After one of the Washington Capitals' home games this fall, the club's bachelors will be brought down to center ice to be auctioned to female bidders. Owner Abe Pollin is not throwing in the financial towel, at least not yet; the charity auction for postgame dates is one of several innovations designed to make the Capitals' games more entertaining for the fans.
To those loyalists who have suffered through five seasons of defeat and depression, Capitals hockey at last figures to be fun, on the scoreboard as well as on the auction block.
New players, the maturation of old favorites, a more favorable schedule and an expanded league should boost the Capitals closer to a coveted nook in the hearts of Washington sports fans. There still is a long road to travel, but at last the club appears to have slipped out from under Joe Btfsplk's dark cloud into a reasonable run for daylight.
The immediate goal is a modest one, to achieve playoff status for the first time in six seasons. The National Hockey League has helped immeasurably by adding four teams from the World Hockey Association, stripping them of their competitive status and then boosting the number of playoff participants from 12 to 16.
So the Capitals need to beat out only five teams, and none of that former division gimmickry will permit a representative of the sorry Smythe to slip past a more worthy club. With the 21 teams playing a balanced schedule, four games against each opponent, and only the division winner guaranteed a playoff spot, the worst five teams in the league are assured an early vacation.
The Capitals not only expect to beat out five, they intend to outrun seven or eight. That would mean a more favorable matchup in the first round of postseason play than a best-of-five tussle with defending champion Montreal or this writer's pick for 1980 champagne, Buffalo.
As they open a 75-player training camp today in Hershey, Pa., the Capitals possess nine men who did not contribute to last season's 63-point harvest but could be in uniform for the Oct. 11 opener at Buffalo.
Mike Gartner, the No. 1 draftee, is virtually assured a spot at right wing, where suddenly another contender has appeared in Swede Bengt-Ake Gustafsson. Pierre Bouchard should earn a defensive berth and Winnipeg reclaim Paul MacKinnon is a backline certainty because he cannot be farmed out. Wayne Stephenson, obtained from Philadelphia, will share goaltending duties with Gary Inness.
The other four formidable new faces -- Antero Lehtonen, Errol Rausse, Steve Clippingdale and 1978 injury victim Tim Coulis -- are among a flock of candidates to play left wing, a completely open position and a dreadful weak spot in the past.
There could be more changes before the opener, since defensemen Rick Green and Gord Lane have elected to play out their options. The Capitals' past policy has been to peddle players like popular Hartland Monahan, who could not be persuaded to sign new contracts.
Defenseman Robert Picard, starting his third season, and center Ryan Walter, beginning his second, are expected to make giant leaps toward super star status. Right wings Bob Sirosis and Tom Rowe are being touted, with good reason, for membership in the 40-goal club.
The schedule promises a slow start, with nine of the first 13 games on the road because of a horse show. It is most favorable, however, in that the Capitals are listed to play only three home games after having played the night before. Home ice, in the NHL, is where winning records are honed, and this season the Capitals have no excuses in that area.
Expansion has provided four games each against draft-denuded Winnipeg, Edmonton, Hartford and Quebec, instead of four extras against Montreal, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Los Angeles. The Capitals are now in a far tougher division -- with Philadelphia, Atlanta, the Rangers and Islanders -- but the balanced schedule renders that factor moot.
The front office has been strengthened by the addition of Jack Button as player personnel director. At Hershey, capable young Gary Green figures to provide expertly trained replacements as he works to develop the club's young talent.
It remains to be seen whether the Capitals damaged morale by dragging out contract negotiations with players like Green, Bouchard, Sirois and Lane, as well as the new draftees. The bucks spent for Lehtonen, Stephenson and Button showed that there was no overall belt-tightening program and General Manager Max McNab indicated the club was merely trying, like others, to get a handle on what it considered runaway salaries.
If there is reason to think the Capitals are progressing, there is evidence of the desperate need for a leap forward. Five years of mediocrity, plus residual anger over the firing of Tom McVie, have stagnated season ticket sales.
At current renewal rates, the season's sale will just about match the 4,500 of last year. The goal is 5,000, a modest number when one remembers that Pollin was aiming for 10,000 a year ago.
Group sales have boomed, however, with the club extending its efforts into such previously overlooked areas as the Eastern Shore, South Side Virginia and Western Maryland. Group dollar input is already more than one-third of last year's total.
Tom Hipp, the inventive new marketing director, has utilized Pollin's carte blanche to alter everything from the pregame music to the program to the giveaway items.
As the Capitals skate out, fans will hear popular tunes rather than organ blahs. The club will publish its own program and no longer simply distribute Goal magazine. Giveaways will include kites and diamonds as well as, for one night at least, the players.
There will be surprises keyed to the visiting team and Hipp said, "Hockey is still new here and we're trying to make sure everyone has a good time whether the Caps win or lose. But it will sure make our job a lot easier if they win."
It will make a lot of jobs easier. There is no doubt that McNab and Coach Danny Belisle will be looking for work if the team stumbles. Pollin has shown his impatience in the past. After six years, he has a lot of company.