Going into the 1981 NHL Entry Draft, the Washington Capitals held the fifth overall choice, behind those of Winnipeg, Los Angeles, Colorado and Hartford. On the eve of the June 10 draft in Montreal, there was a swirl of rumors in the local papers that had the Caps dealing the No. 5 overall pick for a veteran NHL player, perhaps defenseman Doug Wilson of the Chicago Blackhawks, Mel Bridgman of the Philadelphia Flyers or even Peter McNab of the Boston Bruins, son of Capitals general manager Max McNab.
In the Wed., June 10 edition of The Washington Post
, the late, great Robert Fachet wrote:
“If McNab is forced to exercise his draft choice by his colleagues’ indifference to acquiring same, he is expected to choose Jim Benning, an 18-year-old defenseman for Portland who scored 28 goals and 111 assists while playing in the weakest division in major junior hockey.”
In reality, McNab had something else altogether up his sleeve.
Center Dale Hawerchuk was the consensus No. 1 pick that year, and the Winnipeg Jets went with the script and chose the Toronto native with the first overall choice. Los Angeles opted for center Doug Smith at No. 2, and then things got interesting.
In the days and weeks leading up to the draft, Hartford had made it well known that it would choose center Bobby Carpenter, the 17-year-old Massachusetts high school sensation, with its pick, the fourth selection overall. What the Whalers’ brass did not know was that a few GMs around the league had been bending the ear of Colorado Rockies GM Billy MacMillan in an effort to pry away the third overall choice. New York Rangers GM Craig Patrick had expressed interest in the pick; he wanted it to take goaltender Grant Fuhr. The Rockies hesitated when it came time to make their selection, leading Patrick to believe that he had a deal with Colorado.
But when Patrick saw McNab walk over to the Colorado table, he knew the Caps’ GM had swooped in and wrangled a deal for the third pick. Hartford, whose table was between Colorado’s and Washington’s on the draft floor, had no idea what was going on.
Washington traded its first round pick (the fifth overall) and its second round pick (26th overall) to the Rockies for Colorado’s first pick (third overall) and third pick (45th overall). McNab and the Caps immediately chose Carpenter, which angered the prospect’s father, who had been counting on his son playing pro hockey close to home in New England.
“I have nothing to say to anyone from Washington,” huffed the senior Carpenter as he left the room. He then told a Hartford writer that his son would enroll at Providence College rather than sign with the Capitals. He later softened his stance, and stated that his early disappointment had been exaggerated by the media.
“There were lots of misquotes and slanted opinions and dramatizing,” the elder Carpenter was quoted as saying in the June 12 edition of The Washington Star
. “I was disappointed, because my heart was set on Hartford.”
McNab and his staff had been working on the deal for several days.
“It was an on-going process for a week,” said David McNab, son of Max and a Capitals scout, in the June 11 edition of The Star
. “We had to get ahead of Hartford because this was the guy we wanted. He was the best player, by far, of all the freshman college players out at Colorado Springs (trying out for the Junior World Cup Tournament), even though he was a senior in high school, and then he tied for the team lead in scoring in the tournament in West Germany.”
Carpenter himself figured he would be wearing the blue and green of the Whalers.
“I was shocked to find out Washington picked me,” said Carpenter, in the June 11 issue of The Post
. “I had no idea till this morning when my father called from Montreal. All the papers around here said Hartford would pick me. But it didn’t matter where I went. I just want to play in the best place for me, where I’ll do my best.”
Max McNab was elated to have made the deal and to have picked Carpenter, who had been touted by a Sports Illustrated
cover story as “The Can’t Miss Kid.”
“This was not a spur of the moment thing,” he said, echoing his son’s statement. “We’ve followed this boy for two years and we had him rated the No. 1 prospect. In that case, you do everything you can to get him. We’re excited and happy, but it’s unfortunate for Hartford not to get him. It’s a calamity there.”
Colorado wanted defenseman Joe Cirella, and got its man after Hartford called a timeout to deal with the curve ball it had been thrown. Give the Whalers credit. They not only dealt with the curve ball, they hit it out of the park. After regaining their composure, the Whalers chose center Ron Francis.
It was and remains the only time in the history of the NHL Entry Draft that each of the first four overall selections was used to take a center.
Benning went to Toronto with the sixth overall choice. Patrick and the Rangers were forced to settle for defenseman James Patrick in the ninth spot after the Oilers snatched Fuhr at No. 8. The Rockies took right wing Rich Chernomaz with the second-rounder (26th overall) obtained from Washington, while the Caps selected defenseman Eric Calder with the third-rounder (45th overall) acquired from the Rockies.
Carpenter signed with the Capitals later that summer and went on to enjoy a solid 19-year NHL career, in which he totaled 320 goals and 728 points in 1,119 games. Those numbers fell short of the superlatives laid out for the wunderkind prospect at the time of the draft, and fell far short of the Hall of Fame careers that both Hawerchuk and Francis went on to carve out for themselves. Fuhr (eighth overall to Edmonton) and defenseman Al MacInnis (15th overall to Calgary) also went on to Hall of Fame worthy NHL careers after being chosen in the first round of the ’81 draft.
Washington’s best picks over the remainder of the 1981 draft came late, in the eighth and 10th rounds to be exact. The Caps got 18-year-old left wing Gaetan Duchesne with their eighth-round choice (152nd overall). Duchesne was the surprise of training camp that fall, making the team and going on to a 1,028-game career in the NHL. An excellent checking line winger for several seasons in Washington, Duchesne was later part of the package that went to Quebec in exchange for Dale Hunter.
In the 10th (and final) round, Washington chose 20-year-old winger Chris Valentine. Valentine cracked the Caps’ lineup as a rookie, scoring 30 goals (17 of them on the power play) and totaling 67 points in just 60 games in his freshman NHL season. But Valentine spent parts of just two more seasons in the NHL, scoring 13 goals in 45 games. He went on to enjoy a very productive career overseas, spending more than a decade with Dusseldorfer EG of the German League.