When the Chicago Black Hawks and All-Star goalie Tony Esposito visit Capital Centre today for a 1:25 p.m. faceoff, Danny Belisle will offer thanks once more that he erns his living as coach of the Washington Capitals and not as a scout.
Belisle and Esposito were teammates at Vancouver in te Western Hockey League during the 1967-68 season and Belisle recalled that, "I could't see any way the guy was going to make it. I figured he'd be gone in a year. Two years later, he set the NHL record of 15 shutouts."
If Belisle is undistinguished as a judge of talent, he has shown an uncanny ability to elicit maximum performance from the talent that is presented to him. In six years as a minor league coach, he earned coach-of-the-year honors three times. He is not exempt from this year's NHL race, either.
Commencing with that startling rally for a tie in Toronto Dec. 30, celebrated by the snipping of a sleeping Belisle's cravat, the Capitals have posted a 7-4-1 record that has catapulted them into playoff contention.
Dec. 30 was also the night Belisle concocted a line of Ryan Walter as left wing, Guy Charron at center and Blair Stewart at right wing. At the time, it looked like just one more short-lived experiment in Belisle's campaign to revive "What's My Line?"
During the 12-game revival, however, the raw figures for that trio tell a remarkable story: Walter, 11 goals, five assists, plus-10; Charron, six goals, 12 assists, plus-11; Stewart, three goals, seven assists, plus-eight.
The production of Walter and Charron, who also toil on the power play, is no surprise; in Stewart's case, it borders on the miraculous. Until Dec. 22, Stewart had been working with Hershey in the American Hockey League, following two lost years and a hard-luck story that would bring tears to Tom Landry.
During the summer of 1974, Stewart suffered a broken leg in an auto accident. Traded from Detroit to Washington in March 1975, he sustained a broken foot in his second game. In November 1976, it was another broken leg. Then a training camp incident with Archie Henderson in September 1977 left Stewart with torn knee ligaments that required surgery.
When he was able to play, Stewart proved to have an uncontrollable temper and an ingrained resistance to change. Told that he would sit out a game, Stewart ripped a telephone from the clubhouse wall and stormed from Capital Centre.
On the ice, he responded to solid checks with penalty-producing fists and high sticks. Totally lacking in finesse, his favorite offensive maneuver was to try to skate through a defenseman.
"I just couldn't believe some of the penalties he took," General Manager Max McNab recalled. "One time we're up 2-1 and he gets a penalty and they tie it up. The next shift, he's back in the box."
Soon, Stewart was back in the minors and there was wonder whether he would ever get the message.
Wednesday night, as the Capitals thrashed the New York Rangers, 5-1, Stewart made two marvelous passes to set up Walter and Robert Picard for goals. He also stayed clear of the penalty box for the fifth straight game.
Asked what factors had created the new Blair Stewart, the 25-year-old winger smiled and said, "Maturity has a lot to do with it. I'm still trying to play aggressively, but I can take a check now instead of retaliating and when you do tht you often can make a play, make a goal out of it. I won't take a cheap shot from anybody and I can still dish it out, but scoring goals and winning games comes first.
"I feel I'm skating as well as I can, and Guy and Ryan and I like playing together. I couldn't be doing it without them. We're always talking, discussing how to improve. If a goal is scored against us, we talk about it and try to see what went wrong and correct it. And we try to get one back, because we feel we've let the team down. Talking a lot, taht's the secret.
"I'm not a prolific scorer and I try to go in the corners and get it out to them. And I'm always thinking about not getting a goal scored against us. Ryan nd I like to be in the corners, and Guy is in the corners as much as we are right now. We're really together out there."
A left-hander playing on the right side, the 5-foot-11, 184-pound Stewart has received some tips from Belisle, another lefty who played the off wing.
"I've been working on little things with him." Belisle said. "He's starting to understand playing the off wing. Before, he'd bull his was right into the defenseman. Now, when he gets the defenseman backed up, he realizes he has some options, cutting across the middle or going wide.
"He's willing to learn and he's an ambitious kid. He wants to stay here. He'll improve. He likes body contact, he mucks in the corners and he's strong.If you don't work intelligently, you're nothing, and he understands that now."
Belisle declines any special credit for molding the trio together.
"I was just experimenting and all of a sudden that line got smoething going," Belisle said. "It really didn't figure, with Ryan playing out of position and Stewart just coming up. But they're forechecking great, they're communicating great and they now where one another is on the ice."
Now, if the can just slip a few pucks past you-know-who in the Chicago net, they will prove conclusively that coaching is a simpler job than scouting any time.