Throughout the summer of 1974, the eyes of the nation—and indeed, the world—were focused on Washington and the crumbling Nixon presidency. Meanwhile, pro hockey was coming back, as the NHL’s Washington Capitals were taking shape along with their sparkling new home in Landover, the Capital Centre.
Two summers earlier, Washington construction magnate Abe Pollin began vying for an NHL expansion franchise. Pollin, owner of the Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards) of the NBA, hoped to pair a hockey club with his hoops team in a new multi-purpose facility in the Washington area. Pollin was competing against nine other applicants for just two NHL franchise openings, but his tireless lobbying and the promise of a new arena overcame what one Las Vegas bookmaker claimed were 600-to-1 odds against Washington joining the NHL. Professional Hockey was coming back to DC.
Construction on the Capital Centre took just 15 months from start to finish, and the venue hosted other events—including a Grateful Dead concert in July, 1974—prior to its debut as a hockey arena. When the building did open for hockey business, it was widely acclaimed for its splendor and its amenities. With its luxury suites, unobstructed seating and state-of-the-art scoreboard, the Capital Centre instantly became one of the best hockey facilities in the NHL.
The scoreboard in particular added to the quality of life; not only for fans, but for players and coaches as well.
“The Montreal Canadiens come to town,” recalls Capital icon Yvon Labre, “and there’s a replay on the Telescreen. [Canadiens coach Scotty] Bowman and all the Canadiens are watching the replay! And I’m just amazed at this. I’m just sitting back and going, ‘Look at them! This is good.’ It was the first building to have it. For coaches, that was fantastic, you could watch the replay right away.”
“There wasn’t a bad seat in the house and it was a beautiful arena,” says Ron Lalonde, who was a center on that first Caps team. “Especially when it was full,” he adds.
Pollin was very much involved in the building of the Capital Centre, and not just from a financial standpoint. But when it came to building the team that would skate onto the ice, he entrusted that task to one of hockey’s most distinguished figures, former Boston Bruin Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt.
Pollin shopped around for a general manager to serve as the architect for the Capitals. Schmidt says that Boston Celtics executive Red Auerbach, recommended him for the post. “Red was pretty good friends with Abe Pollin,” says Schmidt. “I’ve always been close to Red, and I think Red was the one that got them interested in me.”
By virtue of a coin flip, Washington gained the first overall choice in the amateur entry draft, while the other NHL newcomers, the Kansas City Scouts, selected first in the expansion draft. But the pool of available talent was quite shallow.
Players from Europe and the US were much more scarce in 1974, and the feverish competition for talent between the NHL and the upstart World Hockey Association also thinned the list of available players.
“What we had to draw from in those years was much less than expansion teams at the present time,” Schmidt relates. “The World Hockey Association has just started, and you’d have to give a $15,000 or $20,000 player $30,000 or more, otherwise they were going to go to the WHA.”
The expansion draft took place on June 12, 1974. Schmidt began the process by selecting two goaltenders—Ron Low from Toronto and Michel Belhumeur from Philadelphia. Six defensemen and 16 forwards were also chosen.
The WHA also posed a threat to the up and coming amateur talent, as the new league began to sign players before they were old enough to be eligible for the NHL draft. In 1974, the NHL lowered the draft age, allowing its clubs to select one 18-year-old in the first two rounds of the draft.
After taking defenseman Greg Joly with the first overall pick, Schmidt took left winger Mike Marson, an 18-year-old, with the team’s second selection. Marson, who was to become just the second African-North American to play in the NHL, had indeed been in contact with a WHA club.
“At the time, the people who were representing me were talking to [the] Vancouver [Blazers],” remembers Marson. “There were a lot of guys who were—I’m sure—considering offers to play in the WHA at that time.”
Four of the players chosen by Schmidt in the expansion draft were taken from the Bruins organization. He was familiar with those players from his days in Boston. Soon after the draft, Schmidt imported another trio of players—each in cash transactions—from his Boston days.
First and foremost, Schmidt needed a captain for his young team. A week after the expansion draft, he purchased 40-year-old defenseman Doug Mohns from the Atlanta Flames. Mohns began his NHL career with the Bruins in 1953-54, when Schmidt was winding down his own stellar playing career. Schmidt took over as the Bruins’ coach immediately after his playing career ended, and Mohns played for him in Boston for the better part of a decade.
“I knew that Mohns was a real fantastic skater and that he was a real good team man,” says Schmidt of his decision to acquire Mohns and make him the Capitals’ first captain. “I knew that he was equally as good off the ice as he was on. We needed some leadership on that hockey club because we had a lot of kids that hadn’t played much in the National Hockey League. I just thought that by getting somebody like Doug, he would instill some of his thoughts and his way of thinking and that it would be a great asset to us. Plus it gave us some real good experience, which we needed badly.”
