|As bad as it gets
1974-75: The Washington Capitals' inaugural season
Back in 1959-60, the Washington Presidents of the Eastern Hockey League skated to a nondescript 25-34-5 record. At season’s end, the Presidents—and thus, professional hockey—left the District of Columbia. Not until another president—namely Richard M. Nixon—vacated the District would the fastest game on ice return.
Throughout the summer of 1974, the eyes of the nation—and indeed, the world—were focused on Washington and the crumbling Nixon presidency. Meanwhile, pro hockey was coming back, as the NHL’s Washington Capitals were taking shape along with their sparkling new home in Landover, the Capital Centre.
Two summers earlier, Washington construction magnate Abe Pollin began vying for an NHL expansion franchise. Pollin, owner of the Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards) of the NBA, hoped to pair a hockey club with his hoops team in a new multi-purpose facility in the Washington area. Pollin was competing against nine other applicants for just two NHL franchise openings, but his tireless lobbying and the promise of a new arena overcame what one Las Vegas bookmaker claimed were 600-to-1 odds against Washington joining the NHL. Hockey was coming back to DC.
Construction on the Capital Centre took just 15 months from start to finish, and the venue hosted other events—including a Grateful Dead concert in July, 1974—prior to its debut as a hockey arena. When the building did open for hockey business, it was widely acclaimed for its splendor and its amenities. With its luxury suites, unobstructed seating and state of the art scoreboard, the Capital Centre instantly became one of the best hockey facilities in the NHL.
The scoreboard in particular added to the quality of life; not only for fans, but for players and coaches as well.
“The Montreal Canadiens come to town,” recalls Capital icon Yvon Labre, “and there’s a replay on the Telescreen. [Canadiens coach Scotty] Bowman and all the Canadiens are watching the replay! And I’m just amazed at this. I’m just sitting back and going, ‘Look at them! This is good.’ It was the first building to have it. For coaches, that was fantastic, you could watch the replay right away.”
“There wasn’t a bad seat in the house and it was a beautiful arena,” says Ron Lalonde, who was a center on that first Caps team. “Especially when it was full,” he adds.
Pollin was very much involved in the building of the Capital Centre, and not just from a financial standpoint. But when it came to building the team that would skate onto the ice, he entrusted that task to one of hockey’s most distinguished figures, former Boston Bruin Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt.
Pollin shopped around for a general manager to serve as the architect for the Capitals. Schmidt says that Boston Celtics executive Red Auerbach, recommended him for the post. “Red was pretty good friends with Abe Pollin,” says Schmidt. “I’ve always been close to Red, and I think Red was the one that got them interested in me.”
By virtue of a coin flip, Washington gained the first overall choice in the amateur entry draft, while the other NHL newcomers, the Kansas City Scouts, selected first in the expansion draft. But the pool of available talent was quite shallow.
Players from Europe and the US were much more scarce in 1974, and the feverish competition for talent between the NHL and the upstart World Hockey Association also thinned the list of available players.
“What we had to draw from in those years was much less than expansion teams at the present time,” Schmidt relates. “The World Hockey Association has just started, and you’d have to give a $15,000 or $20,000 player $30,000 or more, otherwise they were going to go to the WHA.”
The expansion draft took place on June 12, 1974. Schmidt began the process by selecting two goaltenders—Ron Low from Toronto and Michel Belhumeur from Philadelphia. Six defensemen and 16 forwards were also chosen.
The WHA also posed a threat to the up and coming amateur talent, as the new league began to sign players before they were old enough to be eligible for the NHL draft. In 1974, the NHL lowered the draft age, allowing its clubs to select one 18-year-old in the first two rounds of the draft.
After taking defenseman Greg Joly with the first overall pick, Schmidt took left winger Mike Marson, an 18-year-old, with the team’s second selection. Marson, who was to become just the second Afro-North American to play in the NHL, had indeed been in contact with a WHA club.
