Reliving the Caps' catastrophic first season through the eyes of a fan who experienced all eight wins.
[Ed. Note: The following interview appeared on A View from the Cheap Seats back on April 10-11, 2007. ]
To get a true feel for what the 1974-75 season was like, I wanted to see it from the perspective of someone who experienced it firsthand, someone who suffered every single loss and celebrated the oh-so-rare victory right along with those hapless warriors of almost four decades ago.
And for that I only had to look as far as my own father, George.
Being a Caps fan has always been kind of a thankless pursuit, one that tries even the heartiest of fans. In my dad’s case, his first year in Washington coincided with the team's first year - it was fate. From that first preseason game on he set aside previous allegiances, embraced the Caps and
brainwashed raised his children to do the same.
But first he had to survive that infamous season...
George: When I came to DC I had been a Bruins fan, back in the days of Orr and Esposito, and I was a college hockey fan. Ken Dryden was my college goalie when I was [at Cornell]. The day that I got my apartment [in DC] was the day of the first exhibition game against Montreal at the new Capital Centre. I went to that game and that same night bought my first season tickets. So I had the opportunity to be there right from the very beginning.
Becca: Talk about that first preseason game.
GH: I think it was a tie - the team looked okay. It was obviously an exhibition game and both teams were trying a lot of things. The league was experimenting with a rule that when there was some sort of infraction they had a one-sided faceoff. So the team that committed the infraction wasn’t in the faceoff circle and the other team was. They decided very quickly not to go with that one because basically it was like getting a clear shot on goal with no defense.
The very first [regular season] game was against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden and the first goal was scored by a guy named Jim Hrycuik. That was the highlight of his whole hockey career, I think. We ended up losing 6-3 and Ron Low ended up making 45 saves or something outrageous like that, which would be pretty typical for the whole season. The whole season our GAA was somewhere between 5 and 6.
We started the season 1-1-1, actually. People were encouraged and had a bit of false hope, because we really didn’t have much. [After the loss to the Rangers] we tied the Kings and then beat the Blackhawks 4-3, including two goals off the butt of one of the Chicago defensemen (who was heard to comment afterwards that he always did have a big butt).
After that it all went downhill. Our backup goalie, Michel Belhumeur, never did win a game for this team. It was really difficult. We lost a lot of road games. We went 37 road games with no ties, just losses, losses, losses. We finally won one towards the end of the season against the California Golden Seals.
There just wasn’t much on this team to cheer for, and there wasn’t much in the minor leagues to bring up. The GM was Milt Schmidt who had come in from the Bruins and we had this coach named Jimmy Anderson who didn’t last the whole season as you would expect – when you can’t fire the whole team you fire the coach. It was a very long season. We won 8 games all season and tied 5 and I think I saw all the points. We didn’t have a whole lot of firepower and we didn’t have a solid defense. One of our defensemen, Bill Mikkelson was -82, which was obviously significant but it was pretty much indicative of the way the team was playing.
There weren’t big crowds; for a long time we were averaging 5-6000 per game. We didn’t have a product. Washington is a winner’s town and you can’t expect to draw big crowds. Also, other than Atlanta there were no teams in the South and we were still a little southern town then. Around here ice was just something you put in your drink.
They didn’t really sell the team very effectively either. It took a while before you had players you could actually market. The first couple of years we didn’t really have anyone with any marquee value – once we got someone with that marquee value they got traded because they wanted to build up the franchise. We did have one guy who was a relative of "Boom Boom" Geoffrion who was also noted for his own slapshot – except you never knew where it was going.
BH: When Abe Pollin built Capital Centre many said it was one of the most high-tech, state of the art buildings in the league at the time. True?
GH: It was - the Caps Centre had if not the first then one of the first giant TV screens. It wasn’t the greatest picture in the world and compared to modern screens it was pretty low tech... but it was there and you could see it from the ice. It was a very nice arena but compared to a lot of the other arenas it was very dark. It was also in the middle of nowhere and the parking situation was absolutely abominable. It would take me 35-40 minutes to drive there from Virginia, and then it would take me an hour to get home because it took you 15-20 minutes just to get out of the parking lot.
Abe had the reputation, sometimes deserved, sometimes not, of not wanting to spend money on the team because he was a basketball owner first and foremost. The main reason he built the Caps Centre was for the Bullets but he needed a hockey franchise to help fill the dates in the building. We always felt that the Caps were a bit of a stepchild for him in that he paid much more attention to the Bullets than the Capitals.