More experience came from the Bruins a month later when Schmidt obtained the late Tommy Williams. One of the few American players in the league at that time, Williams had been a member of the 1960 Gold Medal US Olympic team. He went on to star for the Bruins in the 1960s before jumping to the WHA in 1972-73. Schmidt acquired Williams’ rights from the Bruins, then convinced him to leave the WHA for a regular role with the upstart Capitals.
A week after bringing in Williams, Schmidt picked up Bill Lesuk from the Los Angeles Kings. A gritty, hard-working checking forward, Lesuk was developed in the Boston system, but his path to the NHL was blocked by the great depth in Boston at the time. After one season with the Caps, Lesuk left for Winnipeg of the WHA, where he was a vital cog on a team that won three AVCO World Trophies in a four-year span.
Exactly two months after Richard Nixon left DC for the final time, the Caps played their first regular season game in New York against the Rangers. The Caps lost by a 6-3 count, the first of 67 setbacks they would suffer in that 80-game season. Jim Hrycuik scored the first goal in Washington history, assisted by Joly and Denis Dupere. Short-circuited by a knee injuy, Hrycuik’s Capitals and NHL career would last just 21 games; he would total five goals. After another shutout loss in Minnesota—the first of a team record 12 whitewashes that year—the Caps returned home.
On October 15, 1974, the Capitals made their Capital Centre debut against the Los Angeles Kings before a crowd of more than 15,000. A fired-up Caps team picked up its first point that night, skating to a 1-1 deadlock. Labre scored the first Capital goal at home, assisted by Dave Kryskow and Lesuk.
Just two nights later, Washington gained its first NHL victory, defeating the Original Six Chicago Blackhawks by a 4-3 count. Jack Egers supplied the game-winning goal for the Caps.
Six days after that, The Caps traveled to Chicago for a rematch. Though they came out on the short end of a 3-2 score, it was a memorable contest. Caps netminder Michel Belhumeur stopped not one, but two penalty shots. And he stymied a pair of proven scorers—Jim Pappin and future Hall of Famer Stan Mikita. It was the highlight of Belhumeur’s hard luck career with Washington. In 42 games with the Caps, Belhumeur failed to notch a victory, going 0-29-4.
A 10-game losing streak followed the Caps first win. They would go more than a month before claiming a second victory.
“We went into every game looking to win, and I guess it was the hype and the adrenaline,” says Labre of the team’s relatively swift start that season. “But as reality set in, we just didn’t play that well together.”
Caps defenseman Bill Mikkelson was in an unenviable position. Two years earlier, he had been a member of the original New York Islanders, who posted a 12-60-6 record, worst in modern NHL history at the time. The 1974-75 Capitals shattered that dubious mark.
“They were both long years,” sighs Mikkelson. “Those clubs were both comprised mostly of good AHL players, but it was tough for us to compete in the NHL.”
“There were so many powerhouses back then,” he continues. “Like Boston, Montreal and Philadelphia. When you went into those buildings, it was almost like facing an all-star team. Clubs like that looked at us, and it was like a night off. They’d use us to pad their bonuses.”
Lalonde also had an interesting perspective. He began that season in a Pittsburgh Penguins uniform.
“We had played in Washington a couple of weeks before the trade,” says Lalonde. “I remember sitting on the Pittsburgh bench—we beat them 8-1 that day. And Yvon Labre, who had been in the Pittsburgh organization before going over in the expansion draft; I can remember thinking, ‘Boy, I feel sorry for him. It’s going to be a long year.’ Two weeks later, I’m on the [Capitals] bench with Yvon.”
Lalonde came to Washington from the Pens on December 14 in exchange for Lew Morrison. The deal proved to be a good one for Washington as Lalonde became a valuable role player for the next four years.
The losses piled up, and coach Jimmy Anderson was replaced by Red Sullivan on February 11. Anderson compiled a 4-45-5 record as the team’s bench boss. Sullivan lasted little more than a month, going 2-17-0 before Schmidt himself took the reins.
The defeats weighed heavily on the entire team, especially beleaguered goaltender Ronnie Low (now the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers) and highly touted youngsters Joly and Marson.
“Losing affects people in different ways,” says Lesuk, who later served as Director of Scouting for the Phoenix Coyotes. “It was tearing Ronnie’s heart out. Tears were coming down his cheeks.”
Lalonde remains impressed by how Low fought his way through the long season. “Ronnie faced so many shots but he never gave up,” Lalonde recollects. “If we were losing 6-1, he wasn’t going to give up that seventh goal, and he practiced that way, too. You build from that, and not everybody has that attitude.”
