“Well, it was a little different. When I first got drafted, keep in mind I’m 19 years old. I had to look up on a map to see where Washington, DC was. It was interesting. They flew us down to give us a tour of the city – my mom and dad and my girlfriend and I. So we came down and they picked us up in a limousine and showed us all the sights. Then the driver jumps on the beltway and we’re driving past the Capital Centre in Landover. And he was telling us about different things and he says, ‘Yeah, that’s the Capital Centre. They have lots of concerts there and different events. The Washington Bullets play there.’ Then he says, ‘You know what? I think they might even have an ice hockey team there.’ So I knew very early that I was going to a place where hockey was not very high on the priority list.”
-- Mike Gartner, on coming to Washington in 1979 after being raised in hockey-mad Ontario
It’s a good thing Mike Gartner wasn’t looking for Washington, DC on a “hockey map” in those days. At the time, the Capitals were a five-year-old expansion franchise and an NHL doormat. In those five pre-Gartner seasons, the Capitals never made the playoffs, never won more than 24 games and never amassed more than 63 points. The year before Gartner’s arrival, the Capitals averaged 9,925 patrons per game and failed to achieve a sellout in any of their home dates.
With the arrival of Gartner, the tide began to turn. He combined with friend and fellow high draft pick Ryan Walter to give the Capitals an exciting and youthful one-two punch. The playoffs were still a few years away when Gartner first made the scene, but the Caps began trending upward right away and haven’t looked back since. The year Gartner left, Washington set franchise marks for average attendance per game (17,013) and number of sellouts in a season (23).
On Monday night, Gartner joined the game’s truly elite when he was enshrined in the hallowed Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, just a short drive from where he grew up. Gartner, who authored 708 goals in 1,432 regular season NHL contests, gained entry in his first year of eligibility and becomes the first Washington Capital player ever to achieve hockey’s grandest individual accolade.
“Well I was ecstatic,” he says, when asked to recall his feelings when he learned of his election to the Hall. “Although I knew there was a three-year waiting period and there is a voting process, I really didn’t know until that day that there was actually a meeting going on and that they were going to be voting on some inductees. When I got the call, I was taken aback by it. I had to just sit for five or 10 seconds and collect my thoughts before I even responded. It was a real thrill.”
Like most Canadian boys, he first donned the double-runners before he started school. Born in Ottawa, Gartner began playing organized hockey in the Toronto area and moved with his family to Barrie, Ontario – about an hour north or Toronto – where he played minor hockey.
As a teenager, his team won the Canadian midget championship and represented Canada at a tournament in Moscow. It would be the first of many teams that he would represent his country on the international hockey stage.
“We all flew over to Moscow in 1974, which was pretty much at the height of the Cold War, “ he remembers. “We had a five-game exhibition tournament against some Russian teams over there.
“It was a culture shock. At that time it was a very closed society, as we know. I remember it being very bleak at that time. There was no colored clothing and everything seemed kind of dark and overcast. The food was quite different than we were used to; we brought over a lot of our own food. We also did a lot of pin trading with the Russian kids. They loved little pins and anything North American. We brought over some jeans and traded jeans and things like that.
“The hockey was great. We played against their Red Army team a couple of times. They beat us once – I think we ended up winning once, tying two and losing two games when we were over there. It was a great experience.”
After playing two years of junior hockey with the Niagara Falls Flyers – where one of his teammates was Lou Franceschetti, a future Caps teammate – Gartner joined several other promising teenage hockey talents in forgoing his final year of junior hockey for a crack at the pro game. The rival World Hockey Association would begin the final campaign in its brief but revolutionary existence in the fall of 1978. Gartner signed on as an underaged free agent with the Cincinnati Stingers, a veteran-laden club in what was a six-team circuit by season’s end (the Indianapolis franchise folded in December of ’78).
“Barry Melrose was on that team and Rob Ftorek,” recalls Gartner. “Paul Stewart, Mike Liut, Bryan Watson, Rick Dudley. There’s always a hazing process and I was a pretty cocky young kid coming in, so I got my initiation pretty good. But it was a good experience. It was good seeing what the lifestyle was and what the requirements were and how tough the travel and everything was.”
Gartner was too young for the NHL Amateur Draft in those days, but the existence of the WHA offered options, opportunity and money to players of all ages and ability levels.
“It was a 20-year-old NHL draft and there were a bunch of us who were kind of ready to get into pro hockey and the only option for us was to go down and play in the WHA,” Gartner says. “So I think five guys (Rob Ramage, Rick Vaive, Craig Hartsburg, Michel Goulet and Pat Riggin) went down and played in Birmingham, [Wayne] Gretzky went to Indianapolis and Mark Messier and I went to Cincinnati. It was a pretty easy decision, really. It was either make $75,000 a year in Cincinnati or $75 a week in Niagara Falls.”
Gartner acquitted himself well that season. He was fifth on the team in goals (27) and sixth in scoring (52 points). He also racked up 123 PIM, the most in his 20 seasons of pro hockey.
After the 1978-79 season, the NHL absorbed the Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec and Winnipeg franchises and paid off Birmingham and Cincinnati to fold. With the notable exception of Gretzky, those underage WHA prodigies were declared draft eligible and Capitals general manager Max McNab used his first pick – fourth overall – on Gartner.
After the draft had ended, McNab could barely contain his glee over landing Gartner.
“When you talk about pros, you talk about a complete player,” McNab effused. “In actual fact, with Mike Gartner, this is exactly what you have. You have size, tremendous speed, scoring ability, playmaking ability, desire and courage.
