Langway trade still resonates in DC thirty years later
WASHINGTON -- Washington Capitals owner Abe Pollin made a bold move in 1982 when he hired a 33-year-old rookie general manager. Ten days later, David Poile made a bold move of his own by completing a blockbuster trade that would shape the franchise for years to come.
"They were coming off the 'Save the Caps' campaign that summer," Poile recalled in a phone conversation. "If they didn't reach a certain number of season tickets, there was a chance the team wasn't even going to be there."
After eight years in the NHL, the Capitals still were searching for their first winning season and that elusive first playoff berth. The team was playing for its eighth coach and fourth general manager and filling the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., was an ongoing challenge.
Over those same eight years, the Canadiens were the model of consistency, winning eight straight division titles and raising the Stanley Cup four times. The Canadiens routinely filled the Forum and in 43 lifetime meetings against the Capitals, Montreal lost just three games. A better example of two polar opposites in the NHL could not be found.
"The first thing I thought of when we were traded was the final game we played in Washington in the '82 season," said Laughlin, now a Capitals television analyst with Comcast SportsNet. "What I remembered was that the arena was very dark, there were very few fans and there was a ceremony after the game where fans walked on the ice and players signed autographs. I had never seen that before. It was a totally different culture."
The culture in Montreal was one of winning, and given the team's on-ice success, there were few players who would not have wanted to play their home games at the corner of Atwater and Ste. Catherine. Langway was an exception, though, and after four years in Montreal, the defenseman wanted out.
That, former Canadiens general manager Irving Grundman said, set the wheels in motion for an eventual deal. Poile knew Langway was available, and after sitting next to Grundman "by chance or by fate maybe" at the Board of Governors meetings in Toronto in September 1982, the two GMs discussed a trade.
"When a player tells you that he doesn't want to play for you, that's not the way you build a team," Grundman told NHL.com. "The Montreal Canadiens weren't built by keeping players that didn't want to play for them."
Langway wasn't interested in Quebec's higher tax rates, and the 24-year-old American had family reasons for wanting to play for a U.S.-based team.
"The Canadiens had built a reputation and an atmosphere in the dressing room that speaks for itself," Grundman said. "So when a player tells you outright that there's no way he's going to play for you, what are you supposed to do? You can't put handcuffs on him and say, 'No you're playing here.' So I made the trade and I thought the trade was good for both teams."
BUILDING A WINNER IN WASHINGTON
Langway, Jarvis, Engblom and Laughlin had seven Stanley Cup rings among them, and the message from Capitals coach Bryan Murray was clear -- anything less than a playoff berth in 1983 was unacceptable.
"It can't be underestimated how much Bryan Murray and David Poile believed in us," Laughlin said. "We wanted to prove everyone wrong. When you build something from scratch -- and really it was an overhaul in Washington -- you take your bumps along the way. But then we started reaching team milestones -- most wins on the road, most points in a season, first playoff berth … then you start to feel like you're part of something special."
Throw in a rookie defenseman named Scott Stevens and 24-year-old speedster Mike Gartner, and the pieces slowly were coming together for a team on the rise.
The 1982-83 Capitals went 39-25-16 for their first winning record and their first of 14 straight playoff appearances (only the Caps, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues qualified for the postseason every season from 1983-96).
Rod Langway poses with the Norris Trophy after the 1982-83 season, becoming the first Capital to win an individual NHL award. Langway also won the Norris the following season and remains the only Capital to have been named the League's best defenseman. (Photo: Denis Brodeur/Getty Images)
"[Murray and Poile] worked hard at creating a winning culture," said Engblom, now an analyst on Altitude TV and the NBC Sports Network. "The playoffs were a big thing. It's what we were used to in Montreal and that's what we were gunning for. As we got down the stretch and it became a possibility that we could be a playoff team for the first time, there was a lot of pride in that. You have to take steps and that was a big step for the organization."
While the four players Poile acquired all played a role in the Caps' maturation as a franchise, it's difficult to trade for talent without giving up skill in return.
Green had been the No. 1 pick in the 1976 NHL Amateur Draft and Washington's only No. 1 pick until the team selected Alex Ovechkin in 2004. Green would spend seven years in Montreal [1982-89], twice reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
Walter was the No. 2 pick in the 1978 draft and became at the time the youngest captain in League history at the age of 21 at the start of the 1979-80 season. During Walter's four years with the Caps, only Dennis Maruk scored more often.
Walter also grew attached to the D.C. area, where he and wife Jennifer purchased a suburban home and had looked forward to settling long-term.
