Feet spread, shoulders straight, back ramrod stiff, Roger Crozier stood by the ice at Fort DuPont. He folded his arms and said, "As of now, I'm in charge." Very Al Haig-ish. And insiders at the Capital Centre say Crozier is the fire-eater driven by ambition who may be the tough boss Gary Green and Max McNab never could be.
As McNab's assistant general manager, Crozier was said to be "frustrated" as much as a year ago, according to sources. The frustration was born of repeated refusals by McNab and Green to accept Crozier's suggestions regarding personnel and tactics.
Not by accident did Crozier survive yesterday's housecleaning at Capital Centre. After firing McNab, Green and Assistant Coach Bill Mahoney, owner Abe Pollin named Crozier acting general manager and acting coach. Crozier, 39, one of hockey's all-time great goaltenders with Detroit until retirement four seasons ago, reportedly survived because Pollin bought Crozier's thesis that the Capitals needed something done, right now.
Crozier believes the Capitals are a .500 team, or 80 points in the standings. That doesn't sound like much, except only nine of the NHL's 21 teams reached 80 last season. But when Crozier sits in the press box and watches the Capitals, he sees that nice talent "just not going in the same direction."
Crozier said Max McNab and Gary Green are "great people" and he has "the utmost respect" for Green. Nothing worse you can say about a coach, though, than that his players have talent without direction. That is saying the coach has lost control. Pollin refuses to talk to the press, and so we must read the tea leaves of events -- and the lesson of yesterday's events seems to be that Pollin shares Crozier's belief this team was out of Gary Green's control.
Maybe. A former Capital said the team's young guys sensed a reluctance by veterans to pay attention to Green, who at 28 has been transformed from Boy Wonder to Another Ex-Cap Coach. "I hated Tommy McVie," the old Capital said. "But I also lived in fear of him. There wasn't that fear of Gary Green, and a hockey coach can't survive without it."
So goodbye, Gary. And Green became the sixth Capitals' coach fired during a season. He is the first fired so abruptly that Pollin didn't have a replacement waiting in the lobby. It must have hurt Pollin deeply, because he spoke of Green as a precocious son on hiring him two years ago and he liked McNab so much he kept the general manager at work long after other NHL organizations would have dumped him.
This would have been Green's second full season, McNab's sixth. The hockey team still is adrift. The current 11-game losing streak is an aberration, certainly, but also an undeniable dramatization of all the Capitals' woes. Any general manager who in six full seasons produces a team that loses 11 straight games ought to be shipped out. And any coach who talks about finishing as high as 10th must expect the ax when he begins a season 1-12.
It is true, too, that when a coach is fired, it isn't really the owner who did it; it is the players.
These Capitals fired Gary Green by playing miserably. They produced 70 points last year, only a point out of the playoffs and only eight points from 10th place in a 21-team league. With the addition of their No. 1 draft choice and the No. 3 in all of hockey, Bobby Carpenter, the Capitals figured to be a nice enough team.
Instead, they became a laughingstock. "Handi-Caps," a bed-sheet banner called them. Fewer than 8,000 people came to the 19,000-seat Capital Centre the other night to see Minnesota, the Stanley Cup runner-up. Pollin's pockets are deep, but not so deep he can sustain poor attendance for the Capitals as well as his woebegone Bullets.
He was forced into a move to convince the paying customers he wouldn't abide a losing situation indefinitely.
You can't fire 20 players who aren't paying attention to a coach recognized, as Green is, as a brilliant hockey theoretician.
You fire the coach and the general manager because they were unable to create players who win.
Crozier doesn't want the coach's job. He wants to be general manager, though, and as the big boss he would have a strong hand in reshaping players' attitudes. The picture insiders paint of Crozier is that he wouldn't so much gently reshape players as bend them over his knee.
Maybe they need to be spanked. Maybe Gary Green gave them too much credit. He expected them to be professionals answering to their own pride. When he used a blackboard to teach theory, he expected each man to pay attention not because Green was the coach but because the player could improve himself. A veteran, seeing Green's blackboard one day, rolled his eyes in exasperation.
If Green were too much the teacher, with the students goofing off, someone asked Crozier, "Does this team need a tyrant instead?"
Crozier laughed out loud. "I don't think a tyrant is going to solve any problems here," he said.
Then, again militarily stern, Crozier said, "But somebody has to come in and gain the respect of the players."