I had the opportunity to meet with him [as president of the Fan Club]. I had contacted him because we had had some problems arranging for players and members of the organization to come to fan club meetings. He was just a blunt, straightforward guy. When he said something was going to get done, it got done. But he was not really a hands-on owner as far as the Caps were concerned and he didn’t spend a whole lot of money on players. Back then the whole market for players was totally different anyways, no one was making multimillion dollar salaries...especially on this team.
BH: What was the media coverage like at the time?
GH: This was before the [Washington] Times - we had the Star and the Post. Bob Fachet was the beat writer for the Post, he was good – kind of starchy, not very outgoing but a good writer and he knew hockey. The first season the Post tried to sell the game. They had stories on the rules of hockey, booklets put out about the game. Because hockey was still a novelty they were able to get a little more space in the sports section... until they started losing and no one really wanted to read about it. At first there was always a front page article but as they kept losing it started to fade.
BH: Games were mostly on the radio at that point, right?
GH: Yes, Ron Weber was the voice of the Washington Capitals of course – the thing I liked about Ron was that he got very excited about the play and he had these little sayings he would come up with like "way to go Ms. Twiddle". He would come to Fan Club events and I got to know him and his wife, and after he retired he had seats in the Verizon Center in our section.
Ron was great at making the game come alive on the radio. You could practically picture what was going on and I asked him how he was able to do this, and he said that you can’t possibly pick up every little thing that’s going on, so you kind of watch it and condense it – the puck changes hands so much, you can’t just go "he’s got it, he’s got it, now he’s got it". I remember being very upset when he was replaced by Kolbe, and I like Kolbe, but it wasn’t the same.
Every game was on the radio and TV had maybe 10 or 15 games which is how I got to see the one [road] win. It was on late because it was a West Coast game and I remember staying up until 1 a.m. and seeing them actually win a game away from Caps Centre.
With a dwindling following and a losing record, the Caps could count on one group of loyal supporters who would always be there with a supportive pat on the back or a hard drink – the Capitals Fan Club, of which my father was a member and later president.
GH: I remember going to road games and we used to joke when we were on the bus that we just hoped nobody got hurt. We weren’t really expecting them to win the game. Bus trips were fun – we went through a lot of Baileys and we commiserated with each other and said that someday this team might be good...but not this year. At the time the fan club was run by the team so you were kind of dependent on them for everything we did. We decided early in the second season to set up the fan club ourselves so we could have some independence from the team so we could schedule things on our own.
The fan club even developed a fight song that was sung on road trips: [...this incidentally was one of my favorite parts of the conversation with my dad]:
GH: [laughing] It wasn’t exactly Shakespeare... it was written by one of our rowdier members and I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t really composed, it just happened to come out one time.
We actually got to be fairly close with some of the players back then because they were just happy somebody recognized them. There was a lot of carousing with the team on the road back then because they didn’t have a lot of hope of winning these games so they decided to have fun. [We were] in Pittsburgh after one of the games in the restaurant of a Howard Johnson’s and we got to have breakfast with Bruce Cowick – we had picked him up from the Flyers. He had been on the Cup-winning team but was not a major part of that and was very grateful to have the ring, I’m sure.
We were talking about his style of play. He was one of these rough tough forwards but every time he got out on the ice it seemed he got a penalty. He said it was really tough because they wanted [him] to play very physically and it’s tough to do that when you’re only out there 3-4 minutes a game. [He] seemed to spend more time in the box than anything else and he wished they would give him more ice time.
BH: So where did you travel most? Pittsburgh, Montreal...
GH: Yes, we were in a division with Montreal and Pittsburgh [as well as LA and Detroit] and we’d travel up there but it didn’t really matter to us where we were. I don’t like to think about being in a division with Montreal because they were very good back then. I think Ken Dryden shut us out 4 or 5 times that year. We did get to see Bobby Orr play when he was with Chicago – he was still a good player but he had no cartilage in his knees and he was barely able to skate well. It was kind of sad for me to see that. But we were so much worse than everyone else anyways...
One fan club trip we were in Philadelphia and our section was surrounded by police because people were throwing things and yelling things. Then in a later year when we got a little better we were in a game that was scoreless going into the 3rd period. The Flyers scored but then we scored three times after that to win the game. As we were leaving the arena, we heard smashing bottles – people were throwing beer bottles at us. These sorts of things just seem to happen in Philadelphia, you know?
BH: Was there already a division rivalry with the Penguins or did that develop later?