"I would have loved to stay in Washington for my whole career," said Walter, who went on to play more than 1,000 games in the NHL and now is president of the Abbotsford Heat of the American Hockey League.
"When David told me that I had been traded, he called at 7 a.m., and soon after the call I was still digesting the news, still feeling upset when I got a call from Abe Pollin. And he said, 'Ryan I feel bad about this, but it's the direction our organization has to go in and I'm going to support it.'"
"Ryan Walter was Mr. Pollin's favorite player," Poile said, "and I can remember to this day being up in Toronto when I made the trade and calling Mr. Pollin. I said I have a trade -- and again this is only 10 days after taking the job -- and he says, 'OK, what is it?' So I said we've traded Ryan Walter -- and I remember he yelled back on the phone, 'You did what?' So I told him again, and after I got Ryan Walter's name out of my mouth he just said, 'Well, you better know what you're doing.'"
Poile made the call from his room at Toronto's Royal York Hotel. Once the phone conversation was done, Poile said he opened the window and yelled, "You better know what you're doing!"
The words still resonate 30 years later.
Within weeks, though, Pollin had his answer -- the new GM was on to something. Langway replaced Walter as team captain and the "Secretary of Defense," as he would become known in Washington, wore the "C" for his entire 11-year stay in Washington. Langway remains the longest-tenured captain in team history, and his plus-118 rating with the Caps is a franchise best.
Langway also became the first Capital to win an individual NHL award, earning the James Norris Trophy in 1982-83 and 1983-84. He remains the only Capital to have been named the League's best defenseman.
"Langway was a good player; nobody can say that he wasn't," Grundman said. "But was he Bobby Orr? No, he wasn't Bobby Orr. Maybe it wasn't the best deal in the world, maybe we felt the players we traded for had more potential than they showed, but we felt we were getting equal value in return."
Added Poile: "I think we were lucky that Montreal had the 'Big Three' on defense in Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe. Langway and Engblom played behind three Hall of Famers and maybe didn't get the recognition they deserved. Those are the deals that you love to make. Langway wasn't totally happy with his situation [in Montreal], so it was the perfect time to make a deal."
More hardware came to Washington after the 1983-84 season when Jarvis won the Frank Selke Trophy as the League's best defensive forward.
"He was a winner," Poile said of the NHL's ironman, who played in 964 consecutive games from 1975-87. "He could win key faceoffs, he killed penalties and he could be trusted late in games. … He did the little things that you need on a winning team."
"It was a good first step and it was the start of a successful era. It was tumultuous for us, too, because it was so different from Montreal where every move you made was dissected and then in Washington we started at the bottom of the ladder. But we built something, the fans rallied behind us and without that success, who knows what would have happened with the franchise? Fortunately it worked out really well." -- Brian Engblom on the blockbuster 1982 trade between the Capitals and Canadiens
While Poile remained Washington's GM for 15 years, Grundman was replaced in Montreal within months of the trade. He eventually went into municipal politics and has not worked in hockey since.
The Capitals retired Langway's No. 5 in 1997 at the final game played at the Capital Centre -- a 6-5 loss against Montreal -- and he was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003. He remains a team ambassador and represents the team in the community.
Jarvis spent four years with the Capitals before retiring as a Hartford Whaler in 1987. He's now an assistant coach with the Bruins.
Green and Walter were key cogs with the Canadiens throughout the mid- to late-1980s, winning the Stanley Cup in 1986 against the Calgary Flames before falling in the rematch in 1989.
"It was spectacular," Walter said of his nine seasons in Montreal. "I got to play with guys like Bob Gainey and Bobby Smith. … Guy Lafleur was my first roommate there. The Flower was an amazing player so there was a lot of learning. I went from being captain in Washington to taking on more of a learning role by watching Gainey, Lafleur, Robinson and the guys that had four Stanley Cup [wins]."
Of the six players involved in the trade 30 years ago, only Engblom spent fewer than four seasons with his new team.
"The lasting impact of the trade is probably for other people to dissect," said Engblom, who was sent to the Los Angeles Kings early in the 1983-84 season in a deal that landed the Caps another future Hall of Fame defenseman in Larry Murphy.
"It was a good first step and it was the start of a successful era," he said. "It was tumultuous for us, too, because it was so different from Montreal where every move you made was dissected and then in Washington we started at the bottom of the ladder. But we built something, the fans rallied behind us and without that success, who knows what would have happened with the franchise? Fortunately it worked out really well."