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Capitals to retire No. 11 of class-act Gartner

by John McGourty /
Was it the shot?

Was it the speed?

Or was it the complete package?

The Washington Capitals will retire Mike Gartner's No. 11 Monday night, Dec. 28, before their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, in a meeting of two teams that once featured the high-scoring Hockey Hall of Famer.

That gives Capitals fans a chance to debate what they liked best about Gartner -- the goals, the consistency, the shot, the skating or the class. Or, that he was the first Washington Capitals player elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Gartner retired after 19 NHL seasons as the League's fifth all-time leading goal scorer in 1998 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001, his first year of eligibility.

He spent the first 10 years of his career with the Capitals, amassing 60 percent of his scoring here, including 397 goals and 392 assists. He had 13 hat tricks, 98 power-play goals and 54 game-winners as a Capitals right wing.

"Capitals fans have fond memories of Mike Gartner flying down the right wing and scoring goals at the Capital Centre," said Capitals chairman and majority owner Ted Leonsis. "This is a fitting tribute to one of the elite offensive players in the history of the game who was a crucial member of the first Capitals playoff teams."

Gartner was the fourth pick of the 1979 Entry Draft class, one of the best ever, topped by Rob Ramage, Perry Turnbull, Mike Foligno, Gartner and Rick Vaive. Other first-round picks included Craig Hartsburg, Ray Bourque, Mike Ramsey, Brian Propp, Brad McCrimmon, Duane Sutter, Michel Goulet and Kevin Lowe. Goulet scored 548 goals; Vaive, 441; Propp, 425 and Bourque, 410. Eleven of the 21 picks played more than 1,000 NHL games.

Only Bourque played in more games than Gartner's 1,432 games and no one scored more than the speedy Niagara Falls, Ontario, native. Gartner had 708 goals and 627 assists for 1,335 points for the Capitals, Minnesota North Stars, New York Rangers, Maple Leafs and Phoenix Coyotes.

At his retirement, only Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Marcel Dionne and Phil Esposito had scored more goals. Brett Hull has since passed Gartner.

Gartner has many fond memories of playing for the Capitals, but he said the best memory came in his fourth season, 1982-83, when the team made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in their nine-year history.

The Capitals had acquired Rod Langway, Doug Jarvis, Craig Laughlin and Brian Engblom in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens and also added Ken Houston, Alan Haworth and goalie Pat Riggin, while younger players Gartner, Bobby Carpenter, Gaetan Duchesne and goalie Al Jensen matured into fine NHL players.

"In my first few years, we weren't close to making the playoffs, then we had that big turnaround year and jumped 30 points in the standings," Gartner recalled. "It was just ridiculous the amount of improvement that we made. We got to be a very competitive team.

"The unfortunate part was that we met the New York Islanders, at the height of their greatness, every year for five straight years and beat them once. The worst, of course, was losing Game 7 in the fourth overtime in 1987 on Pat Lafontaine's goal when (goalie) Bob Mason's skate broke.

"We may have been the fourth- or fifth-best team in the NHL, but we were eliminated by the Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers when those teams were the best or second- or third-best behind the Edmonton Oilers. We played great teams and just couldn't get over the hump."

Ryan Walter, now a Vancouver Canucks assistant coach, was Gartner's first NHL center and they fit together well. Carpenter arrived the next season and centered a line of Gartner on right wing and Walter on his left wing for a time.

"Mike was mature beyond his years and he fit right in as a rookie," Walter said. "Those were tough years for the Capitals, especially because we played Philadelphia 12 or 14 times a year. We were trying to grow as a team and compete. For young players like Mike and I, it was about learning to be a pro and also about fitting into that era of hockey. Mike did a great job.

"Mike is a sharp guy and he was quick to pick up on things. He had great wheels, a great stride, just a great skater. I played with him at the top of his game. He was very smart about a lot of things. Both he and Colleen really studied financial matters. He's a well-read guy, and was as a youngster."

"There was only a year or two difference between Ryan Walter and Mike and a year or two between Mike and I, but that year or two is absolutely huge in terms of knowledge and experience," Carpenter said. "You can really help someone who comes in right after you and Mike did that for me. Ryan was centering Mike when I came up and then they moved Ryan to left wing and I centered them for awhile.

"But we were a one-line team and Bryan Murray broke us up and placed us around. We had a tough time my first year, started 0-14-1 or something. There were a lot of changes, from the GM to the coaches to the players.

"It was good I had Mike because he always treated hockey like a business and it was valuable to me to learn that. We'd see players we liked come and go. I used to go over to his house for dinner and I noticed he had a lot of area rugs. He said he could take those with him if he got traded. He had a business-like attitude toward the game.

"I learned a lot from a lot of people over the full course of my career, but I bet I learned 50 percent of it in the first two years," Carpenter said.

"I have several favorite memories and one of them is the year that I was able to score 50 goals and Bobby had 53," Gartner said. "That was a real highlight, the only year I scored 50 or more goals."

Gartner scored over 700 goals by being amazingly consistent, not spectacular. He scored 30 or more goals in each of his first 15 seasons, then had two more seasons with more than 30 goals. That's 17 years with 30 or more goals, out of 19.

"Was there ever anybody who had that combination of speed and shot?" former teammate Craig Laughlin asked. "It was funny, he's bowlegged off the ice and a compact speedster on the ice. I just remember him going full speed, the short jersey, the bowlegged stride and the unbelievable inside-outside movement. It was just too hard to defend against that slap shot off the right wing.
"Mike is a sharp guy and he was quick to pick up on things. He had great wheels, a great stride, just a great skater. I played with him at the top of his game. He was very smart about a lot of things. Both he and Colleen really studied financial matters. He's a well-read guy, and was as a youngster." -- Ryan Walter on Mike Gartner

"I also remember his contagious smile and that he was 'game-on-the-line Gartner,'" the guy you wanted out there instead of me! I never scored an empty-net goal in my life because of him."

Gartner laughed when he heard that.

"The speed was always there and my dad sent me to power-skating lessons in the summer and I learned a very good stride," Gartner said. "I was born with quick-twitch muscles, a genetic thing that helped me. I utilized that speed to get in position to score goals. I developed more moves and ways to score after I turned pro. I watched different players, how they scored and how they moved, and tried to emulate the good things I saw."

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