Yvon Labre (Photo by George Henschel)
A look back at the pivotal years that have defined the Washington Capitals, starting with that infamous 1974-75 season.
While the NHL and NHLPA engage in an all-out war and withhold hockey from us, there doesn't seem to be much to look forward to... which means it's the perfect time to look back for a bit, to see where the team has come from and perhaps get perspective on where it's going.
Over the course of its thirty-seven year history, the Washington Capitals organization has experienced its fair share of milestones, transitional periods and years that have defined and directed the franchise. New coaches, owners, players and buildings have left their mark on it; successes and failures have served as landmarks for it. With this in mind, we've compiled a list of years judged to be pivotal to the direction of the team and will be exploring them in depth over the coming weeks.
First up, the year that started it all - the inaugural season of the Washington Capitals, 1974-75.
By 1972 the NHL had more than doubled in size, bringing in ten teams in the five years since expansion began in 1967, with more to be added in the very near future. Spots for two more teams would open up for the 1974-75 season... and Abe Pollin, owner of the NBA's Baltimore Bullets, had his eye on one of them.
Pollin was looking to move his NBA team closer to the nation's capital, with plans in the works for a luxurious new arena in Landover, Maryland to house them. But the building needed a second tenant, another franchise to make it a truly multi-purpose building - and thanks to the promise of that new building and his lobbying efforts, Pollin was awarded one of the two new NHL franchises in the spring of 1972. Over the next two years Pollin would complete construction on the state-of-the-art Capital Centre while also completing construction on the Washington Capitals franchise.
Hall of Famer and Bruins legend Milt Schmidt was lured away from his assistant GM role with Boston to be the team's first general manager, a hefty responsibility that would involve building a team completely from scratch via the amateur and expansion drafts. Manning the bench would be longtime AHLer Jim Anderson, whose sixteen-year career would span over 1200 games in seven different leagues - but just seven games at the NHL level.
"You couldn’t get anybody because all the NHL guys who you could maybe get your hands on [via the Expansion Draft or free agency] left the National Hockey League and went [to the WHA] for hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars, so it wasn’t easy to get personnel..." - Milt Schmidt (from Behind the Moves: NHL General Managers Tell How Winners are Built)
On May 28, 1974, the NHL held its amateur draft; a coin flip determined that the Capitals would have the first selection (and at times the only selection) in each of the twenty-five rounds while that season’s other expansion team, the Kansas City Scouts, would pick first in the expansion draft. Twenty-five players were picked from the relatively shallow draft, which for the first time included 18-year-olds; four of those first draft picks - #1 overall pick Greg Joly, Mike Marson, Paul Nicholson and Tony White - would play for the team in that first season.
The remaining roster would largely be filled out via the expansion draft, held just over two weeks later, when the Caps and the Kansas City Scouts each selected twenty-four players from the NHL's sixteen existing teams. Among those added to the new franchise were goaltenders Ron Low and Michel Belhumeur and defenseman Yvon Labre, with a few cash-for-player transactions (including defenseman Doug Mohns, who would become the team’s first captain) rounding out the team.
In September of 1974 the Caps played their first preseason games in front of their new fans, including their first ever game at the Capital Centre against the Montreal Canadiens that ended in a surprising 4-4 tie. It was the closest game they would play against their Norris Division rivals that year; Montreal would go 6-0 against the upstart Caps during the regular season and outscore them 49-9 in the process.
The 1974-75 season got underway on October 9, 1974 when the Caps made their first trip to Madison Square Garden to face the New York Rangers. It was there that Jim Hrycuik would cement himself as the answer to a trivia question, scoring the very first goal in Washington Capitals’ history against future Hall of Fame goalie Eddie Giacomin. The Caps held on early in the game and matched the Rangers goal for goal through forty minutes, but would eventually go on to lose the game 6-3… the first of many.
In their home debut on October 15, the Caps skated to a 1-1 tie (remember those?) against the Los Angeles Kings, with Labre picking up the first home goal in franchise history in front of thousands of brand new Caps fans and helping the Caps earn their first standings point.
Two nights later, it was the Caps emerging victorious when they defeated the Chicago Blackhawks, 4-3. It took a couple of odd bounces - one goal would go in off of the posterior of Chicago defenseman Doug Jarrett - and an 18-save performance in the third by Low, but the Caps would earn their first ever win in front of just under 10,000 hometown fans.
After that, things started to go downhill.
Over the next two months the Caps would win just once more, defeating the California Golden Seals in the middle of a stretch in which they went 1-22-3 and were outscored by a whopping 152 to 61. They would have to wait until the middle of December to earn their third win of the season when they hosted Toronto, defeating the Leafs 3-1 before kicking off a winless streak that stretched over seventeen games – a franchise record that stands to this day.
The season got slightly better (relatively speaking) after the halfway point of the year, with the Caps almost doubling their win total from the first half with a whole five wins in their final forty games. While the first half of the season saw the Caps get shutout nine times, they would only be blanked four times over the rest of the season, and had their first multiple-win month in February when they defeated the Rangers and Kansas City within a five-day span... although the second win would come shortly after bench boss Jimmy Anderson was replaced by Red Sullivan (who would also be fired a month later, Schmidt taking over for the rest of the season).
The second half of the year also featured the team’s first ever road win, as they defeated the California Golden Seals – the only team to have the dubious distinction of losing to the 74-75 Caps twice that season – in their 37th road game. It was a momentous occasion for the franchise, one that led to a celebration most teams would reserve for winning a championship game (albeit with a nicer trophy):
"Tommy Williams got a hold of this trash can and had a few guys sign it and we started parading it around the room. It was as if we’d won the Stanley Cup. That was a fun time for us—there weren’t that many." – Yvon Labre
A week later the season would come to a close, a year that featured mostly low notes ending on a high one with an 8-4 defeat of division rival Pittsburgh on home ice. The win would give the Caps a final record of 8-67-5 – the worst record in the expansion era, besting the New York Islanders’ robust mark of 12-60-6 set two years earlier.
And it wasn’t just the team’s overall record that would inscribe them in the history books for all the wrong reasons. That first year they would set the record for fewest points (21), most goals-against (446), lowest win percentage (.131) and lowest goal differential (-265). Defenseman Bill Mikkelson would finish the season with a record plus-minus rating of -82; goalie Michel Belhumeur would fail to register a single win as a Cap, going 0-24-3 in that first season and a combined 0-29-4 in his two years with the team.
Still, the futility with which the franchise started wasn’t all bad. That inaugural team produced two twenty-goal scorers, saw Mike Marson score 16 as an 18-year-old rookie (and become just the second African-American to skate in the NHL, nothing to sneeze at) and featured the first professional hockey in the district in fifteen years.
It was also the start of something that has lasted almost four decades (and counting)... and as bad as that first season was, there was a sense that it could only get better.
Next time: The Caps take their first steps toward becoming a perennial playoff contender.
Additional research and information pulled from the following sources:
Opening Night: Oct 9, 1974 (Mike Vogel)
Time CAPSule: 1974-1975 Season in Review (Mike Vogel)
1974-75 Washington Capitals, NHL team records, NHL Individual Records (Wikipedia)
The Capitals' First Win (Mike Vogel)