The first time Danny Belisle came to Capital Centre, he felt about as welcome as Lefty Driesell on Tobacco Road.
Fans chanted "We want McVie" in honor of the man Belisle had replaced as coach of the Washington Capitals just five days earlier. The program called the new coach "Belise" and the Capitals refrained from introducing him, to avoid making Belisle a target for dissenters.
At the time, the Capitals were unbeaten, following a victory and a tie on the road. As the team slipped, winning only two of its first 15 home games, hecklers multiplied behind the Washington bench. It was no problem being heard in the emptiness that was Capital Centre, and the words were not nice.
"I knew I was coming into a fairly tough situation," Belisie said, "meeting the guys in a hotel lobby the day before the season started. But I didn't read it. It was a lot tougher than I though. I didn't really know the impact.
"The fans had some liking for Tom (McVie) and players had mixed emotions. I came in and things weren't going well, and it really snowballed. The whole thing wasn't easy, but adversity introduces a man to himself. If it wasn't that problem, it would be another problem.
"I've been in tough situations. In Des Moines, when I first took over from Terry Stater, Flint came in for the first two games and beat us 9-1 and 10-0. The 1,800 fans -- all we had -- isolated themselves on me. I figured if I could get through that, I could handle anything.
"The next year we had a championship culb. They said, 'You've just got good players.' I don't want any credit. I just want to be part of it if there's any success."
The 41-year-old Belisle had considerable success in the minor leagues, earning coach of the year honors three times in six years. Once he adjusted to the NHL and his new team adjusted to him, success was forthcoming in the form of a 9-5-1 January, best in the Capitals' history. But there had been more dark days following that home opener, a 6-3 loss to Atlanta, and the drkest came at Los Angeles Dec. 4, in a 10-2 defeat that lowered the club's record to 5-17-4.
"I was very happy I had somebody to talk to after that one," Belisle said. "Roger Crozier was along and we talked all the way on that flight to Colorado. The roof had caved in and it seemed like the end of the world. I had bad memories of those two Des Moines games.
"Fortunately, we bounced back in Colorado, (winning 4-1) and it cleared the air again."
Belisle's world began spinning in its proper rotation after goalie Gary Inness was signed following the folding of the World Hockey Association's Indianapolis franchise. Until that date, Dec. 18, the Capitals had been plagued by erratic goaltending.
"The first two games I played (Jim) Bedard and he played extremely well," Belisle said. "I told (General Manager) Max (McNab) that was one thing I didn't have to worry about. But then he (Bedard) had problems and that became the No. 1 priority.
"You just hope things will get better. I did see the guy play well and I figured it would come back, that he'd get back in form. We were as patient as we could be, but it just didn't come about.
"Inness was a big factor in our getting untracked. Before Inness, we had started coming around and were playing pretty good hockey, communicating well and getting the system down. The experimenting was over. With bad goaltending we'd have won some, but with good goaltending everything snowballed."
As the Capitals won four straight and six of seven in January, Belisle even started to get some favorable mail, a welcome change from the criticism that monopolized his attention earlier.
"You have to shove the bad-mouthing aside," Belisle said, "because mentally there is so much to be concerned about. When things are really going bad, it just adds to the frustration. I'd get letters telling me what lines to play, what power-play combinations to use, who to bring up. You have to be able to handle it, but sometimes I wonder why I bothered to open the mail."
One reason was the absence of anything else to do, with his family in Philadelphia. The coach of a hockey team can sometimes be the loneliest man in the world.
"You prety well have to stay by yourself," Belisle said. "When you go from being a player to coaching, it's a completely new business. You can't mingle with the players. If you socialize with them and then the next day go to work, it just doesn't work out. If you pay more attention to one guy, another will be hurt.
"Oh, you can socialize but not on a day-to-day basis. The players want to know you and talk to you, but a social occasion is uncomfortable for them. They're thinking that I might hear something and make mental notes. It's best to keep your distance, although not totally, not so you're a person they don't understand.
"After a game, it's 2 or 2:30 before I get to bed. If we have a big win, I'm on an emotional high. If we lose, I think about what we can do to straighten it out. When we're home, I'll usually go back to my apartment for a couple of beers and cook a big meal, and that's it.I usually sleep well after a big meal."
