Nearly a month into the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have collected one win through 10 games, putting them on pace to tie what is regarded to be the worst NHL team of the modern era, the 1974-75 Washington Capitals.
Now it’s true, with overtime/shootout losses, a healthy Phil Kessel and Jonas Gustavsson, the Maple Leafs likely won’t threaten the paltry 21-point futility mark set by the expansion-year Washington squad. But losing is a bummer and the Leafs have still done a lot of it so far. So what is it like going through a season so bad it becomes a benchmark?
Let’s ask the men who went through it.
“There were some great guys on that team, but after a while, you lose confidence,” said defenseman Greg Joly, the Caps’ first-ever draft pick (first overall in the ’74 draft). “There’s nowhere to go. It just seems to get worse before it could possibly get better.”
Joly went straight from the draft to the NHL and if you think being a teenaged defenseman nowadays is hard, imagine the pressure on the No. 1 draft pick when he’s supposed to help prop up an expansion team right away. Needless to say, Joly struggled.
His 92 points in 67 games during his final junior season with the Regina Pats were light years ahead of his NHL rookie numbers, just one goal and eight points in 44 contests. Timing didn’t help Joly either; after his stint in Washington, the rest of his career was spent in Detroit’s organization during the ‘Dead Things’ era. But Joly, who now sells sports insurance to groups like the U.S. Olympic team, is still diplomatic.
“I wish I could have played better, but I’m always thankful I got the opportunity,” he said.
Blair Stewart was traded to the Caps that year from Detroit and, as if by curse, broke his foot during his second game in D.C.
“I think most guys were looking at it as an opportunity to play because of expansion,” said Stewart, whose interests now include real estate investing and a celebrity phone message enterprise. “But no matter who you are and how long you play, you want to win.”
Some of the stats from Washington’s inaugural season are just baffling, no matter the era. In net, the Capitals were shell-shocked, giving up 446 goals –105 more than the next-worst team in the NHL, Minnesota. Goalie Michel Belhumeur even suffered through the indignity of a winless campaign, despite appearing in 35 games.
Ron Lalonde, much like Stewart, was just happy to get his shot at the NHL.
“I wasn’t talented enough to know I would make the team every year,” said Lalonde, now a financial planner in Toronto.
The fact the team was cobbled together from cast-offs from other teams certainly didn’t help matters.
“It’s hard to develop chemistry or unity right off the bat,” Lalonde added. “We had so many injuries…but the team and the franchise had to start somewhere.”
The good news is things did get better – eventually. Rod Langway arrived from Montreal in 1982-83 and guided the Caps to their first-ever playoff berth. Olaf Kolzig helped Washington to the Stanley Cup final in ’97-98 and Alex Ovechkin leads the most exciting team in the league right now. But the Caps organization never forgot those brave soldiers who went over the top of the trenches when they knew they were outgunned. Many of those Washington originals still play in alumni games wearing the white, red and blue, and appreciated their time in D.C.
“They have really treated us well anytime we go back,” Lalonde said. “I’m proud to say I played in Washington.”
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appears Monday and Wednesday, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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