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Capitals alum savors run to Stanley Cup Final against Golden Knights

Wolfe, goalie from early years, pulling for first championship in 43-season history

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

All this talk about the Washington Capitals having never won the Stanley Cup? It's nonsense. Just ask Bernie Wolfe, one of the earliest goaltenders in Capitals history.

"We won a game in Oakland during my rookie season (in 1975-76)," Wolfe said. "We won 11 games in an 80-game schedule that year, and not very many on the road (five)."

 

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The game was Jan. 28, 1976, a 4-2 Capitals victory. Washington was outshot 34-17 by the California Golden Seals, but Wolfe's work in net played a large role in the visitors' third road win of the season.

"We were very happy when we came into the dressing room," said Wolfe, 66. "In those days, garbage cans were galvanized steel, so we emptied one out, dumping all the orange peels and stuff on the floor, and hoisted this shiny can. We knew it was our Stanley Cup."

For the second time in their history, and the first since 1998, the Capitals are in the Stanley Cup Final, four victories from winning hockey's priceless trophy, and not one that's covered with a lid and put out to the curb. Game 1 of the Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights is at T-Mobile Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET, CBC, NBC, SN, TVAS).

Wolfe, who played his entire 119-game NHL career for the Capitals between 1975-79, will be pulling for his old team to win its first championship; Washington was swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the 1998 Cup Final.

These aren't Wolfe's Capitals, a team that during his four years was cannon fodder for its NHL opponents. Between 1975-76 and 1978-79, Washington won 76 games, lost 191 and tied 53 with a goal differential of minus-447; this after their 8-67-5 (minus-265) inaugural season in 1974-75.

Wolfe had enjoyed an excellent scholastic career in his hometown of Montreal, leading Sir George Williams University to the Canadian collegiate final in 1974 and earning tournament MVP honors. He was an all-Canadian, three times a Quebec league all-star and, in his senior year, was named the school's top male athlete.

In early 1974, Wolfe was spotted by Capitals scout Bobby Taylor; the goalie earlier had been invited to the Los Angeles Kings training camp in British Columbia. He chose not to report to a Kings farm team in New Mexico, returning instead to Sir George Williams to finish a commerce degree that in time would pay enormous dividends.

Wolfe signed with the Capitals as a free agent for $40,000 a year for two years with a $15,000 signing bonus. In October 1975, he was called up from Richmond of the American Hockey League by Washington coach Milt Schmidt. Winning five times in 40 games, he was named the Capitals' most valuable player, rewarded with a contract that paid him $70,000 and a new Lincoln Continental every 6,000 miles.

The Lincoln's tires weren't the only rubber Wolfe saw as he was bombarded over four years on his sad-sack Capitals teams. He was 1-2-2 in the NHL when he played for the first time as a professional in the Montreal Forum on Dec. 6, 1975, losing 9-3 in a 54-shot Canadiens barrage. Driven by his parents to the Capitals' charter flight back to Washington, Wolfe was so dehydrated that his entire body was cramped. As he limped into the airport, his mother swore she'd never watch him play again.

Capitals management shrugged off that night's shellacking and through the rest of Wolfe's career played him 17 more times against his hometown team. He went 0-18.

"Maybe management isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer," Wolfe said, laughing. "Since I was from Montreal, they figured they'd start me against then Canadiens every game."

Realizing that being a sitting duck in a hockey shooting gallery wasn't his ticket, Wolfe retired following the 1978-79 season with a 20-61-21 record, 4.17 goals-against average and .877 save percentage. His one career shutout, 26 saves against the Red Wings in Detroit on Jan. 9, 1977, is celebrated with a mounted puck on a wall in the Washington-area home he shares with his wife, Patsy-Ann.

In 1981, Wolfe used his Sir George Williams commerce degree to establish Bernard R. Wolfe & Associates, Inc., in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Wolfe remains a huge fan of the Capitals, a 13-year past president of the team's alumni association and a season ticket-holder who enjoys Capital One Arena games with his grandchildren. He credits his brief NHL career for opening many doors in the decades that followed, some of those for whom he's signed autographs having become clients.

He has had numerous brushes with the Stanley Cup, including one memorable event in Bethesda, Maryland, in the late 1990s that saw the trophy make a surprise visit to a charity golf event featuring current and retired Capitals. Wolfe recalls then-Capitals general manager George McPhee, now the GM of the Golden Knights, blanching at young players violating an unwritten hockey rule by touching the Stanley Cup before having won it; Wolfe has not once touched the trophy.

"None of the Canadian players touched it, but a couple of Russians did. George wasn't pleased," he said.

Wolfe could only dream of being as famous as the stars-and-stripes mask he wore near the end of his career, displayed now at the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1988, that mask was admired by U.S. President Ronald Reagan when it appeared on a poster during the Calgary Winter Olympics.

The next thing Wolfe knew, he was finding a copy of the poster for the White House, which had called him looking for one, and bringing it to lunch when invited by Ken Duberstein, Reagan's chief of staff.

"I was sitting at the chief of staff's table in the White House with all these phones on it, being served lunch by people wearing tuxedos, and no one knew who the heck I was," Wolfe said, laughing. "It must have driven them crazy."
He was given Reagan cufflinks with the presidential seal, Reagan's name etched in gold on the back, Reagan-engraved pens and a couple of weeks later received a personalized autographed photo of the President, who was grateful for the poster.

"People ask me if it wouldn't have been great playing for the Canadiens," Wolfe says. "I tell them I wouldn't have had the chance. I wasn't good enough. But I took advantage of my chance in Washington and I'm grateful for all that it's offered."

To this day, fans bring him Bernie Wolfe hockey cards for a signature, realizing or not that the 5-foot-9 former goalie in front of them is a pioneer in Washington Capitals history, a man fiercely proud of his team then and now.

***

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