History shows that the 1979 NHL Entry Draft provided one of the best and deepest talent pools to be had in the draft. History also shows the Caps nabbed the best winger they could have chosen that year when they used the fourth overall choice to select right wing Mike Gartner.
As the 1979 NHL Entry Draft loomed, the Washington Capitals underwent some front office changes. Washington hired the late Jack Button, who had been the architect of the league’s Central Scouting Bureau, as its director of player recruitment in July, 1979. Caps general manager Max McNab gave Button total control over the draft. Days before the Aug. 9 draft in Montreal, the Capitals ousted longtime scouts Red Sullivan and Billy Taylor, both of whom had been with the club since its inception in 1974. Sullivan even did a short stint behind the bench as the team’s head coach in its inaugural 1974-75 season.
The Capitals were preparing for their sixth season in the league, and they were still seeking their first ever playoff berth. In the five previous drafts, the Capitals had two first overall selections (Greg Joly in 1974 and Rick Green in 1976), a second overall pick (Ryan Walter in 1978) and a third overall choice (Robert Picard in 1977). Washington was set to pick fourth in 1979.
With the merger of the WHA and the NHL and the inclusion of 19-year-old junior players, the 1979 NHL draft provided what was easily the best crop of talent in league history.
“With the inclusion of six or seven, possibly more, of the 19-year-olds in the first round,” offered McNab before the draft, “it looks to me like the best draft in history.”
McNab was right, and it can be argued that the talent level of the 1979 draft has not been matched in the three decades since, either. More than 80% of the 126 players chosen in the ’79 draft went on to play at least one NHL game, and thus far four have gone on to gain enshrinement in the hallowed Hockey Hall of Fame. Many 1979 draftees were solid NHL players for a decade or more.
Owning the fourth overall pick, the newly appointed Button assessed his team’s roster and determined its most pressing need heading into the 1979-80 season.
“The most important thing we can obtain through the draft is a winger,” said Button in the Aug. 9, 1979 edition of The Washington Star
. “If there happens to be a [super] defenseman there, you’re not going to get hurt by picking him.”
With centers Walter, Dennis Maruk, Rolf Edberg and Guy Charron already on the team, it made sense for the Caps to look for a winger. But which one? Eleven of the players chosen in the first round were wingers, although two of them (Perry Turnbull and Mike Foligno) were gone by the time the Capitals made their first pick of the day.
When the time came, it was an easy choice for Washington. McNab had been singing Gartner’s praises well before the league’s general managers and scouts assembled in Montreal to make the picks.
“If I could think of just one word to describe him it would be ‘consistency,’” said McNab of Gartner, before the draft. “A young man with class who impresses everyone who sees him. Very difficult to find any weak spots, exceptional skater. Very advanced defensively and will score goals, though not a 50-goal man.”
McNab was right on almost all counts; but Gartner did go on to record one 50-goal season in 1984-85. The speedy right winger was an attractive choice for all the reasons McNab mentioned, and one more to boot. As a 19-year-old, Gartner had spent the 1978-79 season playing professionally for the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association, rather than skating for his Niagara Falls junior team in the Ontario Hockey Association.
“It’s going to be a bit of a jump to the NHL,” Gartner said in the Aug. 10, 1979 edition of The Washington Post
, “but that was one of the main reasons I went to the WHA a year ago, to give me a better chance to move up to the NHL. I think I’ll have an edge on a junior player, because I’ve been involved in better competition.”
After scoring 41 goals in his final season with Niagara Falls, Gartner netted 27 goals and posted 52 points in 75 games with the Stingers. He finished second in rookie of the year balloting in the WHA’s final season, trailing only Edmonton’s Wayne Gretzky.
“I think I could possibly have scored more if I hadn’t concentrated on defense last year,” opined Gartner. “I knew I’d have to think more defense in the NHL. But the whole WHA was not as bad defensively last year as it had been before.”
It wasn’t just concentrating on defense that kept Gartner’s offensive production down in his WHA season. Although he missed only five games in his season with Cincinnati, Gartner was hampered by some injuries during the campaign. Despite being bothered by a bruised knee, a hip pointer and a broken thumb at various stages of the 1978-79 season, the 19-year-old Gartner flourished in his first season as a pro. He also racked up 123 penalty minutes, the most he ever recorded in a single season in two decades as a pro.
“Fortunately, (Capitals assistant general manager) Roger Crozier had known Mike for quite some time, and was more personally aware of the injuries he was playing with,” remarked McNab after the draft. “As a result, we were able to take that into consideration. I’m sure if Mike had been 100 percent all year, he would have been gone by the time we drafted.”
Gartner’s decision to leave Niagara Falls for the WHA proved to be a good one, too.
“I thought I’d get more experience, more exposure and a lot more money,” he admitted. “I signed for one year, but the club had an option for four more years. If the WHA had survived, I was prepared to stay there as long as they wanted me.
“Then the merger came and I had no objection to being drafted, even though I was already a pro. It’s nice to be a free agent, with a little more bargaining power, but I had gotten a year of experience while I was supposed to be playing junior and now in the draft it was just as if I was coming out of junior.”
Before he suited up for the Caps, there was a legal matter to clear up. Five of Gartner’s fellow former WHA players had already filed and won appeals for compensation from the NHL. The players in question were placed into the league’s draft pool, even though they all had a season of pro hockey already under their respective belts. Previously known as the Amateur Draft, the league changed terminology and began calling its annual summer talent stocking “Entry Draft” starting in 1979.
Gartner’s attorney filed a similar appeal, and the legal wrangling kept Gartner away from Washington’s training camp when it opened in September of 1979.
“I’m really anxious for the legal business to be settled,” said Gartner, in the Sept. 18, 1979 issue of The Washington Star
. “I want to get into camp and play hockey. I consider myself a Capital. An absentee Cap at the moment.”
Days later, Gartner was under contract, on the ice and getting ready for his first NHL season.
“I know what pro hockey is like,” he said, prior to the start of his first campaign with the Caps. “I don’t know what the NHL is like. Hopefully I can help the team out right away.”
Here’s a look at the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau’s extremely prescient 1979 report on Gartner: “Excellent skater … excellent speed … handles the puck, shoots it well, back-checks, fore-checks, tough … hockey sense is good … has a fairly quick release on his shot but sometimes he chooses to hang on a little bit too long … he plays with a tremendous amount of intensity … he’s always in position … he’s good in the corners … very aggressive … very quick to take advantage of an opponent’s mistakes … very difficult to find any weak spots in this hockey player … consistent in his play and will continue to be … projecting him, we feel he will play the same 10 years from now as he plays today.”