When Ryan Walter is gliding about Capital Centre jabbing the Stanley Cup over his head in a few years and owner Abe Pollin is hugging Coach Bryan Murray the way he did Wes Unseld June 7, 1978, in Seattle, I will be delighted to eat what follows. With bearnaise sauce, please.
Murray may prove to be the greatest coach in the history of his sport, hockey's Vince Lombardi. Even those of us wildly indifferent about the NHL wish him luck. But Pollin might as well have chosen Eddie Murray or Bill Murray as the Capitals' new coach yesterday for all the impact it made.
We were expecting more, somebody who had at least made a ripple in the NHL instead of another greenhorn from Hershey. On Veterans Day, Pollin predicted a guy he met just Tuesday, a coach with only one season of even minor-league experience, would "turn this franchise around."
Instead of breaking silence, Pollin might have been more advised to break precedent. Here is another energetic fellow getting on-the-job training rather than a coach who has shown he belongs behind an NHL bench -- another example of trying to win as cheaply as possible.
Pollin's avoiding the press has not been a problem here. As he said before introducing Murray, there was little he could offer, anyway. As that implied, his Capital record would have drowned out his words. Until now, he is a master builder unable to play pickup sticks at hockey.
Better to show us than to talk to us. The Capitals have been enough public embarrassment for him to endure. Pollin apologized again yesterday and emphasized what has been known for some time, that the Capitals and Bullets might be sold but will remain in Washington because they are tied to the financing of Capital Centre. His insistence on being "physically and fiscally in good shape" suggests the building that earns a tidy profit is not for sale.
All Pollin could be was what he was: honest. Painfully so. He admitted the Capitals have been the "major disappointment and the major failure of my business career." He flogged himself as wickedly as anyone could. Correctly, he applauded himself for bringing an NBA title to Washington three years ago and hinted that maintaining that level forever is almost humanly impossible; he did not add that failing to make the NHL playoffs in the Capitals' seven-year history is nearly as tough.
Pollin is an easy, if unappealing, target. One of his reasons for not hiring a Don Cherry, or someone with a history of success in the NHL, was that he does not consider this season lost, that the playoffs still are possible. Pollin said a new man would take two or three weeks to be comfortable with the Capitals, and that might be long enough to assure another playoff-less record.
Fine. Then he said the search for a general manager to replace Max McNab would continue, that Roger Crozier still was the interim and also a candidate. Let's say the best man available is not Crozier, and he disagrees with Murray's methods and player evaluation. Instead of two weeks, the Capitals might be two years behind.
Pollin need look no farther than Redskin Park, to Bobby Beathard and Jack Pardee, to realize the potential problem of hiring a coach before a general manager. Abe's hockey savvy does not qualify him to break ties between a strong-minded coach and GM.
"Believe it or not, I met this man yesterday for the first time," Pollin said of Murray. Believe it or not, Abe, we believe it. Of the 100 or so candidates, Pollin said he interviewed two. Cherry was the other.
"He had some conditions I was troubled with, or was concerned about," Pollin said of Cherry. "He wanted sort of a Billy Martin-type condition here, where he would be in total control. I was concerned about it, for the Washington Capitals at this time. And told him so."
But why not hire a Billy Martin type? Why not hire some proven wizard and let him, within reason, run the team as long as he promises not to clobber marshmallow salesmen?
"That was considered," Pollin said. "But this guy really impressed me."
He meant Murray.
"I spent 2 1/2 hours with this man," Pollin said. "I'm a people person. I go with what my heart tells me and what my gut tells me. My gut tells me that Bryan Murray's the guy that's gonna bring the Capitals out of their doldrums."
The whips and chains, or whatever Murray plans to use to accomplish this, were not evident. He seemed tame enough in a stylish, rust-colored sport coat, and did not make the building quake when he spoke. The players seem to love him, although that sort of endorsement should not be weighed as heavily as it apparently did with Pollin. Players usually love someone they think can be conned. Besides, what do guys with their record of futility know about hockey?
There were the predictable jabs at the fired coach, Gary Green. When somebody said there were a few Capitals not in condition, Murray said there were more. He insisted they will skate to his tune, and that their game-long style will be rock 'n roll.
Be mean or be gone.
Among Washingtonians, there is the general attitude that the woodwind section of the National Symphony hits harder than the Capitals. To his new players, Murray will say, in effect: gentlemen, start your bodies.
But are these bodies able to win regularly even if an injection of whatever drives Conrad Dobler were possible? Are the Capitals lazy thoroughbreds waiting to be prodded, or willing donkeys who do not belong on hockey's major track? The man mainly responsible for selecting the Capitals the last six years, McNab, also was fired.
So what have we learned from yesterday? That Pollin does not seem any more driven to improve his Bullets any sooner than conventional means allow and that men with little background in hockey still will decide with him who manages his Capitals. He did give Murray the chance to break in against a team the Capitals can beat, Pittsburgh. Or can they?
Even when Pollin accepts the stiffest inquisition, however, we leave with more questions than we came, questions only time can answer.