It took Madison Avenue 13 hours to produce what the Washington Capitals needed seven years to achieve: sex appeal.
The people behind Sasson jeans, who want nothing to come between them and their sales, picked the Caps as their answer to Brooke Shields. They arrived at Capital Centre one day last week at 8 a.m. with 4,000 feet of film and a cooler of beer to shoot a 30-second commercial with Ryan Walter, Mike Gartner, Paul Mulvey and Pierre Bouchard.
"It's easier to sing and dance that way at 8 a.m.," said Audrey Nizen, director of advertising for Sasson.
While the crew turned the ice into a makeshift studio, and make-shift studio, and make-shift cheerleaders, including Miss World-U.S.A., primped, Paul Guez, president of Sasson, tutored the players on their lines. "Not Sassoooooon," he said , "Sa-sson. Sasson. Oo-la-la Sa-sson."
The players stood at the blueline, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip. The idea was for them to rush the bright, red plastic Sasson insignia lying on the ice in the crease, and then pivot to show the matching insignias hugging their hips. "All right, guys, come on down," the director yelled for the 20th time.
The players rushed down the ice as if on a breadaway, crooning "oo-la-la," and aiming a perfectly timed hip check at the camera. Bouchard, giving it special oomph, ripped the belt loops form his pants. As he bent over for repairs, one of the cheerleaders sighed, "Oo-la-la Pierre."
Suddenly, the Caps have that unmistakable something. "Washington is hot," Nizen said. "We're selling sex appeal. We picked them because they're young, single, sexy."
Last year, Sasson used the New York Rangers to hustle its denim. At first, Nizen was skeptical about dealing with hockey players. "I saw 'Slapshot.' I thought, 'they're goons and jerks,'" she said. "Buy they are the nicest guys in the world. . . You get candor and personality you can't get from other teams. You can't use football and baseball players anymore. They're overexposed."
That has never been a problem for the Caps. But, as Andre Garieby, a friend of Bouchard's, put it, "The Redskins are dying, the Dips are folding and the Bullets have only one way to go -- down. There's only one team in Washington that's upcoming now."
The Capitals, despite their annual holiday injury spree, are playing .500 hockey, and should qualify for the playoffs for the first time. CBS News is planning a Sunday morning feature on Coach Gary Green. ABC News filmed the Caps filming their first national commercial, which marketing director Tom Hipp says is a breakthrough for the club. "It legitimizes the value of the franchise," said Hipp.
"It's something we have to do to bring hockey out of the dark ages," said Walter, 22.
It also may melt the sterotype of the hockey player that has been frozen in the heart of this fair-weather city for seven years: a big, dumb, guy with not many teeth and not much to say but "eh."
"I met an awful lot of people who fit that description," said Rick Smith, who has played 15 years in the NHL and WHA. "When I came up, only those who couldn't go on in school became hockey players. The NHL was supplied totally by juniors and the juniors frowned on education. Now college players are coming in. And with the big money (the average NHL salary is $108,000) more intelligent people are staying in the game."
Still the image persists. "The classic line," Walter says, "is someone says, 'Hey, Ryan, what do you think?' and the answer is, 'I don't get paid to think.'"
Of the 24 on the roster, over half are married or engaged; two are college graduates, Alan Hangsleben and Smith; one is American, Hangsleben; none is a Washingtonian. They like hunting, fishing, golf, tennis, racquetball and beer. Most go home to Canada in the summer.
"About one-third are family men and spend their free time with them," said Green. "One-third structure their time with classes, visiting the sights, rehabilitation therapy. Another half-dozen, their way of relaxing as bachelors, if they don't want to go home and watch the soaps, they might relax at their favorite night spot, and have quite a few beers. . . It doesn't bother me, as long they pick the right time to do it, and I have confidence they'll pick the right time. Today (the day before a game) is not the day to tie one on."
By 2 p.m. the lunch crowd at Faunsworth's is paying up as 14 of the players are coming in. They eat together at a table set aside in the back room, talking about upcoming opponents and hunting trips. A waitress approaches two customers sitting across the room. "Maybe you better go inside," she says. "I'm going to be tied up for awhile."
Players drift in and out. A few linger late into the afternoon. The wooden shutters are closed. Hats commemorating Capital hat tricks and some of the sticks that scored them adorn the ceiling. Colonial prints surround reproduction colonial mantelpiece. The bricks are real, but the fireplace is not. Once living ferns, which were taken down and coated with preservative, dangle from the fake wooden beams in the ceiling.
"It is the perfect American 'rec' room," said Garieby.
The Caps own the joint in Prince George's County, a half-mile from Capital Centre. It could be anywhere and so could they. Their lives are organized around the artificial imperatives of practice schedules. There is a lot of time to kill in between.
