This was after a Montreal game. Naturally, Danny Belisle was in a deep pout. Whatever poor man coaches the Washington Capitals goes into a deep pout after seeing the Canadiens. As they always do, the Canadiens had whipped the Caps upside the head by some 8-4 or 6-1 score. I forget. I remember what Belisle said, though.
"After a period of time, the statistics tell a story," he said.
Belisle was talking about a line combination he had been trying. The numbers don't lie, he said. Eventually, the numbers in cold black type tell a truth that no one can avoid. Goals scored, assists made, plus-minus ratings-all those numbers speak eloquently.
So I looked up some numbers.
I wondered if any other National Hockey League team had been as bad as the Capitals for as long.
Five years now, and the Caps have never won more than 24 games in an 80-game season.
Could any team match that record of misery?
In two letters: n-o.
Only the Colorado Rockies are close. The Rockies have won 81 games in five seasons. That is two fewer than the Caps. But the Rockies have tied nine more games than the Caps and so are seven points to the good.
The Caps and Rockies stand far below any other pretenders to mediocrity. In the five years ending in 958, the Chicago Black Hawks won only 84 games and tied 58-a single point ahead of the Caps' woebegonery-but the NHL played a 70-game schedule in those days, not today's 80, and those 70 were against real hockey teams, not today's expansion babies.
Are these numbers lying to us?
Are the Caps truly awful?
Does anyone care?
Disraeli said there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. As homely as the Caps' numbers are this year-a 23-40-15 won-lost-tied record-they are yet better than last year's and three times as nice as the 8-67-5 produced in 1975, the Caps' first season.
The Caps' publicity department likes to point out positive statistics.
Such as: With 265 goals this year, the Caps rank seventh of the 17 NHL teams instead of 17th as they did a year ago. . . For the first time, the Caps' per-game scoring average is over 3.0 (at 3.4). . . For the first time, the Caps have more than three 20-goal scorers (they have six). . . And the Caps, whose wings have been so poor that hard-hearted witnesses devised such sobriquets of "helicopter lines," now have three 20-goal wingers, not just the one of olden times.
No truly awful team accumulates those numbers. That is on the offensive end of the stick, however. Defense is another story, sadder by far. The Caps ranked 16th in goals allowed last season and barely improved, to 15th, this year.
Right here i'm going to throw a hockey puck out of bounds and stop the clock to make a promise. No more numbers in this column. Anyway, Abe Pollin has something to say. He owns the Caps and he cares deeply.
"The goal I had hoped to achieve is to get into the playofts," he said. "And we're not going to achieve that. So I am disappointed in this season. But we have made very great strides. We are on the verge, on the edge of turning the corner. We're much closer than before. We have a very bright, bright future with outstanding players. Hope springs eternal."
Hope springs a whole lot higher with good players, and Pollin acknowledged as much, saying, "Some of the players on our team are marginal NHL players. I hope next season we could make enough changes through the draft, through signing European players, through trades so our roster was full of NHL-quality players. We are very, very close to being a very, very respectable team."
Pollin has been criticized not only for firing last season's coach, Tom McVie, but for firing him when he did-a day before the season opened. The new man, Belisle, had to judge abilities and teach his philosophies in the heat of real competition. Some critics say the timing of the firing made this a lost season.
"All things considered, I'd do the same thing again," Pollin said.
What went wrong then? "Some of the positions we thought were solid were not solid," he said. "Particularly in the goal. The way Jim Bedard ended last season and started this season, we were happy. But for some reason, maybe only the good Lord knows why, he didn't do the kind of job he'd been doing. If he'd played during the season the way he has played at the end, we'd have been all right."
Is Pollin happy with Belisle's work?
"Danny has proved he is a National Hockey League coach," the owner said. "But again I say I'm disappointed."