Monday night, the Washington Capitals gamboled at the annual team Christmas party, reliving Sundays, victory over Philadelphia and looking ahead to a happy new year as an NHL, playoff team.
Just about then, Greg Polis was driving across the Canadian border, trading his American U-Haul trailer for the Canadian version and starting wife Llewellyn and their three children on the final leg of the long journey from Bowie, Md., to Prince George, British Columbia -- and oblivion.
At age 30, Polis has nothing to celebrate. He is finished as a hockey player and, unlike others who were forced out by injury and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance payments, Polis is guaranteed only $30,000, half this year and half next, in settlement of his contract with the Washington Capitals. He is involved in legal proceedings to try to obtain a further $60,000 from Washington, but he is not hopeful of success.
"Even if I get the full year, I'm finished," Polis said. "I've just turned 30 and I've got nothing to look forward to except a pension starting when I'm 45. I have two mortgages to pay -- I couldn't sell my house in Bowie, I have no concrete plans for the future. I just want to try to get some semblance of normality. I've been in limbo since training camp. I'm completely disillusioned and a little bit bitter."
Some of the bitterness is derived from the belief, pretty well substantiated by the facts, that while he endured a torturous rehabilitation program this summer, the Capitals had nothing more in mind than having him certified fit so that they could save $60,000 on his contract.
Polis had his moments of glory in the NHL. He was a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1970 and, in his second season, he recorded 30 goals. In 1973, he won a car as the most valuable player in the NHL All-Star Game, when he scored two goals in New York.
From there, it was mostly downhill. Polis bounded to St. Louis and then to the New york Rangers, where he suffered a disabling knee injury that required two operations. In early 1979, the desperate Capitals spent $100 to see if Polis had anything left.
"One game after I came here, I could see the potential of going places," Polis said. "This is the best city I ever played in. My wife and I loved it here. But now I can't get over this feeling of being cheated."
In 19 games, Polis collected 12 goals. In a victory over his old team, the Rangers, he scored on an end-to-end rush that was probably the most dramatic goal in the Capitals' seven-year history. Then, in Vancouver, he was hit near the same right knee that had been so cruelly smashed in New York.
A Vancouver physician diagnosed stretched ligaments. The knee was taped up and Polis returned to the ice. He could barely stand, much less skate. The next morning, he asked his roommate, Guy Charron, to carry his bag to the team bus. He used crutches upon leaving the team plane in Washington.
Yet the next day Polis was trying to skate at Capital Centre. He says he was told to participate in stress tests and refused. After an aborted skate the next day, he was sent for X-rays and it was discovered that he had a broken tibia, just below the suspect knee. In effect, he had been walking for four days on a broken leg.
The leg was placed in a cast and pronounced fit. No X-rays were taken, however, in part because Polis returned to his home in Prince George without reporting for his final appointment with orthopedic surgeon P. M. Palumbo Jr.
In the fall of 1979, Polis complained of pain and swelling in his leg. It was diagnosed as knee trouble and the knee was drained. After a month of ineffective play, Polis was sent to Hershey for two weeks. Returning to Washington, he experienced difficulty climbing the stairs to the practice rink at Fort Dupont.
In january, Polis went back to Hershey. The leg was X-rayed -- for the first time since the original break, Polis claims -- and it was found that the original hairline fracture of the tibia, with a one-sixteenth-inch displacement, had become a half-inch split, surrounded by scar tissue. Another operation was performed, with the bone held together with a metal screw. Polis was in a cast 13 weeks.
The leg surgery required incisions at the same point as the earlier knee operations and Polis developed arthritis in the joint. Nevertheless, he attempted a comeback, playing handball six days a week, running seven or eight miles a day and working hard on the weights in the Nautilus room at Whitemarsh Country Club in Bowie.
The rehabilitation was so effective Polis' right leg, during testing at training camp, registered a maximum thrust of 384. Although Polis skated with the A group in camp, he was not selected for the trip to Sweden and, at season's start, he was assigned to Hershey. He played well in his first two games there and, summoned to Washington thought he was being promoted. Instead, he was told the club was invoking the clause of all players' contracts in which they can be paid off at one-third their remaining contractual salary, with half this year and half the next.
"Greg was as good as we had in Hershey," said Capital General Manager Max McNab. "We had no complaints about his performance. But we had Torrie Robertson in the back of our minds -- he was a key man, to come up in case of injury. And (Errol) Rausse was getting better and Lou Franceschetti and (Gary) Rissling were possible.
"Greg was in position of being the third man up. That's why we put him on waivers. Other players had moved in ahead of him. When we sent him down, we thought it might take him a while to get the leg in shape, but he showed something sooner and anybody in need at that time might take him on waivers and give him a better chance. There was not much chance with our organization."
Not surprisingly, with the widespread doubts about his fitness, Polis cleared waivers, even at a $100 price tag. He might have stayed in Washington as a fourth left wing on nights Coach Gary Green dressed four full lines -- that training-camp tatics having been abandoned when Robertson was demoted at season's start. Instead, the club chose to save money.
Polis had a clause in his contract, signed here after the 1979 season, that guaranteed full payment, if he was unable to play because of injury. He claims that because of the arthritic condition in his knee joint, he is unable to play. He says his opinion was rendered by William Liebler, team physician of the Rangers.
However, citing his good play in Hershey, his leg-thrust score and a certification of fitness by Palumbo, the Capitals have refused to pay the extra $60,000. As a result, the two physicians are being asked to agree on a third man to decide the impasse.
"I have no comment. That is confidential between Greg and me," Liebler said.
Palumbo has failed to return numerous phone calls in the past week.
Peter O'Malley, who is handling the legal aspects of Polis' contract, also refused to comment, on the grounds that the matter was in litigation.
It was learned from team sources, however, that the club has furnished the names of four prominent area surgeons as a tie breaker, all of which were rejected by Larry Rauch, Polis' agent. In turn, the team rejected four names furnished by Rauch. Now both parties are waiting for Liebler and Palumbo to agree on another.
Polis remained in Bowie almost two months, seeking a settlement of the dispute, then last week he finally departed, in hope of reaching Prince George by Christmas.
"It's almost as though they're trying to stall," Polis said. "I've been sitting around for two months, but they won't agree on a third doctor. I wasn't going to say a thing, just go home and hope for the best, but I finally decided I had to open my mouth. There are too many things that just aren't right here. I owe it to the other guys to say something.
"Players are always afraid to complain because they're afraid they'll be put of a blacklist. My gut feeling was that I always wanted to play and you know if you say anything against management no other team will touch you. I always thought I could overcome my injuries.
"Now it makes me feel like a second-rater, going out like this. I don't feel I got proper medical attention when I was here and now I'm finished because of it. I walked around for four days on a broken leg the first time, because it wasn't diagnosed properly, and who knows the second time -- I may have skated for three months with the bone split."
"We try to give as sound a treatment as is humanly possible," McNab said. "The injury factor has been big, but they have also been big injuries.
"This is a tough business at best of times. You don't always do what you want to do from the heart. If we were filling the building, maybe we could have carried him for a year in Hershey."