Mike Gartner never had a rookie season in the NHL. He first donned the No. 11 red, white and blue Washington sweater on Oct. 11, 1979 for a game against the Buffalo Sabres, just a couple weeks shy of his 20th birthday. But like several of his peers, Gartner had played the previous season (1978-79) as a pro in the World Hockey Association. At the conclusion of that season, the WHA and NHL merged, and several of the defunct league’s brightest young talents were made available for the 1979 NHL Entry Draft.
|Various Signs Seen at Capital Centre in 1979-80: |
|“Gartner, Speed Kills” |
“Mike Gartner, the Caps’ Eric Heiden”
“Oh Thank Heaven for No. 11”
Because he had played a season as a pro with the WHA Cincinnati Stingers in 1978-79, Gartner was not eligible for the NHL’s 1980 Calder Trophy. He was the runner-up (to a guy named Wayne Gretzky) for the Lou Kaplan Trophy given to the WHA Rookie of the Year in ’78-79.
In his NHL debut at Buffalo, Gartner recorded an assist for his first NHL point in a 6-3 loss. Caps center Bengt Gustafsson, a 1978 Washington draftee who had also played in the WHA in 1978-79, also picked up his first NHL assist that night.
Both Gartner and the Capitals struggled in the early going. After going 4-10-2 in their first 16 games, the Caps fired head coach Danny Belisle and replaced him with 26-year-old Gary Green, the youngest coach in NHL history. Green took the reins on Nov. 15, 1979, but he did not earn his first victory until more than two weeks later.
With on goal in his first dozen games in the NHL and just three goals in his first 22 games, Gartner was also struggling. At that stage of the season, he seemed unlikely to match his WHA production of the previous season when he netted 27 goals in 77 games.
Gartner, Green and the Caps all got well on Dec. 1 when the Quebec Nordiques paid a visit to the 4-16-4 Caps at the Capital Centre.
The game was a tight 2-2 affair heading into the third period. Tom Rowe scored a goal early in the third to give the Caps the lead, and then “The Cincinnati Kid” (as Gartner was known in those days) broke out. He scored three goals in a span of 9:43 – matching the output of his first 22 games – to record his first NHL hat trick and propel the Caps to a 7-2 win, Green’s first in the NHL. Gartner’s good friend Wes Jarvis set club records for most assists (three) and points (four) in a period. He assisted on all three Gartner goals.
The win ended a 10-game (0-8-2) Washington winless streak as a meager crowd of 6,892 looked on.
“There was no way in the world we were going to lose this one,” exuded the 20-year-old Gartner in the Dec. 2, 1979 edition of The Washington Post. “We dug down deep and played a great period. We went out and stuck together and this time we were really rewarded. It meant a lot. It really lifts our spirits up.”
The hat trick was what Gartner needed to jump start his season. He had been getting scoring chances up to that point, but wasn’t having much luck. Gartner also found the level of competition a little tougher in the NHL. He was smart enough to make the adjustments he needed to make to get going.
“I wasn’t used to playing NHL goaltenders,” said Gartner when asked about his slow start. “I thought you had to thread the needle to get the puck past them. But that’s not the case. They’re just like any other goaltenders, only a little quicker and faster.
“I had just three goals in the first 22 games. I must have hit at least seven or eight goalposts.”
Gartner wasn’t just helping his team by scoring goals. He was a very responsible player in his own end, too, especially given that he was a 20-year-old kid playing in his first NHL season.
Midway through the campaign, Gartner had a plus-13 defensive rating, second among first-year forwards to Philadelphia’s Brian Propp. But while Propp’s Flyers lost only two of their first 40 games that season, Gartner was skating for a Capitals team that won only 11 of its first 40 games.
“He plays with great intensity every night, and that’s the key,” said Green. “Because of this intensity, determination and skating ability, he’s as good a defensive player as he is an offensive threat.”
Gartner made some adjustments to his game as a rookie, changes he spoke about in midseason with the late, great Robert Fachet of The Washington Post.
“I’ve always had breakaways, right through junior, but I used to score more,” admitted Gartner. “I guess the goalies here are a lot smarter. They come out and poke check, which they didn’t do in junior.
“I get lots of breaks going down the wings. I’ve built speed up and, going full speed and cutting in, when the goalie comes out it’s tough to deke him. I think it’s just a matter of adjusting.
Aside from the better caliber goaltending, Gartner also addressed his early season lack of luck.
“I was getting a lot of chances and even though it was frustrating hitting so many posts, I just kept doing the same thing. If you get the chances, there’s nothing to worry about. Sooner or later, they’ll hit the post and go inside instead of out.
“Going down the wing, I was breaking to the outside rather than to the net and the defensemen were keeping me outside,” Gartner said. “I found that I had to be aggressive if I wanted the puck. This is a different league this year and everybody is smarter.”
Gartner always said that his trademark blazing speed came early on in his hockey-playing life, and was later augmented by the good hands and strength that followed. He started out trying to shoot hard and worked on accuracy later. As to conditioning, Gartner confessed to doing little in the way of weight work during the off-season, preferring instead to focus on favored pastimes such as tennis, squash, racquetball and golf.
After his early season goal-scoring drought, Gartner connected 31 times in 46 games and never went more than four games without lighting the red lamp.
“I was a little depressed at times early in the season,” he admitted. “I had to tell myself that just as long as I was still getting the chances, things would be okay. I was a little impatient but then everything started falling into place.”
In midseason, Gartner moved into a house in Davidsonville, Maryland with teammate Ryan Walter. The two remain great friends to this day.
“It’s the perfect house,” remarked Gartner of the dwelling he and Walter shared. “It sits up on a hill and is surrounded by two acres of wooded land. There’s a huge deck all around the house and it’s where I go when I want to just think about my life and my career.
“The house is really Ryan’s and I know that I’ll be here just until this season is over. Next year I’m going to have to find something for myself.”
Gartner recorded his second career hat trick against St. Louis on March 5, 1980. He led the Caps with 36 goals and 68 points, and his plus-15 (for a 27-40-13 team) shattered a club record. For his efforts, Gartner was the first Capital rookie ever to be named the team’s MVP and the youngest player ever to earn that award.
“Gartner’s 36 goals after a slow start breaking into the NHL indicates to us that he is a potential 50-goal scorer,” said Caps’ GM Max McNab at season’s end. “He was far ahead in the club’s plus-minus rating with a plus-15 in addition to leading the squad in goals and total points.
“Gartner is an all-around player offensively and defensively. His inspirational play sparked the team all season.”
Gartner scored at least a goal in eight consecutive games, five shy of Charlie Simmer’s modern day record. His season total of 36 was more than any other player chosen in the talent-rich 1979 NHL Entry Draft.
“This is a good place to play,” remarked Gartner during his first NHL season. “The fans are good. They don’t mind if you lose as long as you put out a good effort. As we get better, the whole situation should be just great.”