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Jerry Lindquist's Sports Memories: The early years of the Washington Capitals

Jerry Lindquist's Sports Memories: The early years of the Washington Capitals

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Here we go again, with some short-term and long-term stuff. This is Volume 58 as the memory man continues to dust off the old, octogenarian brain. Call it: “We Could Beat Anyone in the Mile Run.”

First, a piece of advice regarding Virginia possibly becoming home to the Washington Football Team’s new stadium: DON’T DO IT. It is guaranteed to put a major drain on taxpayers’ dollars and seldom — if ever — delivers on the promise of economic expansion. How do we know? It has always been thus.

Studies by sports economists as well as public tax protection groups always come to the same conclusion. To wit, unless covered in its entirety with private funds, construction of a new multi-million dollar facility is a very bad idea. There are many horror stories, like when Giants Stadium was demolished in 2010, government debt was $266 million which had to be paid with … what do you think? … taxpayer money.

WFT’s home since 1997, FedEx Field in Landover, Md., is generally considered the NFL’s worst, based on numerous factors. Maryland apparently is interested in providing its citizens’ hard-earned cash to pay for a new one. Likewise the District of Columbia. We’ll take a pass, thank you.

New York Islanders’ GM Lou Lamoriello last week was named NHL executive of the year for the second straight season. He’s a character whom we met in 1974 when he was in the midst of a 15-year stint as hockey coach at Providence College, his alma mater (Class of ‘63).

The Robins were in Providence to meet the Reds, and Richmond coach Larry Wilson’s oldest son Ronnie was a freshman defenseman playing for Lamoriello. He met us like we had known him forever — which the Wilsons had — and it quickly became the Larry and Lou Comedy Show, swapping old hockey stories.

(Of course, nothing could match the hilarity generated by Larry Wilson with genuine funnyman and quote machine Tommy McVie, swapping tales at a London, Ontario, motel during the Washington Capitals’ first training camp also in 1974. Then IHL Dayton player/coach and Caps’ coach-to-be the following season, McVie was on a roll, for example recalling late coach Bep Guidolin and his occasionally merciless practice sessions. “He had us skate hard for two straight hours,” McVie recalled, “… without a puck.” More McVie later.)

After college, Ronnie became Ron while playing for two NHL teams then coaching 18 seasons in the NHL with four teams including the Washington Capitals (1997-2002). The Caps appeared in their first Stanley Cup final in 1998 under Wilson, now 66. We covered the games in the Nation’s Capital. It was not exactly a memorable series, won in four straight by defending champion Detroit. However, watching players, as part of their pregame routine, kicking a soccer ball back and forth with surprising dexterity in the hallway outside the dressing room to loosen up, was fascinating.

Wilson’s brothers Brad and Randy also played for Lammoriello at PC. Larry Wilson, who coached the Robins their last four (of five) seasons died while jogging Aug. 16, 1979. He was 49.

Now that the NHL expansion Seattle Kraken are up and crackin’ with a coach and second choice in the July 21 draft, the question is (other than why Kraken): whatever became of plans to put a team in Virginia Beach? Try lack of a suitable facility — for that matter, no place to play. Period.

You might recall the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), which already had a financial stake in the league’s Los Angeles Kings, discussed the possibility with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in 2017. At the time there was talk of building an 18,000-seat arena there. As often happens, it was no more than just talk.

Meanwhile, AEG was involved in building a new coliseum in Las Vegas, which became home of the expansion Golden Knights, which proved an instant success for a mere $500 million franchise fee. In 1967, when the NHL originally added new teams to the Original Six, the league asked for $2 million (that translates to $18M today ... in other words, still a bargain.)

At least the NHL has learned from its expansion mistakes. It no longer tries to handicap new members by forcing them to accept, in effect, mostly minor leaguers or NHL journeymen to comprise their original rosters. Now member teams are forced to make quality players available, which helped to explain — at least in part — why Las Vegas was equipped to reach the Stanley Cup Final in its first season (2017-18).

“It was a challenge to build a team from scratch with what the other teams gave you,” McVie said in a first-person piece for “I made up my mind … no one would outwork us. We could beat anyone in the mile run.”