Conversely, on the road Belisle sometimes finds himself overwhelmed by his acquaintances. He is a personable man, and he has formed many friendships during a minor-league playing career that carried him to such cities as Three Rivers, Providence, Vancouver, Kitchener, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore, Omaha, Quebec, Victoria, Memphis, Jacksonville, Columbus and Des Moines.
"I've got friends everywhere who knew me before," Belisle said. "They all want to go out and they don't think about how much sleep I might have had the night before. I can't say no, even if I need the sleep, because they'll think that now that I'm in the NHL I don't have time for them."
Belisle has been characterized as "easy going," perhaps because of the contrast to McVie, but he says that "I don't know if that's the real me" and observers who have seen him halt practice and berate malingerers or incompetents with repetitive four-letter words would tend to agree.
"I do have a temper and I do get it off," Belisle said. "But I don't hold any grudges. As soon as I make my point and get it off, I forget it. It's gone and it's forgotten.
"You can't afford to hold grudges in this business and it's not my nature. I do get angered and I do get ranting and raving on occasion. I think the players understand it's my way of expressing myself. If I win two Stanley Cups like Fred Shero, maybe I'll get a pair of glasses and go like this (rubbing his nose)."
Although he can be impatient, Belisle has been most successful in working with the younger players, an area where McVie was criticized for expecting too great competence and too much imitation.
"I don't believe you can restrict a guy," Belisle said. "A system is only a guideline. After that, you ad lib. Every body can't play a certain role. You can't tell (Robert) Pricard, 'You stand there.' You have to give them freedom as a player to express themselves individually, both on and off the ice. You want them to be happy to come to work."
"Individual personalities have come out and are blossoming," said McNab, who did not hesitate to choose Belisle when owner Abe Pollin said McVie had to go. "Danny doesn't suppress individuality. He still talks team and thinks team, of course, but where a player has a strength he has let it develop. He treats the players as men until prove otherwise and they seem to respond to responsibility.
"He was the No. 1 choice to come here just on good accomplishment. He was No. 1 in performance in the International League and there was a felling among people in the American League that he did do an exceptional job with Philadelphia last year under a difficult type of cirumstances.
"When you face and rise above those problems and do such a fine job, it's a very maturing situation. He has been through tough times with maturity and when a crisis arises, as it does every five minutes in this sport, he can handle it."
McNab asserted that if the Capitals had not hired Belisle, he had "documented proof" that he would presently be coaching against them. Presumably, McNab was referring to Colorado, which opted for personnel man Aldo Guidolin after firing Pat Kelly.
Belisle is working on a two-year contract and he is already talking about a raise next year, but it is in a humorous vein. Belisle has maintained his sense of humor, even when some of the Capital Cutups trimmed his tie as he dozed on a flight back from Toronto, where a rally for a 5-5 tie on Dec. 30 marked the turning point from medicority to a smidgen of success.
"I took it very lightly, but it just happened to be my best tie," said Belisle, who turned the shorn half into a pocket handkerchief after he awoke. "I have an idea who did it. There was a good feeling, maybe they know what I could accept and couldn't accept. The timing was right. You could feel the team coming together. Next year if I ask for a raise, I'm going to at least demand a $10 raise to pay for the tie."
Belisle spent the week in Philadelphia with his family on what he calls "the semester break, because all my players are students of the game."
Father of two teen-aged sons, Belisle says he has "exchanged two kids for 20."
As Belisle collected players' autographs for an airport clerk, he was asked if he was comparing the handwriting with any of his hate mail. He quickly responded, "I've checked out all 20 guys and 18 can write and three can't."
Waiting for a player count on a bus, Belisle said, "Count by twos. It's quicker."
Backed into a dark corner for a press interview when tlevision cameras occupied the players' longe, Belisle commented after a victory over Chicago. "If they'd put me out here in November, I'd have been worried."
That time he probably wasn't kiding. Now, although there have been no cants of "Dan-ny" at Capital Centre, at least Belisle's name is spelled correctly in the program. In some sections, anyway. The "Capitals Directory" on Page three still contains a picture of "Tom McVie, coach." Any time belisle gets complacent, he need onlv take a look.