Owner Abe Pollin of the Washington Capitals understood the paying customers' message Tuesday night. After watching the Capitals lose to lowly Edmonton while dissatisfied fans chanted "Goodbye Danny," Pollin yesterday issued the definitive "goodbye."
Coach Danny Belisle was fired and replaced by Gary Green, 26-year-old wunderkind coach of the Hershey Bears who generally is recognized as one of the hockey's brightest young strategists.
Belisle, hired two days before the start of the 1978-79 season, cleaned out his office and said, "It was a surprise. I just got fired. I have no comment at this time."
If Belisle was surprised, few others were. It was obvious before the season started that the sorry state of the club's ticket sales demanded immediate success.Yet the team had slipped to 4-10-2 and the outrage of the few fans who still care demanded some quick action.
The immediate question concerning Green is his youth, particularly with respect to the veteran Capitals. However, those who have played for him in Hershey have been impressed by his grasp of the game, and the desire for some effective leadership is likely to override any problems raised by age differential.
"There won't by any problems with any of the older guys," promised 29-year-old winger Greg Polis, who spent two weeks at Hershey. "When I went down there, I had nothing but respect for his ability. He has a definite idea of how he wants the game to be played and he's good at getting it across to you. A lot of people are going to be surprised by him."
Green has been surprising a lot of people since he graduated from the University of Guelph and took a brief flyer as a defenseman in the defunct Southern Hockey League.
Having higher ambitions than that, Green abandoned his playing career and became executive director of the Tam O Shanter Hockey School in Guelph. He next signed on as an assistant coach under Roger Neilson with the Peterborough Junior A team and eventually succeeded Neilson as head coach.
In each of his two years running Peterborough. Green reached the finals of the Memorial Cup, losing to New Westminister in 1978 and then beating Brandon last May. The Canadian junior championship inspired pro offers, one of which came from Washington General Manager Max McNab, who sought Green to instruct the Capitals' kids at Hershey.
"I'll make no beans about it, I wanted to be in the NHL right away," Green said last night, after meeting with the players at the Ramada Inn in Lanham. "But the opportunity didn't present itself right away. So I had a choice of waiting all summer for an NHL offer or taking Hershey.
"I don't want to be facetious toward Danny, in fact I want to keep completely away from that. But I did think there was a good chance of moving on to Washington. So I came to Hershey determined to do the best job possible and to see what hppened. I will say, though, that I never thought it would come this quick."
Nevertheless, Green was shrewd enough to sign a two-year contract in Hershey that took in all possible situations, including the call to Washington.
Belisle did not distinguish himself last season, when the Capitals collected only 63 points and missed the playoffs for the fifth straight year. However, the circumstances of his hiring contributed to a horrible start and he was granted the chance for a second season more as a matter of fairness than of optimism.
A schedule that called for nine of the first 13 games on the road and the necessity of working a number of new players into the lineup made Belisle's task difficult. He quickly made things worse.
The day before the season began Belisle bounced popular Guy Charron as captain and helped to contrive a rigged election that would guarantee the choice of 21-year-old Ryan Walter. The deposed and hurt Charron received several write-in votes, evidence of the players disapproval, and the move backfired further when Walter's play suffered under the added burden.
A day earlier, Belisle had upset the players as well as disbelieving top brass by reconstructing all the lines that had carried the club to a 7-2-1 exhibition record. He continued to switch lines thereafter, many of the changes dictated by injuries.
The fans jumped Belisle for another unfathomable move, his use of goalie Wayne Stephenson as a starter in 10 of the team's 16-games. The popular choice was Gary Inness, who was more impressive while posting a 3.15 goals against average and 90 percent save ratio, compared to Stephenson's figures of 4.61 and 84 percent.
Another Belisle debit was his "system," which in the Capitals' end seemed to consist of nothing more than getting the puck up ice as quickly as possible, without regard for opposition checkers who so frequently sent it right back. A defense-man who paused behind the net to set up an outbound play found himself reprimanded for delay.
The players shifting between Washington and Hershey soon relegated Belisle's "system" to joke status, when compared with Green's precise orders. b
Officially McNab gave the same reason for Belisle's dismissal that most observers had unofficially considered the trigger for the departure of Belisle's predecessor, Tom McVie.
"We certainly don't feel that he (Belisle) is a bad coach," McNab said.
"But there have been areas of progress that were a bit of a concern. I know a lot of players were young, but our young people had shown a marked leveling off. They weren't producing as we had expected."
Green said there would be no alterations of the present roster for tonight's game at Boston (WDCA-TV) 20 at 7:30 p.m.).
"There is enough, talent, here to do what I have to do," Green said. "But there are players in Hershey who will be up here. Maybe at Christmas, shortly after or thereabouts. It all takes time. I think the world of Roger (Crozier) and Max, which was a big reason why I came to the Capitals' organization. I'm sure they'll bring whatever players are needed to put this over."
The words did not sound unfamiliar. Belisle, coming here after three minor-league coach of the year honors in six seasons, thought he could do it, too. Capital fans, after so much suffering, undoubtedly will note Green's 6-7-1 record at Hershey and demand results before they offer adulaton. For Gary Green, who can't conceive of failure, that could make the eventual success even sweeter.
Onetime Capital center Doug Gibson was named to succeed Green at Hershey.