Ryan Walter dropped by to meet David Poile the day the Capitals' new general manager came aboard. Poile thought Walter's gesture was typically classy of the team captain. But something was wrong.
Walter said the right things. The Capitals would win. They'd make the playoffs. There was hope reborn. Poile is only 34, a rookie general manager. Everything Walter said a rookie GM would want to hear. This was the Capitals' most valuable player, a 38-goal scorer, the symbol of the team in its city. And Walter told Poile he saw hope reborn.
Poile heard the words. But the message he received had nothing to do with words spoken bravely. The message from Walter came by body language, by tone, by attitude.
"Frustration was oozing out of him," Poile said today.
The next day came a phone call from Montreal's general manager, Irving Grundman, who called to congratulate Poile on his new job. Whatever Poile is, he is bold. He proved that by taking the Capitals' job in the first place. On the phone with the representative of hockey's lordly Canadiens, Poile was so bold as to say the Capitals needed defensive help and did Montreal want to talk about a trade?
As Poile knew from the league's grapevine, the Canadiens coveted Ryan Walter. After maybe six hours of negotiation over a week, the deal was done: Montreal traded four players, including two all-star defensemen, for Walter and Rick Green.
Then the new general manager's duty was to report to the team's owner that he had traded away the favorite player of an owner who grows fond of his athletes. As recounted today by Poile, that conversation with Abe Pollin went this way:
Rookie GM: "Mr. Pollin, we've traded Ryan Walter to Montreal."
Owner: (Silence. Then, more silence.)
Rookie GM: "Are you there?"
Owner, in a tone suggesting this better be good: "Well, who'd we get for him?"
An 80-game schedule will render final judgment on Poile's deal. "We're being positive, and it looks good on paper, but we still have to play some games," Poile said. He knocked on the wood of the lunch table. Four times at lunch today, Poile knocked on wood as protection against having put too many of his hopes and expectations into words.
He hopes to win. He expects to make the playoffs. He hopes to have Capitals fans so thrilled they'll come to their feet Oct. 9 when the Flyers come to Capital Centre. He expects the Canadiens imports to bring an aura of victory to a franchise intimate with defeat.
David Poile is excited about the Capitals in a way no one in the Capitals' organization has been excited for years.
Poile hasn't been trapped in the avalanches of melancholy that seem to roar down on the Capitals every winter.
He has seen those avalanches only from a safe distance. As assistant general manager of the Calgary Flames, Poile recognized the Capitals as a good offensive team with terminal defensive deficiencies.
"They'd always go into a long losing streak," Poile said of the Capitals of yore. "Every team has a slump, but the Capitals would go right out the window."
So Poile made it his first priority to correct the defensive problems that rendered the Capitals vulnerable to losing streaks that spread the rot of negativism. Offense is nice, but defense wins night after night. The day he started work 24 days ago, Poile searched for defenders.
This is true hope, not wishful thinking. After last season's 1-11 start that cost Gary Green his coaching job and Max McNab the general manager's job, the Capitals under Coach Bryan Murray played two games under .500. Such a team, even without Walter and Green, is greatly improved by the addition of the four Canadiens.
Mike Gartner, the Capitals' brilliant winger, was Walter's roommate. "They were like brothers," Poile said. "Mike told me he was upset about the trade the first day, but then he realized we needed to do it. He said he and Ryan can still be friends. He's really high right now. I think he'll score 50 goals this season."
Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin have shown none of the sulky/pouty symptoms often associated with big winners traded down to big losers.
"They don't see it that way," Poile said. "They see Washington as a team on the way up . . . Langway and Engblom have bought homes in Washington. That's a good sign. A commitment."
Poile has a commitment, too.
"My mandate is to get in the playoffs or my job is in jeopardy," Poile said, revealing Pollin's standards for the rookie general manager and, most likely, the second-year coach. "I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't expect to get in the playoffs."
The first week, Poile decided with Murray to dump goaltender Mike Palmateer, a third wheel in the net who wouldn't get enough time to justify an estimated $250,000 salary. The net belonged to Dave Parro and Pat Riggin. Poile was building a defense.
He also is building an idea.
Palmateer had been trapped in the avalanches, suffocating in defeat. Because it is no fun to be around an unhappy third wheel reminding you of how unhappy you ought to be, Poile traded away Palmateer.
"Only Mike Gartner and Dennis Maruk have been on this team two full seasons," Poile said. "That's what I told the team up here. There is no losing tradition here, because nobody has been here that long."
One thing more. The first week on the job, Poile talked to the team's trainer.
"He told me everything that was wrong with this organization," Poile said, explaining why he then fired the fellow.
And now, Poile said, the Capitals have a new trainer who thinks it is exciting to be here.