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Caps Make 37-Year Climb to Top of Wins Ladder

Their first eight seasons were fallow, but the Caps have prospered since and are now the NHL's winningest regular season team since '82-83

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / washingtoncaps.com

Twenty games into the 2019-20 NHL season, the Caps are off to the best 20-game start in franchise history with a 14-2-4 record. Washington has earned at least a point in 13 straight games (11-0-2), just two games shy of the longest streak of its kind in franchise history, and it has gone a month now without suffering a regulation loss.

That lengthy and prosperous run has led to some team and franchise records being broken and threatened along the way, but on Thursday morning, Ben Raby of WTOP Radio and Caps Radio 24/7 shined some light on another remarkable achievement by the Caps that has been much longer in the making.

With Wednesday night's 2-1 shootout win over the Flyers in Philadelphia, the Caps have now won more games (1,474, one more than the Boston Bruins) than any other team in the NHL since the outset of the 1982-83 season. That's not just an arbitrary year; the '82-83 campaign was a pivotal one in these parts. If that season had gone south, the Caps might have moved to another location soon afterwards.

In the preceding 1981-82 season, Washington finished at 26-41-13. It was the eighth time in as many seasons that the Caps missed the playoffs, and the eighth time in as many seasons that they failed to earn more than 70 points. Average attendance had dipped slightly from what was an all-time single season high of 11,800 per contest in '80-81 to just 11,477, and NHL hockey was struggling to establish a footprint here in the District.

Caps owner Abe Pollin was seeking a buyer for the team, or at the very least an investor or two who could inject some capital into the franchise and help absorb some of the financial bruising he was taking with the team in those days. Franchises moved frequently in those days, and the possibility of an out-of-town buyer was very real to a group of committed and diehard Caps fans, who formed a group called "Save The Caps" during the summer of 1982.

That grass roots group drummed up a fair amount of publicity, and the combination of fan activism and some front office changes altered the course of the Caps and set them off on a more victorious course that now has them as the winningest regular season team since.

 

Two key personnel decisions were made that summer as well. Dick Patrick joined the organization as a minority owner and member of the team's board of directors; he would go on to become team president, a position he still holds nearly four decades later. In Patrick's 36 seasons with the Capitals, the team has reached the playoffs 29 times. The Caps entered this season with a string of 10 playoff berths in the last 11 seasons.

Shortly after joining the Caps in 1982, Patrick went about the business of hiring a new general manager. The Caps had three different GMs during those first eight seasons, and they've had just three in the 37 years since. Just ahead of the start of that all important 1982-83 season, Patrick hired 33-year-old David Poile to serve as Washington's GM, and days after that, Poile engineered the trade that quite literally may have saved the Caps, sending Ryan Walter and Rick Green to Montreal in exchange for Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Craig Laughlin, and Doug Jarvis.

Washington made the playoffs that season, starting a run of 14 straight seasons win which Stanley Cup playoff hockey was played in these parts. There was a three-year absence from the postseason sandwiched around the 2004-05 lockout, but aside from that four-year stretch, the Caps have not gone more than a year without reaching the playoffs.

A few years back, we got the tale of then turnaround straight from Patrick himself:

"It was sort of happenstance at the time," recalls Patrick. "I'd played hockey in school growing up, in college, and then went to law school and was starting another chapter of my life, another route. I was still a fan, still getting out to the Capitals games when they started [as a franchise].

"I knew Milt Schmidt from the past [Ed: Patrick's uncle Lynn was Bruins' general manager during the days in which Schmidt was a player and later a coach in Boston.]; he was the [Caps'] first manager, so I visited with him and came out to some games. Then, there came a time at one point where Abe Pollin was thinking of selling the Capitals, and I was at the time practicing law and doing some real estate development. A mutual acquaintance put us in contact, and we had some discussions about me buying the Capitals. At the time Abe [was at a point] in his career where he wanted to test things out and he ended up retaining [the team]. 

"We switched to another approach a year or so later where the Capitals were struggling out of the gate, and they hadn't made the playoffs yet, so he wanted to bring in new investors, new life. That whole "Save the Caps" campaign started as part of that. 

"I was contacted during that time, and I invested with a couple of business partners for a relatively small amount at the time, and I became executive vice-president of the team handling the hockey side. Abe and his advisors had, at the time, sort of backed off because they hadn't had success they wanted. It was unusual because I hadn't had much of a history with Abe, and not having such a big percentage of the team, it sort of got turned over to me to find the new general manager, organize the team, and going from there which, looking back, is nothing I'd ever do [again]. 

"And then a year or so later, Abe asked me about increasing my interest in the team, and I bought more of the team at that point and became more involved.

"I know in hiring David [Poile], that it fell to me at Abe's request to do the search. I called people I knew. I called Emile Francis, who worked for my dad in New York. I called Scotty Bowman, who worked for my uncle. I called my cousin Craig [Patrick] and got some ideas, and then names started to come to the top, Dave's being one of them.

"I made another round, I called my father then, and he didn't know Dave really, but gave me input about the family, the great hockey tradition of their family, so David became my choice. I presented him to Abe, and Abe liked him.

"I still remember David getting off the plane after being hired, it was August; training camp was about to start. I'd picked him up at National Airport, and he was dragging the biggest suitcase I'd seen in my life. I think he had all the clothes he owned in there because he was coming here, and his wife Liz was going to take care of selling the house in Calgary and bringing the kids out, and he was here for the duration. 

"I recall within a few weeks he made that huge trade, and put his stamp on the organization. He was really a stabilizing influence for years. It was one of those trades; it did turn the franchise around. People think that means it was one-sided, but it wasn't. Ryan Walter and Rick Green were great players, and they won a Cup up there [in Montreal], but the Capitals hadn't been successful yet. They'd had some good players; those two, Mike Gartner, Bengt Gustafsson and Bobby Carpenter had started playing. They just hadn't gotten over the hump.

"Bringing in Rod, in particular, and Brian Engblom, and Doug Jarvis, all those experienced guys made a difference. Craig Laughlin was actually a young guy, and he turned into a scorer. It put a new face on the franchise, and the franchise was poised to do something more than it had. It took off and never looked back.

"Langway gave the franchise new credibility, and he became the face of it. He won two Norris Trophies and took it from there."

As Bruce Springsteen once wrote, "From small things mama, big things one day come." Nearly four decades later, the Caps team that had been the laughingstock of the league for its first eight seasons has now won more regular season games than any other franchise over a span of 37 years, it has won the first Stanley Cup championship in franchise history, and it is off to the best 20-game start in franchise history in 2019-20, and owns the best record in the league at the quarter mark of the current campaign.

Patrick and majority owner Ted Leonsis have now worked together for more than 20 years to bring hockey and the Capitals to new heights here in Washington, with the Alex Ovechkin/Nicklas Backstrom era and the 2018 Cup championship shining like beacons on the local pro sports landscape. The last four decades have been great for hockey in this area, whetting the appetite for more greatness and excitement to come in the decades ahead.

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