For eight consecutive seasons, playoff hockey was a foreign concept for the Washington Capitals. As a nascent franchise in the NHL, the Caps took their lumps, and personnel changes from year-to-year did little to improve continuity for the team and its fans.
Entering the Capitals’ ninth season in 1982, owner Abe Pollin needed to put a winner on the ice for a multitude of reasons. He began in August by installing 33-year-old David Poile as the new general manager.
Poile sought to give the franchise an identity that it never had before, defined by player mobility.
One of Poile’s first moves on the job was a blockbuster trade, sending promising forward Ryan Walter and defenseman Rick Green to Montreal for defensemen Rod Langway and Brian Engblom, center Doug Jarvis and right wing Craig Laughlin.
According to many accounts, Poile gathered the team for a meeting during training camp and asked, “Who’s a Washington Cap?”
When no one responded, Poile continued.
“Nobody is a Washington Cap. You haven’t been around long enough to become one. So let’s start our franchise today.”
Langway, who had won two Stanley Cup rings with the Canadiens, bought in to Poile’s message and quickly became the team leader of a young Capitals squad that ripped off a mid-season 14-game unbeaten streak (9-0-5) to put itself in playoff contention. The Caps wrapped up their first playoff berth in early March and Poile was voted The Sporting News’ NHL Executive of the Year.
Entering their final game of the regular season on April 3 at home against the New York Rangers, the Capitals were winless in four games (0-3-1). With the three-time Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders looming as a first-round opponent, Langway called a team meeting at the Capital Centre.
“We had a lot of meetings earlier, but there was no need for a while,” Langway said. “I thought yesterday was a good time maybe to deflate some egos and get us back in a team outlook. We had lost because we were playing individually.”
The Capitals honored members of the team in a ceremony before the game. Langway was named the team MVP and its best defenseman, Mike Gartner was presented a trophy as the “fans’ favorite,” and Dennis Maruk was honored for leading the team in scoring with 81 points.
Then the team got back on track against the Rangers, using three second-period goals from Bob Carpenter, Greg Theberge and Laughlin to take a commanding lead.
In the final minutes of the third period, Caps fans cheered “Let’s Go Caps!” as the team closed out its most successful regular season. The Capitals had finished the year at 39-25-16, with 94 points, a 29-point improvement from the previous season.
“We had a saying in Montreal,” Langway said before the 1983 playoffs. “Today a hero, tomorrow a zero.
“When you’re losing, guys start playing for themselves because they’re not sure they’ll have a job next year. But when you’re winning, you’re so wrapped up in how the team is doing that you don’t have time to think of yourself as an individual.”