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As bad as it gets
1974-75: The Washington Capitals' inaugural season

“There were so many powerhouses back then,” he continues. “Like Boston, Montreal and Philadelphia. When you went into those buildings, it was almost like facing an all-star team. Clubs like that looked at us, and it was like a night off. They’d use us to pad their bonuses.”

Lalonde also had an interesting perspective. He began that season in a Pittsburgh Penguins uniform.

“We had played in Washington a couple of weeks before the trade,” says Lalonde. “I remember sitting on the Pittsburgh bench—we beat them 8-1 that day. And Yvon Labre, who had been in the Pittsburgh organization before going over in the expansion draft; I can remember thinking, ‘Boy, I feel sorry for him. It’s going to be a long year.’ Two weeks later, I’m on the [Capitals] bench with Yvon.”

Ron Lalonde

Lalonde came to Washington from the Pens on December 14 in exchange for Lew Morrison. The deal proved to be a good one for Washington as Lalonde became a valuable role player for the next four years.

The losses piled up, and coach Jimmy Anderson was replaced by Red Sullivan on February 11. Anderson compiled a 4-45-5 record as the team’s bench boss. Sullivan lasted little more than a month, going 2-17-0 before Schmidt himself took the reins.

The defeats weighed heavily on the entire team, especially beleaguered goaltender Ronnie Low (now the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers) and highly touted youngsters Joly and Marson.

“Losing affects people in different ways,” says Lesuk, who is now Director of Scouting for the Phoenix Coyotes. “It was tearing Ronnie’s heart out. Tears were coming down his cheeks.”

Lalonde remains impressed by how Low fought his way through the long season. “Ronnie faced so many shots but he never gave up,” Lalonde recollects. “If we were losing 6-1, he wasn’t going to give up that seventh goal, and he practiced that way, too. You build from that, and not everybody has that attitude.”

Despite their obvious travails, Joly and Marson also held up as well as could be expected.

“Mike Marson and Greg Joly really had some tough times,” says Lesuk. “Greg was picked first and put a lot of pressure on himself. He ended up playing quite a bit and I think he had a broken bone in his hand. He was hurting pretty bad. But he kept grinding it out.”

But Joly doesn’t think it was any tougher on him than anyone else. “I think that goes with the territory,” he says of the pressure of being the first overall pick. “I think even now they expect top picks to carry their share of the load, and in my case, I just didn’t play very well.”

Marson correctly points out that top picks on established clubs were able to learn by watching and developing. “Going to an expansion team, you had to perform,” he states. “I remember Mario Tremblay went to Montreal and just sat on the bench for the first few years, learning the game from the likes of [Yvon] Cournoyer, [Henri] Richard, [Serge] Savard and [Guy] Lapointe. The Canadiens and teams like that were strong enough to develop their players. So there was quite a bit of pressure on Joly and myself for us to come in and do in the pros the things we had done so well in juniors. It’s quite a change because you’re playing against men.”

Marson also carried the additional burden of being the only black player in the NHL, and he conducted himself with a maturity and dignity beyond his years in the face of some harsh treatment around the league.

Tommy Williams

“Wherever I went, people were looking to see what I would do, how I would perform, whether I was tough enough to fight or what I would do when I was taunted,” Marson says. “You do your best, the best you can do in dealing with situations that, in may case, had never been dealt with before. Often times you’re in an environment where you can feel that you don’t fit, but realize that you have to find a way to make yourself fit.”

Perhaps the high point of the long season came on March 28 in Oakland. The Caps had played 37 road games to that point, going 0-37-0. But a pair of third period goals by Nelson Pyatt saved the team from the ignominy of a winless season on the road. The Caps beat the white-skated Golden Seals, 5-3.

After the game, the relieved Caps reveled in the glory of their lone road triumph. “Tommy Williams got a hold of this trash can and had a few guys sign it and we started parading it around the room,” laughs Labre. “It was as if we’d won the Stanley Cup. That was a fun time for us—there weren’t that many.”

“The stadium was pretty well empty,” remembers Lalonde. “And here we are, skating around with this green garbage can. We all signed it, and it was there for years after that. It’s probably still there.”

Nearly 25 years later, what these men remember most is not the futility, but the fellowship, the fans and the feeling of being in on the ground floor of something new and exciting.

“I feel fortunate having been here for seven of those first years, even though they were not the greatest years,” says Labre. To a man, Labre’s former mates are effusive in their praise and admiration of him and his current role as Washington’s ambassador of hockey.

“All I can say is that Yvon Labre is a wonderful guy,” exudes Schmidt. “When I had Yvon, there wasn’t any doubt that we was giving me his all, regardless of what was happening; good, bad or otherwise. He’s always been in the back of my mind, and the fact that he’s still there with the Caps is great. They couldn’t have picked a better guy for the good of the game and the good of the franchise.”

As a teenager among men, Marson took pleasure in life on the road, where he roomed with Labre. Teammates quickly dubbed them, “Chico and the Man.”

“The west coast swings were probably our best times as a team, socially, because we were away from the pressures of home,” remembers Marson. “I have fond memories of getting to know some of the guys on a more personal note. At that time, the west coast swings were 14 days long. You really get a chance to know or find out who these guys are as teammates.” 

Bill Mikkelson

“I look back on that year fondly,” says Mikkelson. “We didn’t lose for lack of trying, and it was a great bunch of guys.”

“Just being a part of something new and coming to Washington, that was the best memory I had,” Lesuk recalls of that first year. “I can look back and I can say that I really appreciated the time that I had there. In many ways, it was just too short. I’d like to say a big thank you to Mr. Pollin and to the entire Washington Capitals organization.”

The original Caps were happy to see their successors skating in the Stanley Cup Finals last spring. “It was nice to finally see them reach that level,” says Lalonde. “The Washington fans certainly deserved it. I took a little pride. The Capitals still hold a little piece of my heart.”

Schmidt, now 80 years old and enjoying his retirement at his suburban Boston home, is also pleased with the franchise’s progress. “I will honestly say that I’m very pleased with that franchise for Abe’s sake,” he says of his former employer. “He’s stuck with it through thick and thin, he’s a great man and I enjoyed working for him the short time that I did.”

With hockey fervor at a fever pitch in DC after the team’s trip to the Cup Finals last spring, it’s time to doff the helmet and salute these men who toiled through trying times during the franchise’s lean years. Once they were warriors of the ice; now they too are fans of the current Capitals who carry the puck into the club’s second quarter-century.