The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bryan ‘Bugsy’ Watson, former Capitals defenseman and Alexandria bar owner, dies at 78

Bryan Watson in 2001.
Bryan Watson in 2001. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Bryan Watson, a gritty NHL defenseman who played three seasons for the Washington Capitals in the 1970s and owned a popular Alexandria bar for many years, died in St. Michaels, Md., on July 8. He was 78.

The cause of death was pneumonia, according to his son, Stephen Watson.

Nicknamed “Bugsy” for his aggressive play, Mr. Watson was only 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, but he stood up to larger players and bigger stars, such as Chicago’s Bobby Hull and Boston’s Bobby Orr. His knack for scrappy play made him one of the most penalized players in league history upon his retirement, as he sported countless stitches, broken noses and black eyes in his 877 National Hockey League games.

“He irritates me,” Hull said of Mr. Watson in a 1966 Sports Illustrated article, after a playoff series in which Watson — then with Detroit — got the best of Hull, at the time the NHL’s top goal scorer.

“Look, you can’t blame Watson for what he does,” Chicago’s Ken Hodge said in a 1966 Sports Illustrated article. “If a guy scores 54 goals, you’ve got to do something to try and stop him. You’ve got to give Watson credit. That’s a pretty good chuck to chew, you know.”

Mr. Watson began his career as a 21-year-old rookie with Montreal in 1963 during the Original Six era, when the NHL had only six teams. The Canadiens, led by superstars Henri Richard and Jean Béliveau, won the Stanley Cup in 1965.

Mr. Watson soon became a hockey journeyman, as trades and expansion drafts sent him to Detroit, Montreal again, Oakland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, back to Detroit, Washington and several minor league teams. Despite his relatively frequent movement, he earned fans’ appreciation in each city due to his hard play. His veteran presence and experience made him Washington’s highest-paid player in 1978, when he had a salary of $110,000.

The Capitals, then one of the league’s newest and worst teams, “didn’t have enough talent,” Mr. Watson told Capitals Outsider in 2014, but he loved the city so much that he made it his home.

In 1983, he partnered with a pizza place called Armand’s in Old Town Alexandria, where he opened a connected bar called the Penalty Box, in homage to his 2,214 career penalty minutes.

Capitals players and members of the Washington Redskins were frequently seen at Mr. Watson’s bar. Mr. Watson was forced to change the name in 1998 after a break in partnership with Armand’s, and named the bar after himself — Bugsy’s.

“It will always be the Penalty Box,” Watson nostalgically told The Washington Post in 2001. He sold the bar in 2013.

Bryan Joseph Watson was born Nov. 14, 1942, in Bancroft, Ontario. His father worked for the county and built a rink for his five kids in the yard. His mother was a homemaker.

In the early 1960s, he played a few seasons in the Ontario Hockey Association with Peterborough, where he was coached by Scotty Bowman, who later became the winningest coach in NHL history.

After retiring from playing, Mr. Watson dabbled in coaching, but his stint as the Edmonton Oilers’ first NHL coach lasted only 18 games. He did, however, get to coach a 19-year-old Wayne Gretzky.

Mr. Watson won a humanitarian award in 1978 for his work with the Special Olympics.

Survivors include his wife of 53 years, the former Lindy Wilson; their two children, Stephen Watson of New Orleans and Lisa Watson of Los Angeles; a sister; a brother; and two grandsons.

Mr. Watson continued playing hockey into the 1980s in Mount Vernon’s over-40 league, where he said he finally became a goal scorer.

“I changed a lot as I got older, my penalties went down a bit,” he told The Post in 1985. “You just can’t do it any more. Somewhere along the way you’ve got to play hockey.”

Read more Washington Post obituaries