At the National Hockey League's expansion draft in August, two young Captials from Ontario, Paul MacKinnon and Lou Franceschetti, were casually running down the woebegone Toronto baseball team.
An observer who has been watching the Capitals for five years suggested that the young Caps not be so quick to throw stones; particularly when heaving from Centre ice.
In the history of professional team sports few franchises can match the Washington Capitals for ineptitude. Consider these numbers: In five-plus seasons in the NHL the Capitals have a record of 88 victories, 270 defeats and 60 ties.
NHL minus records include 17 consecutive defeats; 37 road losses in a row; 446 goals allowed in a season; 67 defeats in a season and 18 shorthanded goals yielded in a season.
In their initial campaign, 1974-75, the Capitals won eight, lost 67 and tied five for a record low 21 points. The next year they went 25 games without a victory. In season four, when better things were expected, they once went 20 games without a victory.
On Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the Caps had lost at home to the expansion Edmonton Oilers, 5-3, before the smallest crowd (5,214) to see a home game, the president of the team, Abe Pollin, fired Coach Danny Belisle. Belisle's record this year was 4-10-2; his record since taking over from Tom McVie before the start of last season was 28-51-17.
Next in line, 26-year-old Gary Green, the sixth Cap coach (there have been 101 Capital hockey players).
Pollin and his minority partners have poured more than $9 million into the club. The deficit would be in the eight-figure range except for the $1 million-plus in expansion money received this year from the merger with the World Hockey Association
Not considered among the frontrunners for a 1974 expansion club, Pollin nevertheless prevailed. It was only after the franchise was awarded to him that things started to go bad and bad and bad.
More than 30,000 requests for season-ticket information flooded the team's offices and there was anticipation of a sellout situation from day one. But Pollin may have wiped out that possibility by requiring full payment for season tickets by April 1. Only 6,800 season tickets were sold. This year the Caps sold a mere 4,500.
The next damaging blow was struck by the NHL. In previous expansions, each team was allowed to protect 15 players before the new clubs hacked out their rosters. In 1967, that meant the first player chosen was No. 91. By 1974, the Capitals were starting with No. 241.
Besides, the World Hockey Association was a viable enterprise, plucking good players and forcing expenses up. Milt Schmidt, the Capitals' first general manager, appealed to his colleagues to lower the protected list to 12. No one would go along.
"One thing the Caps will never get is any help from the NHL," said Schmidt, now a host in a Boston Garden club who also sells Bruins' season tickets on a commission basis. "I fought over that protected list. We had a meeting in New York and I held out, even though Sid Abel (the Kansas City general manager) gave in. Finally, they said they'd have to have another meeting and call in the governors. I said the hell with it."
With a very few exception -- dedicated Yvon Labre is an obvious one -- Schmidt was saddled with malcontents and fringe players. He compounded the problem by signing many players to contracts that called for three seasons plus an option year.
"I concede that was a mistake," Schmidt said. "We just should have offered some of them the minimum and let them go to the WHA, the way the Islanders did. When we got the chance for some quality players, the money wasn't there."
Prior to the draft, Schmidt agreed to pass up certain players in exchange for future favors. Montreal, in response, sent center Peter Sullivan to the Capitals' training camp.Sullivan was the best center there, butSchmidt Schmidt rejected the necessary $40,000 payment to Montreal and $60,000 contract.
Later, Schmidt obtained defenseman Rod Seiling on waivers from the New York Rangers. Seiling played one game before he and his $150,000 salary were passed on to Toronto.
"We made very poor selections in the expansion draft," Pollin said the other day. "The NHL did not give us much to choose from, but what they did give us, our judgment was poor."
Given the first pick in the amateur draft, Schmidt overruled his scouts and selected defenseman Greg Joly. That young man was introduced as a new Bobby Orr, but he quickly became as disllusioned as the fans. Mike Marson was the Capitals' second choice.
Had Schmidt been more astute, he might have chosen Clark Gillies, as the scouts recommended, and Bryan Trottier, who was taken by the New York Islanders after Marson's selection.
In picking a first coach, Schmidt went to Chicago and asked to negotiate with Bobby Kromm, the successful boss of the Black Hawks' Dallas farm team. Chicago General Manager Tommy Ivan refused permission, unless Schmidt would first guarantee Kromm the job. Schmidt, unwilling to give such blanket assurance because he had no idea of Kromm's contract demands, instead turned to Jimmy Anderson, a scout for the Boston Bruins.
Anderson was a likeable fellow but he was unable to handle the free spirits Schmidt turned over to him. The club had a 4-45-5 record when Anderson was finally cut loose. Chief scout Red Sullivan took over, because Schmidt was the only other possibility and Sullivan wanted to spare his boss the grief.
