seven-game winless streak, and when a team has lost as often as the 6-17-4 Caps, any triumph-even one over the only club in the National Hockey League with a worse record (4-18-5) refreshes the soul, even in an aching body.
Defenseman Rick Green suffered an eye injury, defenseman Robert Picard a separated left shoulder, center Dennis Maruk a hyperextended elbow and left wing Bob Sirois a bruised hip in the desultory victory over the inept Rockies, who were passionately booed by the 1,952 customers who trudged through a raging snowstorm to McNichols Sports Arena.
Green, who scored the Caps first goal four seconds into their second power play, will be sidelined at least a week with a scratched left eyeball and cut left eyelid incurred when he ran into teammate Gord Lane's stick.
Picard, checked hard into the boards by Gary Croteau, who got his team-leading 15th goal, wound up with his left arm in a sling, but may play in Vancouver. He will have his left shoulder examined and treated there.
Maruk was unable to straighten his left arm after a second-period collision with Colorado wing Joe Contini, but stayed in the game.
Sirois, who scored the eventual game-winner at 7:10 of the second period, giving the Caps a 2-0 lead after they held an opponent scoreless for a period for the first time in six games, look several lumps. He is expected to play Saturday, even though he needed assistance leaving the ice after being crumpled by rugged defenseman Barry Beck late in the second period.
But through the wreckage, the Caps were glowing.
"The most important thing, after losing a game like we did in Los Angeles, is to put things back together right away and not go into a shell," said Gity Charrob, the team's captain and leading scorer (his eight goal of the season had made it 3-1 at 1:36 of the final period), in th e jubilant visitors' locker room afterward.
"By winning tonight, we put what happened in L.A. behind us. If we had lost again, it would have been an awful long road trip."
"This one meant a lot to everybody," said goalie Bernie Wolfe, who stopped 36 shots (the Caps wre outshot, 37-21) and earned the game's second star, even though he had a 101 degree fever and flu symptons that made him feel sluggish and miserable.
"We played a pretty good road game," added first-year Coach Danny Belisle. "We checked well and weren't beaten back to our end very often. That's where we've been spotty-in Los Angeles, we just collapsed-but we were pretty solid tonight."
A couple of hours after the game, Belisle, General Manager Max McNab, trainer Gump Embro and assistant manger Roger Crozier were sitting in the Score Lounge, on the 14th floor of the Holiday In-Sports Center, overlooking a panoramic cityspace in which bright lights illuminated the still-falling snow.
"You know, in sports you really have to keep kind of an even keel, said Crozier, the former all-star goaltender. He is a rarity-a teetolling hockey man-and nursed a soft drink as beers disappeared around him. "Last night seemed like the end of the world, and tonight it's all in the distant past."
The road trip began Saturday in St. Louis, where the Caps sang the blues in a 5-2 loss at the Checkerdome. That was their fourth consecutive defeat, but despair had not yet set in.
After all, goaltender Rollie Boutin, called up from the minor league Hershey (Pa.) Bears just that mornign to replace the demoted Jim Bedard, had debuted with 30 scoreless minutes. That was enough to pass as good news for an embattled team.
When the Caps left drizzly, raw, foggy St. Louis for balmy L.A. Sunday afternoon, their disposition was sunny enough.
"Who are you guys? You all seem to be together," asked a curious civilian as nine Caps, all dressed in the sort of natty attire characteristic of the affluent modern pro athlete, piled into a hotel courtesy van for the short shuttle to St. Louis Airport.
"We're a band," said dapper Bill Riley, one of only two blacks currently in the NHL. He motioned toward a fellow-traveler, a corpulent sportswriter. "This is our bass player."
"What's the name of your group?" the man asked anxiously, as if expecting Mick Jagger to jump aboard momentarily.
Riley did not hesitate: "We're the Tower of Power."
"Have a good trip," the man said expansively as the Capitals departed. "The next time I'm in the store, I'll look for your records."
It has been a season of disappointments for the optimistic Capitals, but the nadir came in Los Angeles. After a series of horrible defensive lapses that allowed the Kings to explode for four-first goals, none of which Boutin-making his first NHL start-had much chance on.
From there, things grew progressively worse.
Belisle, normally a walking centre of calm weather amid a gloomy hailstorm of mistakes, exploded for 10 minutes behind close dressing room doors after the debacle. No more Mr. Nice Guy. By his own admission, he deleted few expletives in dressing down the team, which was scheduled for 12:15 a.m. departure for Denver.
The bus ride from the Forum to Los Angeles International Airport took only 15 minutes, but the silence made it seem interminable. Belisle sat in the front right seat, denying himself even his beloved postgame cigat, and the fringes of his dark hair seemed to get grayer by the minute. Crozier sat acroos the aisle from him, head in hand as if comforting a throbbing headache.
At the airport, the Caps piled up their bags at the check-in counter.Embro-a stocky, mumbling,seemingly gruff but lovable Italian who serves as road manager as well as trainer, just as he used to double as backup goalie in his days as a minor league trainer-shooed them away.
"Go get yourself something to eat. Go on, I'll take care of the bags. They are not going to serve anything on this flight," he said, a cigar-smoking mother hen firmly but fondly looking after the brood.
The players marched off to anothe plastic airport coffee shop. It is such times, waiting for a late-night getaway to a snowy city after a sickening loss, that a sports team is at its least glamorous-especially when, like the Caps, it is on the road but going nowhere.
Winger Mark Lofthouse, a second-year man, went through the cafeteria line and waited for a cashier ill-equipped to handle the midnight snacks of a hockey team descending like ill-tempered locusts. Lofthouse selected boysenberry pie, gelatine with fruit cocktail and two glasses of milk. His bill: $3.45.
Finally seated at a table, he said, "That's the worst score U've ever lost a hockey game by. When I played junior hockey, our team won one game, 18-0. Now I know how other guys felt."
Lofthouse stared at his tray. "I feel guilty eating two desserts," he said. "I feel like we should be punished."
That wouldn't do any good, someone suggested.
"That's what everybody says: 'Just forget about it.' But maybe we forget too easy. You can't accept losing like that," he said pointedly.
Lofthouse took a big gulp of his fruited gelatin and struck a foreign substance. He spit it out, and shoved his dish aside. "This is the worst $3 meal I've ever had," he said.
Perhaps he was being punished afterall.
The flight finally boarded at 1 a.m. and took off 45 minutes later.
The plane lande in Denver at 3:55 a.m. Over the intercom came an announcement: "Would a representative of the Washington Capitals hockey team please identify himself to the gate attendant." It sounded ominous.
The equipment bags containing the team's sticks and skates had been left behind in L.A. When God snows on the Caps, He does so in blizzards.
On the bus to the hotel, an early edition of a Denver tabloid was passed around. 0ne story on the sports page was headlined: "Caps Offer Rockies Opportunity to Gain Ground."
"No way," said rookie centre Ryan Walter. "No way at all."
He turned out to be right. The Rockies' power play-which had scored 29 goals, more than any other NHL team, going into the game-was shut down on six attempts, including a two-man advantage for 1:28 of the second period. The Caps won rather easily.
"Embarrassment is a great motivator," said McNab afterwards. "We still have great difficulties against the 64-year old teams in this league, but we hold our own against the five-year-old ones."
And for the Caps, even a victory against a five-year-old franchise is great solace for the soul.