“There are just no weaknesses that we see. This acquisition fills a hole with a proven pro, and wing was a position we needed help at pretty desperately.”
McNab’s assessment may have sounded slightly hyperbolic at the time, but the years would prove his words to be very prescient.
Gartner – still only 19 when his rookie NHL campaign got underway – scored 36 goals and totaled 68 points as a freshman with Washington. He also registered a team best and franchise record plus-15 on a team that had a goal differential of minus-32. However, he and his fellow WHA refugees were declared ineligible for the Calder Trophy awarded to the NHL’s top rookie.
Upon arriving in Washington, Gartner struck up a friendship with fellow Caps forward Ryan Walter, who was Washington’s first round pick (second overall) in the previous summer’s draft. The two have maintained that strong bond to this day, and Walter was present in the audience when Gartner was enshrined at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“We just sort of stuck together like glue from the start,” says Walter, who is the television color analyst for Vancouver Canucks games these days [Ed. Note: Walter is now an assistant coach with the Canucks]. “It’s been an amazing friendship, actually, because Mike and I do not see each other very much right now – a couple of times a year. But our families pick right up, our kids get along and Colleen [Gartner] and Jen [Walter] are friends. And Mike and I are really close. There is some kind of bond there that came from those early days. Right off the bat, I knew that Mike was an honest guy and an honest player. He was certainly a fabulous talent. But more than that, he was a real strong character. He would come to play in Philadelphia and he would come to play in the hard games. I appreciated that about him.”
The two promising young talents roomed together on the road and soon began sharing a house in suburban Maryland, near the old Capital Centre.
“We had a little tiny box of a house,” says Walter. “We called it, ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ because we didn’t own a lawn mower,” he laughs. “And we never once cut the grass. It must’ve been like four feet high. And I don’t think our neighbors appreciated that. But we just didn’t own a lawn mower and we were always out of town. He had a TV in his room with a remote and I had a TV in my room across the hall with a hockey stick that I used to use as a channel changer.”
Gartner and Walter were two young kids, but the hopes of a teetering franchise rested on their shoulders. Both were strong enough to bear the burden, but only Gartner would be around when the Caps emerged from darkness. Walter was the centerpiece of the trade that brought Rod Langway, Craig Laughlin and Doug Jarvis to Washington from Montreal in the fall of 1982.
“Those were interesting days,” says Walter. “The Capitals fans who watch [Jaromir] Jagr and Ron Wilson’s team now can hardly remember them. But we used to go in and get beat up in Philadelphia and we’d go into different places and really struggle. I really appreciated Mike because he was a goal scorer who really had to battle. There are not too many goal scorers now that have to fight their way out of Philadelphia. It’s a real different era and people don’t understand that. When I say, ‘He came to play,’ I think that’s an important statement. He would show up every night and he just didn’t score goals when he wanted to score goals. He played hard and was part of our team every night.”
McNab’s respect and admiration for Gartner’s ability and work ethic grew as the years went by, too. Shortly before he was replaced as the Capitals’ general manager in the fall of 1981, McNab praised his high-flying right winger again.
“Mike is one of the most complete players we’ve had,” enthused McNab. “If you knew nothing about hockey and walked into an arena for the first time, you could look at our players and immediately find one who has the best all-around ability and feel for the game. That player would be Mike Gartner. His intelligence and talent just makes him stand out – even to the untrained eye. He’s really something.”
Gartner continued to dazzle Washington fans with his blazing speed, his deadly accurate shot, his effective two-way play and his tireless work ethic. Capitals fans grew accustomed to seeing his scoring bursts. He would cruise down the right wing boards and would use his speed and balance to get around a defender, cut toward the net and let the puck fly from a few feet away. Or he would sail down the right wing boards and let loose a blistering slap shot from the top of the circle. That speed and that shot were his calling cards on the ice.
“I think the other thing that everybody remembers right off the bat is the speed,” says Walter. “He is the most bow-legged person I know and because of that, he has a great stride. I don’t really understand why bow-legged people skate better but certainly they do and Mike did.”
Gartner often acknowledges his speed and skating ability as a natural gift, although he does remember attending a speed skating school as a youth.
“Well the skating was certainly something that came naturally,” he affirms. “I worked hard at it to develop a good skating stride as well as strength when I finally started playing as a pro. The shot was something that I had to work hard on, a lot. It’s one thing to have a pretty hard shot but it’s another to have a hard and accurate shot. I used to shoot hundreds of pucks all the time to try and perfect the accuracy of my shot.”
Gartner scored 48 goals and 94 points in 1980-81, his second season with the Capitals. In ’81-82, he had 35 goals and 80 points. But despite the presence of Gartner, Walter, Dennis Maruk, Bengt Gustafsson and rookie sensations Bobby Carpenter and Chris Valentine on the roster, the Capitals missed the playoffs for the eighth straight season. When you’ve got five 30-goal scorers on your team, that’s tough to swallow.
So one of the 30-goal scorers (Walter) was packaged in the Langway deal and the Capitals finally began their upward trend in the NHL standings. Gartner scored 38 goals and 76 points in 1982-83 but more importantly, the team registered 94 points and made the playoffs for the first time.
In 1983-84, Gartner led the Caps in scoring – the first of three times he would accomplish that feat – with 85 points. He had a career year in 1984-85 with 50 goals and 102 points. Carpenter complemented him with 53 goals of his own and the “Goal Dust Twins” led the Caps to a second straight 101-point season. The points and goals and wins kept coming, but the one thing that mattered the most was still eluding Gartner and his teammates. They couldn’t win in the playoffs.Continued on next page