Gary Green, the coach of the Washington Capitals, was sitting at a hotel bar in Boston, drinking ginger ale and talking about suicide.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the teams the Caps had to pass in order to qualify for the National Hockey League playoffs, had tied the Chicago Black Hawks. Green's father, watching the game at home on television in Canada and waiting for his son to call (four times during dinner), reports that four of the Hawks' best players have taken the evening off for a little rest and recreation, although it was later found out they were hurt.
Anyway, Toronto gains a point and Green has thoughts about the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. "In February, I went to the bridge and was all set to jump when this little old lady in a rickety old truck comes by and says, 'Don't do it, Sonny,'" Green says deadpan.
"And I said, "Why not? The Caps haven't won in 13 games and we're supposed to make the playoffs and even my dog won't even talk to me anymore.'
"And the little old lady said, 'I'm your fairy godmother. If you take me out tonight, I'll take care of everything.'
"I got in the truck and I took her out and then I said, 'So, now the Caps will make the playoffs, right?'
"'How old are you?' she replied'"
"'And you still believe in fairy godmothers?'"
It is the last day of the season, and the Caps still believe in fairy godmothers. Despite the self-destructive tendencies they have exhibited from time to time this season, they may yet make the playoffs.
Last year, the Caps waited until the last game of the season before being eliminated. This year, they reworked the myth of the Greek hero Sisyphus, the poor soul who was condemned for eternity to rolling a rock up the side of a mountain, only to have it roll back down. Give that guy a jersey. He could skate for the Caps.
It has been a trying season.
"We're trying all the time," said defenseman Alan Hangsleben. "And God only knows, we've been trying to the public, our friends, our families and ourselves."
This year, it was supposed to be easy. None of this fighting for the 16th spot, the NHL's annual charity drive for less-fortunate franchises. "It's embarrassing," Bob Kelly said.
This was the year, Ryan Walter said, that the Caps would go over "the proverbial hill."
What does a proverbial hill look like this late in the season? Is it a big hill? A small hill? a mountain or a molehill?
"Six years ago, it was 5,000 feet," Walter said. "Now, it's just down to a hill. If i had picture of it, I'd tell you."
You cannot visualize what has been internalized.
That is part of the Caps' problem. Last year, after the season, Walter went to Green and said, "Everyone says I'm a winner. I'll do almost anything to win, short of knowingly hurting someone. My last year in juniors, I missed the playoffs. The first year under (former Cap Coach Danny) Belisle we missed the playoffs. For my own peace of mind, I need to know, how much longer can you continue to lose and not say, 'You're a loser."
Green, the psychologist-coach, said, "The effect when we made it, mentally, is that it breaks that ice, the barrier that's always there. If I had to visualize it, it would be a sheet of ice standing up, right in front of our nose.We're right up against it. Our eyebrows are touching it.
"You can't walk through it. You can't bang your nose on it. You can't slide under it. You can't do anything else but take one hell of a run at it."
The thing is, Green says, not many of the Caps have "been on the other side." Kelly, who scored the power-play goal that beat the Bruins Thursday night, has been there. So has Jean Provonost. "Wally (Walter) hasn't. Dennis (Maruk) hasn't. I don't know about Hank (Hangsleben)."
"I want them to do it so badly," Green said. "Even if it is just 16th place. It will do so much for them just knowing that they can accomplish something."
Kelly, the "Hound," who knows how to smell a winner after 10 years with the Philadelphia Flyers, said, "To get to the NHL, somewhere you had to have been a winner; you had to have had that feeling, even if it was once in Little League. There is a base in childhood and you go back and draw on it."
But for many of the Caps, there has been little to draw on except an impending feeling of inevitable failure. Uh, oh, here we go again.
So, instead, they draw solace in motivational mantras. Adversity builds character .
Right now, the Caps have so much character, they could put Central Casting out of business.
If you can look at yourself in the mirror and say you did your best . . .
If the Caps looked at themselves in the mirror nearly as often as they say they do, they'd be modeling for the Eileen Ford Agency.
It's like a train that gets derailed and you just have to get back on track .
The team is like the Little Engine That Could. "I think I can, I think I can," said Hangsleben.
It began last October in Colorado, when defenseman Paul Mackinnon injured his knee. Last year, in Colorado, the Caps lost three defensement in one game. "Between periods, I said, 'How can this be,'" Green said. "But I had to catch myself. I knew what the players were thinking."
You can imagine what they were thinking in February, when they went 13 straight games without a victory, and slid from 11th in the standings to 17th. "It was like putting on your underwear and finding out they weren't there," said Kelly.
Mike Gartner, who has been with the Caps long enough (two seasons) to observe the psychology but not to adopt it, said, "You could almost see it happen. Everyone looks back over the last seven years, and it's the same old thing. That's one attitude that has to be changed on this team, a choking attitude.I could sense it in some players. I'm not saying it as a bad thing. It's just they've gone through it three or four or five years, and they're saying, 'Oh, no, here we go again.'"
Rick Green says he had no premonition about an impending disaster. "Maybe I can cope with this a little better than some of the other guys because I've been through it before. Whatever is meant to be is going to happen."
Being a Cap for five years can make you a fatalist. It can also make you lose sleep and, perhaps, some hair. "I would say it has speeded up the process a little," Green said.
"In February, we needed a shoulder the size of Paul Bunyan's and a hanky the size of a table cloth," Hangsleben said. "I was cold. Rabid. Distant. I would jump at any little thing, I was so far out of contact with the rest of the world.
"We felt like the world was against us," Hangsleben said. "Very paranoid. We didn't know what the hell we could do differently. We tried everything."
In fact, they say, they tried to do too much: trying to make the playoffs and to keep their jobs; there will be changes if they don't make it, they say. "You hate to think you played the whole season for a high draft pick," Kelly said.
They were as tight as the strings on Itzak Perlman's violin. "We were a basket case," said Hangsleben. "Going to the rink was drudgery."
"The thing is inbred," said Hangsleben. "You're not supposed to say anything about your inner feelings. That's why, at the end of the season, when we unwind, we really unwind. The girlfriends and wives wonder what's going on. You're not out running around. We're not our real selves. Hockey players are supposed to be macho. They don't show hurt or pain."
Not even the mental kind, and the mental part, Kelly says, is 80 percent of hockey. "You don't play the game," Hagsleben said. "The game plays you."
One day, Walter called his parents (something several of the players had begun to do) and his father asked if he was having fun. He said, "If you're not having fun, you're not going to play good hockey." His son, the captain, repeated that to his teammates in a team meeting. And, since then, he says, they have been having fun.
No one quit. Not even the guys like Guy Charron, who has been with the Caps since 1976 but who was left behind when they left for the final trip of the season. "We practice on our own. I want to work hard, in case I get the call, which I think is doubtful. It's hard to cope with. I know the guys say I'm part of it, but still it's hard to feel that way."
Nonetheless, after the Caps finally beat the Bruins in Boston Thursday, a victory that meant they would not be dead on arrival in New York, Charron could not fall asleep.
Although he was back in Washington, he was not alone. After the game Maruk sat in his long johns, smiling into a towel."It's going to take a long time to come down from this one," he said.
And it did. Maruk was up at 6 the next morning, "telling me about his goal again," Kelly said.
And, as usual, Walter was one of the last out of the locker room. He sait in his soaking uniform, soaking up the victory, with a smile the size of a hockey puck spread across his face. "That" he said, "was your proverabial mountain."