He coached three expansion teams in all, including Winnipeg and New Jersey, “and it’s a wonder I can still carry a conversation,” said McVie, 86.

The Golden Knights started by claiming goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury from Pittsburgh where he played 13 years and won three Stanley Cups. He recently received the 2020-21 Vezina Trophy that goes to the league’s best goalie.

In 1974-75, the expansion Washington Capitals used three goalies, none of whom had spent more than one season in the NHL previously. Ron Low appeared in 42 games for Toronto in 1973-74, original Robin Michel Belhumeur 23 for the 1972-73 Flyers and John Adams (13, Boston, 1972-73). Among 18 teams, the Caps finished last in goals-scored (181) and first in goals-allowed (446), which explained an 8-67-5 record — still worst in NHL history.

After the last game, they skated around the ice hoisting a garbage can. Or so the story goes.

This is in no way to suggest the goalies were to blame for the entire mess. It was a team effort. Washington had first choice in the amateur draft and took defenseman Greg Joly, one of the NHL’s all-time busts after Caps’ general manager Milt Schmidt called him “the next Bobby Orr.”

Leading scorer — 22 goals, 58 points (72 games) — was the late Tommy Williams, who was minus-69 in the tell-tale plus-minus statistic. He was 34 at the time and already was something of a legend. At 18 he was a key member of the 1960 Olympics-winning U.S. team and later played eight seasons with the Bruins where he developed a reputation for erratic behavior.

Williams was suspended for a game after telling an airport customs inspector he had a bomb in his luggage. A fractured arm and blown knee led to a disappointing — if once-promising — career. For most of the 60s, he was the only American-born player in the NHL. In late 1970 his wife died from mysterious circumstances that were never resolved.

Williams’ 23-year-old son Bobby had just signed with the Bruins when he died suddenly in 1987. A heart attack claimed Williams in early 1992 at age 51. Schmidt, a great player with Boston, named to hockey’s hall of fame in 1961, died at 98 in 2017.

Belhumeur, like Fleury from Sorel, Quebec, gained legendary status with the Capitals, not winning a game in two seasons including a league record for most appearances (35) without a ‘W’ (0-24-3) in ‘74-’75. How bad was the team in front of him? Belhumeur saw an average of 35 shots per outing. It got so bad that on Dec. 7, 1974 — Pearl Harbor Day — he was bombed for a whopping 60 shots by St. Louis. Belhumeur stopped 52.

A Philadelphia Flyers draft choice (fourth round, 40th overall) in 1969, the 5-10, 165 pounder spent most of four seasons with the Robins, who served both the Flyers and Caps as their No. 1 farm club. Belhumeur spent part of 1973-74 with the Flyers as practice and emergency goalie but didn’t get into a game.

After Philadelphia won its first of back-to-back Stanley Cups, he sued the organization for $1 million when he didn’t get a player’s playoff share of $19,000. The suit was settled with no indication how much Belhumeur received. The Flyers didn’t protect him in the ensuing expansion draft — that also included the Kansas City Scouts — when he was the fourth player (and goalie) taken overall.

Come to think of it … the prevailing excuse for the Capitals and Scouts being so bad has nothing to do with league owners being short-sighted and making little talent available. No, the blame remains focused on the World Hockey Association, which diluted the player pool until its demise in 1979.

Robins’ fans — there are some of you left, eh? — will remember Eddie Bush, the loud, fast-talking, funny (although not always meaning to be) first coach of the franchise. Well, he still holds the record for most points — five — by a defenseman in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

On April 9, 1942, Bush had a goal and four assists for Detroit in a 5-2 victory over Toronto that gave the Red Wings a commanding 3-0 lead in the best of seven finals. The Maple Leafs then ran off four wins in a row to claim the Cup. Bush went to war (WWII) with the Royal Canadian Air Force and never played in the NHL again.

On his return he led the AHL in penalty minutes with 182 (60 games), 70 more than anyone else, in 1946-47. Bush started coaching in 1950 and had much success in junior hockey that he never could match on the professional level. The 1971-72 Robins underachieved (29-34-13) when the players didn’t take kindly to his confrontational style.

Bush was working as a scout for the KC Scouts during their second — and last — season (1975-76) when he was signed to run the team for its final 32 games after Guidolin, their first coach, quit. Bush was 1-23-8, the only win 5-1 over the Capitals and effectively ended whatever chance the Scouts had of survival.