“At the time, the people who were representing me were talking to [the] Vancouver [Blazers],” remembers Marson. “There were a lot of guys who were—I’m sure—considering offers to play in the WHA at that time.”
Four of the players chosen by Schmidt in the expansion draft were taken from the Bruins organization. He was familiar with those players from his days in Boston. Soon after the draft, Schmidt imported another trio of players—each in cash transactions—from his Boston days.
First and foremost, Schmidt needed a captain for his young team. A week after the expansion draft, he purchased 40-year-old defenseman Doug Mohns from the Atlanta Flames. Mohns began his NHL career with the Bruins in 1953-54, when Schmidt was winding down his own stellar playing career. Schmidt took over as the Bruins’ coach immediately after his playing career ended, and Mohns played for him in Boston for the better part of a decade.
“I knew that Mohns was a real fantastic skater and that he was a real good team man,” says Schmidt of his decision to acquire Mohns and make him the Capitals’ first captain. “I knew that he was equally as good off the ice as he was on. We needed some leadership on that hockey club because we had a lot of kids that hadn’t played much in the National Hockey League. I just thought that by getting somebody like Doug, he would instill some of his thoughts and his way of thinking and that it would be a great asset to us. Plus it gave us some real good experience, which we needed badly.”
More experience came from the Bruins a month later when Schmidt obtained the late Tommy Williams. One of the few American players in the league at that time, Williams had been a member of the 1960 Gold Medal US Olympic team. He went on to star for the Bruins in the 1960s before jumping to the WHA in 1972-73. Schmidt acquired Williams’ rights from the Bruins, then convinced him to leave the WHA for a regular role with the upstart Capitals.
A week after bringing in Williams, Schmidt picked up Bill Lesuk from the Los Angeles Kings. A gritty, hard-working checking forward, Lesuk was developed in the Boston system, but his path to the NHL was blocked by the great depth in Boston at the time. After one season with the Caps, Lesuk left for Winnipeg of the WHA, where he was a vital cog on a team that won three AVCO World Trophies in a four-year span.
Exactly two months after Richard Nixon left DC for the final time, the Caps played their first regular season game in New York against the Rangers. The Caps lost by a 6-3 count, the first of 67 setbacks they would suffer in that 80-game season. Jim Hrycuik scored the first goal in Washington history, assisted by Joly and Denis Dupere. Hrycuik’s Capitals and NHL career would last just 21 games; he would total five goals. After another shutout loss in Minnesota—the first of a team record 12 whitewashes that year—the Caps returned home.
On October 15, 1974, the Capitals made their Capital Centre debut against the Los Angeles Kings before a crowd of more than 15,000. A fired-up Caps team picked up its first point that night, skating to a 1-1 deadlock. Labre scored the first Capital goal at home, assisted by Dave Kryskow and Lesuk.
Just two nights later, Washington gained its first NHL victory, defeating the Original Six Chicago Blackhawks by a 4-3 count. Jack Egers supplied the game-winning goal for the Caps.
Six days after that, The Caps traveled to Chicago for a rematch. Though they came out on the short end of a 3-2 score, it was a memorable contest. Caps netminder Michel Belhumeur stopped not one, but two penalty shots. And he stymied a pair of proven scorers—Jim Pappin and future Hall of Famer Stan Mikita. It was the highlight of Belhumeur’s hard luck career with Washington. In 42 games with the Caps, Belhumeur failed to notch a victory, going 0-29-4.
A 10-game losing streak followed the Caps first win. They would go more than a month before claiming a second victory.
“We went into every game looking to win, and I guess it was the hype and the adrenaline,” says Labre of the team’s relatively swift start that season. “But as reality set in, we just didn’t play that well together.”
Caps defenseman Bill Mikkelson was in an unenviable position. Two years earlier, he had been a member of the original New York Islanders, who posted a 12-60-6 record, worst in modern NHL history at the time. The 1974-75 Capitals shattered that dubious mark.
“They were both long years,” sighs Mikkelson. “Those clubs were both comprised mostly of good AHL players, but it was tough for us to compete in the NHL.”