Despite their obvious travails, Joly and Marson also held up as well as could be expected.
“Mike Marson and Greg Joly really had some tough times,” says Lesuk. “Greg was picked first and put a lot of pressure on himself. He ended up playing quite a bit and I think he had a broken bone in his hand. He was hurting pretty bad. But he kept grinding it out.”
But Joly doesn’t think it was any tougher on him than anyone else. “I think that goes with the territory,” he says of the pressure of being the first overall pick. “I think even now they expect top picks to carry their share of the load, and in my case, I just didn’t play very well.”
Marson correctly points out that top picks on established clubs were able to learn by watching and developing. “Going to an expansion team, you had to perform,” he states. “I remember Mario Tremblay went to Montreal and just sat on the bench for the first few years, learning the game from the likes of [Yvon] Cournoyer, [Henri] Richard, [Serge] Savard and [Guy] Lapointe. The Canadiens and teams like that were strong enough to develop their players. So there was quite a bit of pressure on Joly and myself for us to come in and do in the pros the things we had done so well in juniors. It’s quite a change because you’re playing against men.”
Marson also carried the additional burden of being the only black player in the NHL at the time, and he conducted himself with a maturity and dignity beyond his years in the face of some harsh treatment around the league.
“Wherever I went, people were looking to see what I would do, how I would perform, whether I was tough enough to fight or what I would do when I was taunted,” Marson says. “You do your best, the best you can do in dealing with situations that, in may case, had never been dealt with before. Often times you’re in an environment where you can feel that you don’t fit, but realize that you have to find a way to make yourself fit.”
Perhaps the high point of the long season came on March 28 in Oakland. The Caps had played 37 road games to that point, going 0-37-0. But a pair of third period goals by Nelson Pyatt saved the team from the ignominy of a winless season on the road. The Caps beat the white-skated Golden Seals, 5-3.
After the game, the relieved Caps reveled in the glory of their lone road triumph. “Tommy Williams got a hold of this trash can and had a few guys sign it and we started parading it around the room,” laughs Labre. “It was as if we’d won the Stanley Cup. That was a fun time for us—there weren’t that many.”
“The stadium was pretty well empty,” remembers Lalonde. “And here we are, skating around with this green garbage can. We all signed it, and it was there for years after that. It’s probably still there.”
Nearly 25 years later, what these men remember most is not the futility, but the fellowship, the fans and the feeling of being in on the ground floor of something new and exciting.
“I feel fortunate having been here for seven of those first years, even though they were not the greatest years,” says Labre. To a man, Labre’s former mates are effusive in their praise and admiration of him and his current role as Washington’s ambassador of hockey.
“All I can say is that Yvon Labre is a wonderful guy,” exudes Schmidt. “When I had Yvon, there wasn’t any doubt that we was giving me his all, regardless of what was happening; good, bad or otherwise. He’s always been in the back of my mind, and the fact that he’s still there with the Caps is great. They couldn’t have picked a better guy for the good of the game and the good of the franchise.”
As a teenager among men, Marson took pleasure in life on the road, where he roomed with Labre. Teammates quickly dubbed them, “Chico and the Man.”
“The west coast swings were probably our best times as a team, socially, because we were away from the pressures of home,” remembers Marson. “I have fond memories of getting to know some of the guys on a more personal note. At that time, the west coast swings were 14 days long. You really get a chance to know or find out who these guys are as teammates.”
“I look back on that year fondly,” says Mikkelson. “We didn’t lose for lack of trying, and it was a great bunch of guys.”
“Just being a part of something new and coming to Washington, that was the best memory I had,” Lesuk recalls of that first year. “I can look back and I can say that I really appreciated the time that I had there. In many ways, it was just too short. I’d like to say a big thank you to Mr. Pollin and to the entire Washington Capitals organization.”
The original Caps were happy to see their successors skating in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998. “It was nice to finally see them reach that level,” says Lalonde. “The Washington fans certainly deserved it. I took a little pride. The Capitals still hold a little piece of my heart.”
Schmidt, now in his nineties and enjoying his retirement at his suburban Boston home, is also pleased with the franchise’s progress. “I will honestly say that I’m very pleased with that franchise for Abe’s sake,” he says of his former employer. “He’s stuck with it through thick and thin, he’s a great man and I enjoyed working for him the short time that I did.”
With hockey fervor at a fever pitch in DC after the team’s trip to the Cup Finals last spring, it’s time to doff the helmet and salute these men who toiled through trying times during the franchise’s lean years. Once they were warriors of the ice; now they too are fans of the current Capitals who carry the puck into the club’s second quarter-century.