Always good for a quote, Bush will be remembered here for his many sayings (i.e., “The working man never grumbles, and the grumbler never works.”) Also, he expressed how proud he was of playing for more than 10 years “and still have all my teeth.” Now, if true, that really was unique in an era where no one wore a helmet and every locker had a jar for false teeth.

From Collingwood, Ontario, where the local rink is named for him, Bush was 65 when he died in 1984.

It says here — again — that Old Dominion basketball coach Jeff Jones, 61, was on the mark when he predicted schools would leave the NCAA and form separate but distinct groups according to their athletic ambitions. Of course, the then-UVA coach was about 30 years ahead of his time and, with the passing years, the reasons for such a change have … well, changed.

Then Jones was talking about the really big programs taking a hike to collect even more big bucks from television and other sources of revenue. Now, with the Supreme Court telling the NCAA its days running collegiate sports are numbered — for that is exactly what the end result will be — schools are faced with a major decision: what to do next?

There will be chaos, no doubt. In the end, institutions that still care about education first will have to put athletic priorities aside for the greater good. Good luck with that!

In Volume 57 we profiled Glen Allen’s Zachary Jones, the first NHL player to be born and raised in Virginia when he played 10 games late this season for the New York Rangers. In case you are wondering, here are the other Virginia-born (but not raised) National Hockey League players:

Defenseman Eric Weinrich (1988-89 — 2005-06, eight teams, 1,157 games); born in Roanoke Dec., 4, 1966, grew up in Gardiner, Maine. Defenseman Scott Lachance (1991-92 — 2003-04, four teams, 879 games); born Oct. 22, 1972, Charlottesville, raised Bristol, Conn. Jim Walsh, defenseman (1981-82, Buffalo, 4 games); born Oct. 26, 1956, Norfolk; raised near Boston, Mass.; forward Chris Bala (2001-02, Ottawa, 6 games); born Sept. 24, 1978; grew up Phoenixville, Pa.; and goaltender Scott Darling (2014-15 — 2018-19, two teams, 126 games); born Dec. 22, 1988, Newport News; raised Lemont, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.

You’ll note John Craighead, still listed as being born in Richmond by the internet hockey data base, is not included. He set the record straight in a 2012 interview that his birthplace was Washington, D.C. Wikipedia says it was Vancouver although, in fact, he was raised in Surrey, British Columbia, a Vancouver suburb where he has been an embattled co-owner and coach of a junior hockey team. Craighead, 49, played for the Richmond Renegades (1993-94) and appeared in five games for the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs (1996-97).

First, Mike “Doc” Emrick retired, now NBC is losing its coverage of the NHL. Bummer!

Emrick called it a 47-year broadcasting career after last season, leaving on his own terms, and with him went a one-of-a-kind approach to hockey play by play that will never be duplicated in its simplistic brilliance. Unlike most of today’s incessant babblers, he didn’t open his mouth to hear himself talk. Emrick let the game dictate what to say — or not to say.

Humble, which in itself set him apart, Emrick, 74, was asked about his legacy, what did he hope it would be? “I have no idea,” he told The New York Post, “… whatever they say it is. If it’s pleasant, I will be very pleased.”

Starting in 2021-22, TNT and ESPN will be network partners of the NHL. Kenny Albert will go from NBC to be lead game announcer for TNT. Sean McDonough, who hasn’t done hockey in 15 years, will be No. 1 (among five in all) for ESPN which also has hired 11 — mostly former players — to be game analysts and serve as studio know-it-alls. Like Mark Messier, former Rangers captain who offered his services to new general manager Chris Drury and was rejected.

Readers write: Responding to our bit on local soccer pioneer the late Dave Amsler, Barrett Rossie wrote (in part) … “Everything was stacked against [him] … but somehow Dave showed us what soccer was supposed to look like … He treated [it] with so much respect, yet made it so compelling and fun, he turned young people like me into stakeholders in something much bigger than ourselves. It’s hard to imagine the soccer opportunities Richmonders enjoy today without Amsler having fought for [them] in the 70s and beyond.” Amen to that, brother. Amen!!

Until next time ...


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