“I think one of the big things that kept us down in the playoffs was the playoff format,” says Gartner in retrospect. “I think in the early- to mid-‘80s if we would have had the one-through-sixteen lineup, I think we would have done a heck of a lot better than we did under the format we had to play under.
“For a few years in a row, we were one of the top four teams in the league as far as points go. And the way the playoff divisions stacked up, we were against either the Islanders or the Flyers who were also among the top four teams. And so a lot of times we would have to play against the first, second or third overall placed team in the first round of the playoffs. And then if you beat them, a lot of times you’d have to play against the first overall team. That’s one of the reasons why they changed the playoff format – the top teams were beating each other up early in the rounds.
“We had a tough time with that. We were there with the Islanders when they were winning the Cups and everything else but we weren’t quite there. Maybe we would have done better if we were meeting them in the third or fourth round rather than the first round. I think that’s one of the biggest single things that hurt the franchise at that time.”
Indeed, the Capitals met either the Islanders or the Flyers in the first round of every playoff season during Gartner’s years in DC. At the time, New York and Philadelphia were Patrick Division powerhouses and one of those two teams won the division every year during the Gartner era in DC. The Caps didn’t win their first division title until 1989. Gartner had been dealt to Minnesota along with Larry Murphy for Dino Ciccarelli and Bob Rouse just weeks before the Caps clinched.
“It was a shock because I had not heard any rumors or anything,” he remembers of March 7, 1989, the fateful day he was dealt to Minnesota. “We were in Montreal at the trading deadline and we were skating around for a practice. I remember [assistant coach] Terry Murray coming over and saying that [head coach] Bryan [Murray] wanted to see me and Larry Murphy in the dressing room. We came in and after 10 years they tell you you’re going to another team.
“It was quite a shock at that time. It was a tough one to get over. I think I was spinning for quite some time after that. And then having to come back – with Minnesota we got beat out of the playoffs and the Caps got beat out of the playoffs at the same time – to Washington where my family was and my home was and just realizing that the feeling that being part of a team and a community really does get changed overnight. You just don’t feel quite the same way any more.”
When he departed DC, Gartner held virtually every Capitals career scoring record. He still holds the mark for points (789) but Peter Bondra is poised to surpass Gartner’s career goals standard of 397.
His best memories of his days in Washington are mostly of team achievements.
“I think in Washington, it was interesting from the standpoint that it was such a new team,” he remembers. “When I first got there, the team had never beaten Philadelphia before, so we had the first time that we ever beat the Flyers. And we had never beaten Montreal before, so there was the first time we beat Montreal. There were a lot of milestone victories for the franchise over the first few years that were pretty satisfying.
“My only 50-goal season was with the Caps – both Bobby Carpenter and I had very good years that year. I also had my only 100-point season that year. And just kind of growing with the team as a young player was a real highlight for me. I got great opportunities to play there, which was terrific. I don’t think I could have been as successful as I was without all the great opportunities I had in Washington. I made some good friends there and met some wonderful people in the community. We really enjoyed our years there and our two oldest kids were born in Maryland.”
A year later he was traded again, this time to the Rangers for Ulf Dahlen. With New York, he scored his 500th and 600th career goals and was again playing on a Stanley Cup contender. But fate intervened once again in March of 1994. Less than two months before the Rangers won their first Cup in 54 years, Gartner was traded to Toronto for Glenn Anderson.
“That was hard because the team that we had we really felt like it was a team that was going to have a very good chance at winning the Cup that year,” Gartner admits. “We were in first place overall for the entire season. I was looking forward to that. And then getting traded and watching the Rangers go ahead and win the Cup was hard to watch.
“At the same time, going to Toronto was one of the big thrills of my career as well. A kid growing up in Toronto and playing for the Leafs was a huge thrill. So I have no regrets. I would have loved to have been part of a Stanley Cup winning team, but unfortunately I was not. I was part of Canada Cup winning teams in ’84 and ’87, which was a huge thrill. I represented my country in eight different tournaments over the course of my career, so there were a lot of highlights. But I certainly would have loved to have been a part of a Stanley Cup winning team.”
Gartner played two seasons with the Leafs before winding up his NHL career with Phoenix. He retired with 708 goals and ranks fifth on the all-time NHL list in that category. Gartner trails only Wayne Gretzky (894), Gordie Howe (801), Marcel Dionne (731) and Phil Esposito (717). He is the only man in NHL history to put together 15 straight seasons with 30 or more goals [Ed. Note: Jaromir Jagr later matched that feat.]. That streak was broken only by the lockout of 1994-95; Gartner had two more 30-goal campaigns immediately thereafter. He retired after the 1997-98 season, but there was one last moment of magic for his legions of followers in Washington.
Phoenix visited DC on March 16, 1998. It would be the only time that Gartner would take the ice at the MCI (now Verizon) Center. With Olaf Kolzig nursing a 2-0 shutout in the waning moments of the game, Gartner scored a power play goal.
