In the team’s inaugural season of 1974-75, a franchise record 14 players netted their first NHL goals. The last time the Caps had as many as six players accomplish the feat in the same season was in the lockout season of 1994-95 when exactly six Caps tallied for the first time in the NHL.
Few memories are as lasting as a player’s first NHL goal. With that in mind, we’re asking current Caps and former NHL players associated with the Caps and the game to recall their first NHL goal and the circumstances surrounding it. We’ll be sharing a few of those recollections with you as the season wears on.
This installment features three Washington broadcast personalities, Craig Laughlin, Joe Reekie and Ken Sabourin. Sabourin had some difficulty remembering some of the details of his first NHL goal, but happily provided us with the details of his first NHL fight. We filled in around the edges as far as his goal was concerned.
Laughlin’s first NHL tally came on Dec. 5, 1981 against the Calgary Flames, during Laughlin’s first NHL season with the Montreal Canadiens. The Capitals’ television color analyst scored his first goal in his second NHL game, but remembers playing so poorly in his first game that he figured he was headed back to the AHL immediately afterwards.
“First I have to take a step back,” says Laughlin, when asked to remember his first goal. “It was a Thursday night in Detroit, my first night up with the Montreal Canadiens. I was a minus-4. I remember their big, slapshotting defenseman Reed Larson ripping the puck and I was playing the left side. I had never played the left side, being a college kid. So I called my wife after the game and I said, ‘Hon, I’ll be right back in Halifax after the game.’
“But it just so happens that on the plane right home, Rejean Houle continues to be hurt. So with that, Bob Berry, the coach of the Canadiens calls me in and says, ‘Craig you’re playing again [Saturday] night and it’s Hockey Night in Canada, it’s an 8 o’clock start in the Montreal Forum.’ I said, ‘Oh. That’s a lot of pressure for a young kid.’ But it was a great opportunity and I couldn’t wait.
“I remember being at the Forum and the benches are on one side and I was playing on the left side. We were going from left to right and I remember there was a line change. I hear Bob Berry yelling, ‘Locker, get off!’ And I’m not listening. I’ve got tunnel vision now.
“Larry Robinson went around the net, grabbed the puck and cut up the middle. Guy Lafleur was playing right wing. He flipped it to Guy Lafleur and the fans stood up in a frenzy. The whole Calgary Flames defense backed in because Flower was rocketing down the right wing. And as soon he got over the blueline, I yelled for Guy Lafleur, I yelled, ‘Flower!” as hard and as loud as I could. He threw it across and I one-timed it top corner. That was the start of my NHL career and stayed up ever since. The goalie was Pat Riggin.
“Getting my first goal from Robinson and Lafleur, two Hall of Famers, was the thrill of a lifetime. I have the puck on a beautiful plaque that they gave me and it’s my most treasured moment.”
Reekie’s first NHL tally also came in his rookie season, but it took a bit longer than Laughlin’s. The former Capitals defenseman, now a studio analyst for Comcast SportsNet, got his first taste of the NHL in a three-game trial with Buffalo in 1985-86. Reekie opened the next season with Buffalo’s AHL farm team but was recalled on Dec. 4 and stuck with the Sabres the rest of the way without missing a game.
“It was the last game of my rookie season in Hartford and we were out of the playoffs in Buffalo,” recalls Reekie. “I want to say that it was and end-to-end rush where I beat everyone and beat the goalie, but it wasn’t. I just came in, closed my eyes, shot and grabbed the puck. I came in off the blueline, I forget who passed it to me. I took a quick slapshot. [Steve] Weeks was the goaltender in Hartford then.”
It was not only the last game of Reekie’s rookie season, but it was also the last period of the last game of his freshman campaign.
“It made for a good summer even though we didn’t make the playoffs,” he says. “Waiting for the last game of your rookie season to get your first goal, I still remember it and it was fun. I still have the puck. There weren’t too many big goals but everyone remembers their first one.”
Sabourin spent parts of four seasons in the NHL, debuting with the Calgary Flames in their Stanley Cup championship season of 1988-89. He played six regular season and one playoff game with the Flames that year, and still sports the beautiful ring that commemorates Calgary’s championship season. While he had difficulty remembering much about his first NHL goal, Sabourin remembered plenty of the details surrounding his first NHL fight.
“I hit [the Kings’ Wayne] Gretzky and started a 5-on-5 brawl,” he recalls with an impish grin. “I was on the boards, going in for an icing and I just barely touched him. I’m on the boards leaning over and he is underneath me and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to hurt.’ I just knew. I looked behind me and there were three guys coming with their gloves off: [Ken] Baumgartner, [Marty] McSorley and Jay Miller. It was my luck, all three of them were on the ice. They were pounding on me. But I had Gary Roberts and Tim Hunter [on the ice with me]. It was a 5-on-5 brawl.
“We played back-to-back [games] and again the next night, as soon as I got on the ice it was 5-on-5 again. All three of them starting coming after me.”
So that’s how Sabourin was able to amass 26 penalty minutes in just six games in his first taste of the NHL. One of his veteran teammates pleaded with the rambunctious rookie, asking him to cool his jets a bit.
“Back home [in Calgary],” Sabourin remembers, “Lanny [McDonald] took on somebody on the “C” at center ice. I can’t remember who he fought. It was a toe-to-toe battle. He came in the dressing room and I was already in there. He said, ‘Hey kid, ease up. I can’t take this anymore.’”
In those days, just brushing against The Great One was the hockey equivalent of touching off World War III, as Sabourin quickly learned.
“I was talking to Baumgartner outside the rink after the game,” he reminisces. “I said, ‘Baumer, is it over?’ He said, ‘No. It’ll never be over.’”
As for the first of Sabourin’s two career NHL goals, we’ll let him start and then we’ll fill in the missing details.
“My first goal, I don’t remember who it was against,” he says. “I know everything [else] about it. It was a slapshot from the point. It was one of those token shots where you just shoot it in; I never shot anyway. I just shot it on net and it went in. Everybody was jumping up and I went, ‘Yeah!’ I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t expect it.”
The goal was actually scored at USAir Arena against the Capitals on Oct. 27, 1990. Sporting uniform No. 55 for the visiting Flames, Sabourin enjoyed the best game of his 74-game NHL career. Partnered with the legendary Al MacInnis, Sabourin collected an assist on Paul Ranheim’s first period goal. He earned the primary helper on a second period tally from Brian MacLellan, now the Capitals’ director of player personnel. Finally, late in the second period, Sabourin scored his first NHL goal with help from Ranheim and Doug Gilmour, beating the Caps’ Mike Liut for the Flames’ eighth goal in a 9-4 rout over Washington.
Sabourin finished the night a fight shy of a Gordie Howe hat trick. But he did have a goal, two assists, three shots on goal, an elbowing minor and an astounding plus-6 for the night. That one game accounted for 30% of Sabourin’s career point total.
It must have made quite an impression on former Caps general manager David Poile. Less than three months later, Poile shipped left wing Paul Fenton to Calgary in exchange for Sabourin.