Anderson now is a scout for the Vancouver Caucks and he is not surprised that five years later the Capitals are still floundering.
"I'm not surprised one bit," Anderson said. "They were in too much of a hurry. They should have kept me. We weren't doing too badly when i was there. We were just coming on.
"They put too much pressure on kids like Joly and Marson. They wanted them to be superstars right away and they just couldn't do it with all the fanfare and the press writeups. But the worst thing was the way they kept changing people. They'd have been better off if they'd kept Milt, Lefty and Red."
Sullivan lasted only 19 games, of which Washington won two. With his health suffering, he turned the reins over to Schmidt. Sullivan resumed his scouting role and it was only last summer that he was dismissed by the Capitals. He now works for the NHL's Central Scouting.
In addition to their other problems, the Capitals through the years have been struck by an incredible run of injuries. In only one season, 1975-76, have they been hit with fewer the 240 lost man games.
The list of disabling injuries is incredible, and includes Joly (twice), Jim Hrycuik, Willy Brossart, Blair Stewart (three times), Ace Bailey, Mike Lampman, Yvon Labre (twice), Jack Lynch, Bill Riley, Rick Green, Pete Scamurra, Greg Polis, Ryan Walter, Bob Sirois, Dennis Maruk, Paul MacKinnon and Pierre Bouchard.
"They're the toughest-luck hockey club I've ever run into as far as injuries are concerned," Sullivan said.
The Capitals were unlucky as well in that the 1974 draft eligibles included 19 and 18-year-old players during the first two rounds, as well as the normal 20-year-olds. That meant the best draftees of 1975 and 1976 were already playing in the NHL when it came time for the Capitals to exercise their first choice.
In 1975, Schmidt traded that No. 1 pick to philadelphia for Bill Clement and Don McLean. Then, with philadelphis's first-round pick, he chose Alex Forsyth, a center who was to play one game in the NHL.
By December of year two, with Washington's record of 3-28-5 almost mirroring year one, Schmidt was bounced and replaced by two men, General Manager Max McNab and Coach Tom McVie.
McVie's record in the next 2 1/2 seasons was 49-122-33, yet he is revered by some in these parts because the team at least showed some effort.
McVie, besides sweating his players into condition, persuaded McNab to get rid of Clement, the team captain, who was dealt to Atlanta the day before the Capitals snapped that 25-game winless steak.
"I was trying to get guys to be proud of the fact that they were Washington Capitals and all I ever heard from Billy Clement was 'That's the way it was done in Philadelphia,'" said McVie, now coach of the Winnipeg Jets. "That was a big problem the whole time I was in Washington, trying to make Capitals out of players who came from somewhere else.
Guy Charron and Rick Green joined the club for year three and McVie whipped and harangued the Capitals up the ladder. Afterward, there was expectation of another big leap forward when Robert Picard arrived for year four. It never happened.
The 20-game winless streak dampened everyone's spirits and not even CVie could extract more emotion from his whipped charges. There was dissatisfaction with McVie's handling of youngsters like Green and Picard, and his departure at year's end was considered likely.
instead, Pollin bounced McVie two days before the 1978-79 season started, with Belisle called in to pick up the pieces.
"We obviously needed more talent, but it wasn't until I was fired that they started to make some deals," McVie said.
Maruk and Michel Bergeron were the immediate additions, which provided Belisle with one good scorer and one problem. Later, goalie Gary Inness was acquired when Indianapolis folded its WHA franchise and he was the catalyst in a remarkable 7-4-1 January that made playoff hopes a possibility. However, after playing 21 games in a row, Innes tired and the team wound up out of the money again.
That merger money was put to good use, as McNab corralled draftees Mike Gartner and Errol Rausse, Swede Bengt Gustafsson, Finn Antero Lehtonen, WHA reclaim Paul MacKinnon and goalie Wayne Stephenson. Once again, optimism reigned as year six opened.
An unfavorable schedule, injuries and Belisle's mistakes soon led to a 4-10-2 start and once again it was revolving-door time for the coach. Pollin canned Belisle ad called on Green, only 26 but a positive thinker who has thus far impressed Pollin, players and fans.
"I think this season is salvageable," Pollin said. "The season opened in a disapointing manner and I didn't want it to go down the drain. I didn't feel we were reaching out potential, considering the talent we have here."
Pollin still thinks, despite five-plus years of artistic failure and a steady decline in attendance, that Washington has a hockey future.
"It's a good hockey market," Pollin insisted. "The best indicator was last year during a short spurt, when people were coming into the building in great numbers. People want to be shown we have a good, competitive hockey team.
"After 2 1/2 years, we were at a minus level and we've been trying to recover ever since."