“That was great because the [Verizon] Center is a terrific building and I think that people in the area should be very proud of the building and the team that is there now,” he remembers of his last goal in DC. “It’s a big change from the Cap Centre and it’s a great facility. I think it’s going to be a great home for the Caps for many years to come.”
Those fans who were there that night walked off with one last Gartner highlight for their memory banks, but the memory banks of many, many more people are filled with Gartner’s generosity away from the ice. Throughout his career, Gartner was – and continues to be – active in the community and in giving back. He has his own good memories from those experiences, too.
“A lot of hockey players do that,” he says modestly of his charitable efforts. “They have a special place for charities and for helping out. I think players are generally very good at that and I guess I was no exception. I used to love being involved in the community and to give back. I know that the years I was there, there was a program I had with the Children’s Hospital where for every goal I scored, I donated $100. I challenged the season ticket holders to come up and chip in a little bit here and there and it ended up working out to about a thousand dollars a goal.
“For several years in a row I was able to go with season ticket holders down to Children’s Hospital and give checks for forty or fifty thousand dollars. That was a lot of fun. I have a lot of great memories dealing with the people down there and seeing the kids and just being part of that.”
These days, Gartner maintains a very busy schedule.
“I’m with the Players’ Association,” he says of his primary job. “I’m the chairman of the Goals and Dreams Fund. That’s a fund that we started two years ago when I first came on board. It’s a project that the players themselves fund to the tune of $15 million over the next five years. The idea of it is to assist in developing hockey at the grass roots level around the world. It’s my job – as well as Devin Smith, our program manager – to make sure that as applications come in for different communities, different projects that they have and different programs that they have, to make sure that the money that the players have provided gets given away well.
“We have given almost $5 million away so far in the two years that we have had it up and running. We have had almost 400 applications from around the world and have approved close to 100 programs. We have given away about 3000 full sets of equipment away – Zambonis, ice plants, sports glass – to different communities all around the world. We’ve been to Russia, Siberia, Finland, Sweden and Romania. We’ve been to the United States and Canada for quite a few projects. So we’re doing things all over the place.”
Gartner and former teammate Wes Jarvis also operate a company called National Training Rinks that builds and operates smaller-sized ice surfaces where young players can hone their skills in a more realistic hockey environment. He also helps to coach his daughter’s team and goes to watch his older son’s games. Josh Gartner, a goaltender, plays for Green Bay of the USHL. The younger Gartner will continue his hockey career while pursuing a degree at Yale. Gartner also has a six-year-old son who is just starting to play organized hockey.
In his Hall of Fame induction speech, he alluded to his parents and the example they set for him and his wish to pass that example on to his children. Along with the speed and the shot, the Gartner work ethic is a major part of his hockey legacy.
“I think that I took pretty good care of myself, which helps a lot,” he says, when asked about his durability and longevity. “It doesn’t help you not get injured as much as it helps you recover quickly when you do get hurt. And maybe if you’re going to get hurt, you wouldn’t get hurt as badly as you would have if you weren’t in good condition or didn’t keep yourself in good condition. I think that helped a lot – that and my lifestyle. I never abused my body away from the rink. I was a pretty low-key family man and I think that had a lot to do with it as well.”
As he got older, Gartner worked harder to stay in shape and to keep up with all the younger players coming into the league.
“It got a little more intense as I got older,” he says of his off-ice training regimen. “I felt like I needed to do more in order to accomplish the same thing and so I worked harder at it. And the game changed a little bit, too. When I first came into the league, a lot of players came to training camp to get into shape and by the time I retired, you just could not do that. You had to come to camp two days away from being in midseason form or you were going to stick out like a sore thumb. I think the expectations changed quite a bit as the years went on as well.”
That a plaque bearing his likeness now hangs alongside those of all the game’s immortals who played in the eras preceding him is a tribute to Gartner’s dedication to his craft both on and off the ice. When he came into the league in 1979, he was thought of as a solid two-way player who could contribute a bit of offense along the way. Scouts saw him as the next Bob Gainey, a speedy defensive specialist who could neutralize the opposition’s top scoring lines and kill penalties. No one foresaw a 19-year, 700-goal career for him.
“My dad always told me to be a good two-way hockey player,” Gartner recalls. “I think he was instrumental in that and actually, when I was drafted, I really came into the league as a two-way hockey player. I could score goals but I was just considered as a good, solid, two-way player. I didn’t really develop into a big goal scorer until I started playing in Washington.
“We were challenged to get the puck into the net and so when given the opportunity, I was able to do it. And because you’re able to do it, you’re called upon to do it more. At times, you sacrifice a little bit of the defensive part of the game to get the puck into the net a little bit more and I’m sure that did happen at times. But I was always conscious that you had to play well and you had to backcheck hard at the same time.”
Gartner never played on a Cup-winning team, never won a major postseason award and was never named to a postseason all-star team. But he was a great player, a great teammate and a great man. He came to a town where hockey was an afterthought and helped breath life and vigor into a moribund franchise.
He helped put the Capitals on the map.