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That Time When Being an Expansion Team Was Hard

2014-15 marks the 40-year anniversary of the Washington Capitals' inaugural season, and with each year that passes, more and more stories from the early years get forgotten or otherwise lost. Let's try to change that. This is Throwback Tuesday... because who wants to wait 'til Thursday?

Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images

"It’s not fair. We paid 6-million dollars to join the league and look how little the other teams have left for us." - Capitals General Manager Milt Schmidt, during the summer before the Caps' first season

With rumors flying about another round of NHL expansion adding up to four more teams, it's fun to think about what players might be available for those new teams to pick in an expansion draft.

Okay, maybe "fun" isn't the right word. Just look at the results of one two-team mock expansion draft and imagine not only those teams playing 82-game schedules, but the fifty or so non-NHLers who suddenly would be taking shifts in the League. Now imagine expansion rosters twice as ugly, and a hundred new NHLers. Not pretty.

But even those teams wouldn't have the cards stacked against them the way the inaugural Washington Capitals did. Consider that the 1974-75 Caps team was entering the League at the tail-end of a massive four-step expansion that increased the size of the NHL from six teams to 18 in less than ten years, while the creation of the World Hockey Association meant another 14 professional teams in North America. In other words, as Mike Vogel notes, "[T]here were 32 'major league' hockey teams in operation in North America. Suddenly, there were more than 600 jobs available in major league hockey where there had been just over 100 less than a decade earlier."

And the expansion draft rules didn't help the Caps (and their expansion brethren Kansas City) much either. Back to Vogs:

The 16 existing clubs were each permitted to protect 15 players. Players whose first pro season was 1973-74 were deemed draft exempt, and existing clubs were permitted to pull back a player each time they lost one. Each existing club would lose three players. So in effect, the Capitals were drafting the 16th, 18th and 20th best players from the existing clubs, and most of those existing clubs were facing an expansion draft for the third time in five years.

And that's "the 16th, 18th and 20th best players from the existing clubs" after the WHA poached all of the talent they could. In his book The Legends of Landover, Glenn Dreyfuss recounts Windsor Star columnist Jim McKay describing the players available for that expansion draft as "little more than a bag of bones," envisioning a future lede: "Washington and Kansas City met last night in hockey for the first time. Hockey lost."

But even with the pickings slim, a team doesn't get to 8-67-5 without shooting itself in the foot a bit. Back to Dreyfuss:

Schmidt made a tactical blunder. "We went for big guys and Kansas City went for skaters in the expansion draft," Milt said. "I figured the big thing was not getting pushed around. The trouble was, the big guys I drafted - they don't like to fight."

Opponents knew it, too. One night, Montreal's Murray Wilson laid a thunderous hit on one of Washington's biggest forwards. In the locker room, a Gazette reporter wondered what accounted for Wilson's uncharacteristic aggressiveness. Habs teammate Glenn Goldup gleefully chimed in, "You knew he wouldn't hit you back."

Oops. (Click here for a complete rundown of the 1974 Expansion Draft.)

It's hardly a surprise, then, that by December, Schmidt was begging for help:

Schmidt went to the meeting of NHL GMs [in late Fall, 1974] in Chicago and when league matters were concluded, he jumped up to conduct some "other business." His message was brief:

"Look, for the good of the whole league, the Washington franchise could use some help. Many of you have players sitting in the stands who could help in Washington. Our team is willing to deal a first round draft choice in return."

Schmidt didn't get much help, and things got worse before they got better for the Caps. As for Schmidt, he ended up coaching the Caps for the final seven games of that abysmal first season and for the first 36 of the barely-better second campaign before being relieved of his coaching and general managing duties on December 29, 1975, with the Caps compiling an 11-95-10 record in his year-and-a-half at the helm. Here's how Schmidt summed up his time in D.C.:

"[Going to Washington as GM of the expansion Capitals was] one of the worst moves I made, due to the fact that it was just when the new league was starting, the World Hockey Association. 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.... Kansas City was in the same situation as a Milt Schmidt was with the Caps but at that time, [an NHL expansion team like the Capitals] had everything thrown against you.... You've got a lot of company when you're first starting out [as an expansion team]; that is at the bottom of the league, or very close to it ... When I was with Washington, I never even tried to trade because I didn't have anybody to trade. You just went along as best you possibly could. It wasn't good and I accept all the responsibilities as the General Manager." - Milt Schmidt, as quoted in Behind the Moves: NHL General Managers Tell How Winners are Built at p.43

Take heart, Vegas, Seattle, Toronto and Quebec (and hockey fans) - as tough as it might be for your future NHL expansion teams entering the League, they'll never have the cards stacked against them the way those expansion Caps did.