With Friday’s signing of defenseman Shaone Morrisonn, the Capitals have inked all their players for the 2008-09 season. No further off-season personnel issues remain for the Caps to address, and training camp is still six weeks away. The final week of July qualifies as the dog days in these parts these days, but it wasn’t always this way.
Thirty-four summers ago, Caps general manager Milt Schmidt and his advisors were trying to put together a competitive hockey team to take the ice for the Washington Capitals’ first ever season in the NHL, 1974-75. The Caps drafted 24 players from the existing 16 clubs in the league during the June, 1974 expansion draft. Schmidt and Co. drafted 25 more players in the amateur draft that summer, the most ever chosen by the Capitals.
|Milt Schmidt |
Those 49 players represented far more in the way of quantity than quantity, as history illustrates. Having added six teams in five years and 12 teams in eight years, the NHL was spread fairly thin in talent at the time. In those days, virtually all the rosters of all the teams in the league were comprised of Canadians. Factor the rival World Hockey Association – then getting set for its third season of existence – into the equation and you had more major league hockey jobs than you had major league hockey players.
Such was the dilemma Schmidt faced that summer. Days after the drafts, Schmidt wrote a check to the Atlanta Flames to purchase aging defenseman Doug Mohns. Mohns was 40 at the time; he turned 41 during the Caps’ inaugural season. Washington’s first-ever team captain, Mohns remains the oldest player ever to pull on a Capitals sweater. Schmidt and Mohns had been teammates in Boston, and Schmidt later coached Mohns with the Bruins.
In the final days of July, Schmidt added three more players to the nascent Washington organization, two of which – like Mohns – he was familiar with from their days together in Boston.
|Doug Mohns |
On July 22, Schmidt dialed up the Bruins and made a cash deal for the NHL playing rights to veteran winger Tommy Williams. During the 1960s, Williams was one of just a few American player in a league comprised almost entirely of Canadians. He played for the 1960 U.S. Olympic team that won gold at Squaw Valley, one of only two players from that team to ascend to the NHL (goaltender Jack McCartan was the other).
For a period of about 15 years, the swift-skating Williams was the NHL’s all-time leading scorer among American-born players. In 1972-73, Williams jumped from the NHL’s Bruins to the WHA’s New England (later Hartford) Whalers. He scored the first goal in Whalers’ franchise history on Oct. 12, 1972 against the Philadelphia Blazers. After two seasons in the WHA, the 34-year-old Williams was looking to return to the NHL.
Six days after obtaining Williams, Schmidt acquired another ex-Bruin in checking winger Bill Lesuk. Although he broke into the NHL with Boston in 1968-69, Lesuk had gained most of his NHL playing experience with Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Lesuk – who scored 20 goals for the 1969-70 Hershey Bears – had scored 36 goals in 260 NHL games. At 27, he was among the oldest and most experienced of the ’74-75 Capitals.
|Tommy Williams |
Finally, on July 29 Schmidt sent cash to the New York Rangers in exchange for 23-year-old forward Andre Peloffy. The Peloffy deal was actually agreed upon a month earlier, when Schmidt agreed not to select certain players from the New York roster during the expansion draft in exchange for future considerations. Peloffy turned out to be those future considerations.
Born in Sete, France, Peloffy was New York’s 10th round (111th overall) draft choice in the 1971 NHL Amateur Draft. Peloffy played his junior hockey in Quebec, and had played three seasons as a pro in the minors in North America before joining the Capitals.
All three of Schmidt’s late-July acquisitions went on to earn berths on Washington’s first opening night roster. On Oct. 9, 1974, the Caps took to the ice for the first time at Madison Square Garden in New York against the Rangers. Peloffy made his NHL debut that night, becoming the first player from France ever to play in the NHL.
The opening night tilt was one of just nine games Peloffy would play for Washington and in the NHL. He was held without a point and posted a minus-8 in those nine games. He spent the remainder of the 1974-75 season with Washington’s AHL affiliate, the Richmond Robins. Peloffy led the Robins in scoring with 73 points (29 goals, 44 assists) in 62 games. He later jumped to the WHA and played in 10 games with the Whalers before returning to Europe where he concluded his playing career at the age of 39 in 1990.
Lesuk spent the entire 1974-75 season with Washington. He led the team with 79 games played, missing just one contest during the campaign. He totaled eight goals and 19 points for the Caps.
|Bill Lesuk |
After the ’74-75 season, Lesuk jumped to Winnipeg of the WHA. He played for the Jets during their last four seasons in the WHA, playing on three Avco Cup champions during that span. Lesuk wound up his NHL career with the Jets in 1979-80 when the Jets were one of four WHA teams to merge with the NHL.
Lesuk went right from the ice to the front office, working in the Jets’ scouting department for years. He moved with the team to Phoenix in 1996. Lesuk also served as the director of amateur scouting for the Chicago Blackhawks for several seasons.
Of the three late-July acquisitions in the summer of ’74, Williams had the longest NHL career and also stayed in Washington the longest. He led the first-year Caps in all offensive categories with 22 goals, 36 assists and 58 points. Williams was the only one of the three who was still with the club when the Caps’ sophomore season of 1975-76 got underway.
A widower with five children, Williams missed his family and became frustrated by the Capitals’ perpetual losing ways in the middle of that ’75-76 season.
|Andre Peloffy |
Shortly after the Caps absorbed a 14-2 beating at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 21, 1975, Williams announced his retirement. He decided he would spend Christmas at home with his children.
Williams passed away in 1992 at the age of 51. Along with Mohns, goaltender Ron Low and Yvon Labre, he remains among the few well-known Caps from that first season.
That week late in July of 1974 came just days before Richard Nixon resigned the U.S. presidency in disgrace. Washington’s maiden voyage on the ice didn’t go much better; the Caps were 8-67-5 that first season. But that busy week in late July of that summer stands as one of the busiest late July weeks in franchise history.