GH: Kind of, but it really goes back to the playoff meetings when they always seemed to knock us out. The original rivalries were really nonexistent in those early years – it wasn’t until Rod Langway came along and we actually got to be competitive that we developed some rivalries. We really just hated everybody but it didn’t do us any good.
Expansion drafts worked much differently than they do today. Back then every existing team could protect 16 players and two goalies – so the best player available in the draft was the 17th best player on any given team. The result was a mish-mash of players that went on to form that infamous roster.
We had the first pick in the amateur draft and we drafted this young defenseman named Greg Joly, and the second pick was a guy by the name of Mike Marson, who was a forward. These two players probably would have been great starting in the minors but because of the way the team was formed they really needed to start off in the majors, and they suffered for it and the team suffered for it too.
Tommy Williams was one of the old hands on the team. He was already in his mid-30s when he played for us. He was a scorer but he really didn’t pay much attention to the defensive side of the ice, he just liked to try to score. Our captain the first year, Dougie Mohns, was famous for his hair piece – he wore a helmet so nobody noticed, but when you got to take pictures of him you could tell – it wasn’t the greatest piece in the world. He was 41 when he came to the Caps.
A lot of the players that first year were pretty forgettable.
BH: And Yvon Labre?
GH: The best comment made about Yvon Labre was that he would have been a great fighter if his arms were about 6 inches longer. You hear about guys being the heart and soul of a team - Yvon gave everything he could, he really tried. He scored the first goal here at home but he was not a great player and he’d be the first one to admit that. But he tried and that’s why he’s been honored. He was the closest thing to a defenseman that we had – he worked his butt off, it was obvious every game he was doing the best he could.
BH: Were there any enforcers?
GH: We didn’t really have anyone that big that first year – there were fights, but no one was given that role. Everyone was just trying not to get hurt.
BH: It was during the era of the Broad Street Bullies in Philly, so I’m guessing they had some fights.
GH: Oh, they beat up everyone. It got to the point where guys were just skating out of the way of their players.
BH: The Caps hold a lot of dubious records and distinctions. Are there any moments that stick out as being kind of "oh god" moments?
GH: I remember one of the Montreal games where the Caps had a 2-1 lead going into the last couple of minutes. Montreal pulled their goalie and tied the game with a little over a minute left. Then I watched as Larry Robinson took the puck behind the Montreal net after the faceoff and suddenly there were 5 Canadiens skating towards the Caps goal and I remember turning to your mom and just saying "Oh my god, here they come" – and bing bing bing bing bing it was in the net.
BH: Obviously a lot of people scored against the Caps at the time, but were there a handful of players that maybe tormented them more than others, Cap-killers who just consistently had the Caps’ number?
GH: Oh, everybody beat up on us – when you’re allowing 5-6 goals a game, everyone is in on it. If there were one or two it’s just gotten lost in the blur. Obviously [Guy] Lafleur, Bobby Clarke, those guys had their share of goals against us. It got so bad that our goalie, Ron Low, who went on to be the coach in Edmonton and a really good goalie coach for other teams, came to be known as "Red Light Ronnie". We used to say the back of his neck was sunburned from the glow of the goal light.
BH: Okay, let’s hear about the white pants...
GH: The first year they experimented with white pants for away games, where they wore the red jerseys. I think that experiment lasted one or two games largely because the white pants became translucent when they got wet, which wasn’t so much of a problem for the Caucasian players...the contrast between the translucent pants and the dark skin of a guy like Mike Marson, however, kind of made them get away from that. They wanted the game to still be a G-rated event.
BH: So the last game of the season, after 79 games with only 7 wins...
GH: It was an 8-4 win over Pittsburgh. We had picked up a player named Stan Gilbertson from Pittsburgh during the season who had been playing okay for us, not great, but he scored 4 goals in that game. It was very unlike anything that happened throughout the year.
It’s a great feat to stick by one team like the Capitals for 37 years of ups and downs (more downs than ups) – through trades, management changes, coaching changes, ownership changes, new jerseys, and countless, countless Penguins games. Yet it’s something I aspire to, to hold the love of one team long enough until it finally pays off, and then beyond.
My dad has been a season ticket holder since that first season and while his seats have gotten better and his hair has gotten thinner, the one thing that remains the same through all these years is the passion he feels for this team. Hearing him describe those dark days with as much love as one would use to speak of a great dynasty shows that being a fan means not noticing the numbers, the records, the punchlines – only the emblem on the jersey.