Few National Hockey League coaches would earn popularity points in a poll of their players during training camp. The men who wear Washington uniforms, however, consider Danny Belisle a Capital guy.
It was Belisle who first suggested the procedure being pursued here this week, of playing formal intrasquad games morning and evening rather than the usual routine of lengthy skating drills and rather haphazard scrimmaging.
The players have been divided into four teams of relative equality in personnel and each is playing six 45-minute games during three days ending Thursday, wiht the winner receiving a trophy called the President's Cup.
More important, of course, those players who display the most ability will be the ones to wear Washington uniforms Friday night in Johnstown, when the exhibition campaign opens against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"These games are nothing new," Belisle said, "but it used to be that you would skate in the morning and then play the games in the afternoon and often the players would be so tired they could not perform up to par.
"We first talked about reversing it, with the games in the morning. But this is such a big camp (presently 69 players) that it was finally decided to play games both morning and evening.
"They were given a program this summer and they were supposed to report in shape. They shouldn't need conditioning, but if they do I've got more than two weeks to get them there once this is over."
One of the stars of the first morning doubleheader was Swedish winger Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, who scored twice as the Congressmen defeated the Ambassadors, 4-3. Helped considerably by playing right wing alongside tireless Ryan Walter, Gustafsson scored on a breakaway despite being hooked by Jack Lynch, and later netted a rising 35-foot drive.
Brad Becker, a University of North Dakota product who played at Toledo in the International League last year, produced two goals and goalie Wayne Stephenson, helped by two goal-post saves, played 22 scoreless minutes as the Governors routed the Senators, 6-2.
"Stephenson was good and he was lucky," noted General Manager Max McNab. "That's the combination we need."
Other first-session standouts were veteran Bob Sirois, who beat his goalie brother, Rick, twice and barely missed a hat trick when Rick made a quick move to knock the puck off his stick; Washington native Kevin McCloskey, who set up Becker's two goals, one after flattening a defender and stealing the puck; center Glen Currier, who scored once and showed tremendous improvement after a year at Port Huron, and veteran defenseman Robert Picard, a goal scorer and the hardest hitter on the ice.
"I love it this way," said Bob Sirois of the new game plan. "It's good because we're playing hockey. You can see how much imagination somebody has on the ice, how much quickness, see what he does in game situations. You don't measure that by three-on-twos or by running or lifting weights. In six games, everybody has enough ice time to show what they can do." "I like the idea," said captain Guy Charron, who assisted on Sirois' two goals. "Normally, you do a lot of skating and you wind up pacing yourself in the scrimmages. This makes you work hard for three periods and it gives everybody an opportunity to see what you can do in traffic. You can evaluate a player a lot faster."
"It's easier to psych yourself up knowing you'll get a good look, rather than if you're just doing stops and starts," McCloskey said.
"You get used to action again and get right into it," said right wing Tom Rowe. "We should be ready that much earlier."
"We're in a team concept already, even if it's just our own team," Walter said. "Before, guys figured they had to do something as an individual just to be noticed."
The seriousness of the competition was emphasized by defenseman Gord Lane, who lost the puck twice, sent it in offside to draw a whistle and then heaved his stick against the glass.
"First the President's Cup and then Stanley Cup," trumpeted Yvon Labre, who captained the victorious Congressmen.
Eight hours later, at least the first half of that parlay seemed remote, the Congressmen having fallen to the Senators, 5-0, as goalies Dave Parro and Rollie Boutin were the stars. The Governors, 5-0 winner over the Ambassadors, were left as the only unbeaten team. Rowe led the Governors with a goal and two assists, while Stephenson maintained his perfect record.