"The life is a strange combination of boredom and intensity," said Lindy Watson, wife of former Capital Bryan Watson."You have to force yourself to do (things). It's tempting just to put your feet up and watch T.V."
A few days later, Hangsleben, 27, is eating lunch at the bar Faunsworth's.
He is wearing a T-shirt with the name of a bar in Hershey, Pa., on it. "I think I fell off a barstool there once," his roommate, Pat Ribble, says.
At the annual Caps' charity auction, Hangsleben and Ribble, also 27, were auctioned off as "two wild and crazy guys." "We know how to use our time wisely," Hangsleben says, smiling.
"On days when you can do it without hurting our game, we let our hair down and go for it," Hangsleben said. "It's kind of hard to go fishing in the wintertime.
"Professional athletes are supposed to be up on a pedestal. But that's a bunch of bull. We're little angels with black wings. If you are a goody two shoes and go home and go to bed after a game, you'd be up 2 1/2 or 3 hours. Your body is still functioning at a fast rate of speed. If you go out and have a couple of beers, you can relax."
Two hours after the Caps came from behind to tie the Minnesota North Stars, 3-3, the palyers are back at a corner table conspicuous as kids in their Sunday best. Pat Benatar's hit single seems to be the only song on the juke box: "Hit me with your best shot/Fire away."
Jim, the manager, brings a round of drinks. "To 49 more ties," he says. The response is as flat as day-old light beer.
Two women, regulars, are perched at the bar, eyeing the women eyeing the men. "For the firt time, this year, there are a lot of groupies," one said. "The best time to come is on a night when there is no game. Tonight they're all wearing their suits and ties and everyone knows who they are."
"Yeah," said her friend, gazing at a woman sitting on Mulvey's lap. "They have their hooks and nets out for them. But the players are real homey. They don't have an aura, an attitude. When it clears out and the women back away, they're just regular guys."
In Montreal, Pierre (Butch) Bouchard, son of Emile (Butch) Bouchard, former captain of the Canadiens, was a part-time player on five Stanley Cup championship teams and a full-time sex symbol. In Washington, a friend arranges for him to meet a woman. Before the introduction, she demands to know, "Does he have all his teeth?"
At lunch one day the friend begins to tease him. "Washington is a good city for you," he says. "There are seven women for every man."
Bouchard sumons his most vulnerable look. "Then somebody must have 14," he says.
He is, of course, kidding; something he manages quite well -- and quite often -- in English, despite his disclaimers. "The women here," he says, laughing, "are more aggressive. They leave notes on your windshield. In Canada, they sit on the hood of your car for three days and hope you notice. After three days, you stop and say, 'Oh, do you live here on the sidewalk?'"
In Washington, they call Bouchard, 32, a man's man. In Montreal, he is reminded they called him a lady's man. He begins to sing: "Thanks for the memories."
When the Canadiens exiled him in 1978, the city went into mourning. He took off a year and ran Pierre Bouchard's Steak House, before deciding he would rather be a bouncer on the ice than off it. His first game as a Capital, in April 1979, was broadcast by Montreal radio.
Because of his demeanor, his name and his connection to hockey tradition, Bouchard should be a natural celebrity in a city that thrives on celebrity power plays. No one knows him. He is surprised when a cop in Annapolis asks him the score.
He says he prefers it this way, except when he has to stand in line at a restaurant, a refined torture for a former restauranteur.
"In Montreal," he said, "I couldn't go shopping. I had to buy everything I tried on. I had three salesmen breathing down my neck. Here, I try it on, and return it if it doesn't fit. In Montreal, they say, 'Who does he think he is?'"
In Montreal, he would not have been able to go house shopping, or furniture shopping. This fall, he purchased a townhouse in Crofton, Md., where several of his teammates and his coach also live. Oh, what a relief anonymity is."Plop, plop, fizz, fizz," he said.
"It is easier for me to say than the others because of my past," he said. "It is like a millionaire can say, 'I don't need the money.'"
The Caps know that no one knows them on K Street. Does it bother them? Not really, they say. Watson, who once played for the Caps, said, "They're trying to be modest when they say they don't need the recognition and enjoy not having it. Having a town turned on helps you play better."
Gartner, 21, said, "My ego does not crave recognition. I know very few hockey players with big egos. We're raised in a different way. Here a football player grows up idolized. In Canada, everybody plays hockey. School sports are not as emphasized. Hockey is played outsied school."
Perhaps because of the nature of the game, perhaps because they are Canadian, perhaps because they have played on a losig team in a city obsessed with winners and football players, the Caps seem less pretentious than other professional atheletes. "We are less spoiled than a lot of atheletes in this country," Bouchard says.
Gartner tells a story about his experience as a second-string quarterback in high school. He was 13, a freshman, and his team was leading, 34-0, when he was sent in with two minutes remaining. He started to call the signals. "'Hut, 21, hut, 21.' My voice cracked. I was so nervous to begin with and then my voice breaks. I was so embarrassed."
Gartner lives with his childhood sweetheart, whom he will marry in June. He doesn't hang around bars much, he says. He prefers to go home and be with her.
Ryan Walter, 22, his friend, linemate and best man, lives nearby in a modern wooden castle called the Skyloft, with the Caps' top draft choice, Darren Veitch, who was sent to the minors Friday. The house is furnished in early bachelor: bench chairs taking the place of easy chairs. Walter is up early squeezing orange juice for his aunt and uncle visiting from Canada.
In his spare time, Walter is taking courses at Prince George's Community College: English and American history. Only the professor knows who he is. He gets As. He is reading John Jakes' Bicentennial series. He says he thinks he was born in the wrong era. "I live the past vicariously through books." he says, pronouncing the word slowly and through a big grin. "I have to throw a big word at you."
He pauses. "By the way," he says, "I hate people who say, 'huh.'"
A young women with an Ivory Soap face, and a sleeping infant in her lap, sat in the concrete stands of the Fort Dupont skating rink in Southeast Washington, watching the men in green, red, yellow and baby blue swirl around the ice like colors on an artist's palette. One man, in green, separated himself from the rest, skated down the ice, and back up against the glass, waving his little finger as he passed.
Carol Smith, 28, who has known her husband, Rick, nine years, was shocked. "The macho image, they do take that seriously," she said "If another team had been here, he wouldn't have acknowledged me once in a game, when we were dating."
During the break in the middle of practice, Smith came up and sat in the stands with his wife and child. "Even last year, I wouldn't be like that," Smith said. "There are taboos about wives at practice, certain formalities of the game. But here's my wife holding my baby, waiting for me. I wanted to make sure they knew I appreciated it."
This has not been just any year for Smith, 32. He is at that point in his career where insecurity, always a part of the game, has become as much a part of hockey as body checking. Five days after Dustin was born, the Bruins traded him to Detroit, which let him go to Washington on waivers. Last week, he broke his finger. His career has become "a game-to-game thing."
The Smiths have rented a house in Annapolis, their third home this fall. "One morning in Detroit," Carol says, "I got up and read in the papers that this guy, who had been sent to the minors and lent us his house, was coming back. He went to a hotel. We went on waivers."
"Everyone has a breaking point," said her husband. "I came very close to mine last month."
He is tired of the travel, the hotels, the spearations from the son who "mesmerizes" him, the control over his time. "The Army and team sports have a similar attitude," he said. "They herd you up like cattle . . . they give a little command and 20 little boys go off like sheep."
He is looking forward to retiring to his marina and cottages in Canada. But it is hard to quit. "There is always the possibility it will be better." b
"Very few," says his wife, "are fortunate enough to bow out gracefully."
Joni Maruk, whose husband, Dennis, has scored 22 goals already this season, remembers the day he was traded to Washington in October 1978. Unlike many women married to professional athletes, Joni Maruk does not use "we" when discussing her husband's career -- except when talking about the year he was shuttled from Cleveland to Minnesota to Washington. "I hadn't seen Dennis in a month," she said. "I drove to Minnesota with my sister, the dog and 50 house plants. About 15 minutes after I got there, he got a call to get on a plane to Washington. We didn't even have time to kiss goodbye.
I sat down and cried. Max (McNab) called and said, 'What do you think of the trade?' He said, 'Get the first plane,' and flew people out to drive the cars back (to Washington). That was the night I got pregnant with Jonathan."
Joni Maruk, a nurse for a College Park obstetrician, is the only working wife on the Capitals. While she works, her husband, the goal-scorer, takes care of Jonathan.
"I'd like her to be home more," he said, watching his son drag a Cleveland Barons stool around the living room in Upper Marlboro. "But I don't mind. She'd be gone in five years, if she had to stay home and clean house every day."
Yeah, some of the guys tease him about it. "No wonder she has to work, she has to live with you." Or, "Can't you support your wife?"
"She doesn't have to work because of the income I make," Maruk said, "but why not?"
Maruk supports his wife in a way that can only be called liberated, or perhaps, radical in the hockey world. Maruk grinned inscrutably under his Fu Manchu at the suggestion. But his response was curtailed by a call of nature.
He lifted his son and headed for the Pampers. "Put it in the article," he said. "I change diapers, too, eh?"