When the Washington Capitals were among the worst teams in the NHL, majority owner Ted Leonsis had no interest in celebrating the past.
That’s the main reason it took so long for his team to raise Mike Gartner’s No. 11 to the rafters at Verizon Centre.
Now that Washington is a winner again, Leonsis feels the time is right to salute the “first Capitals superstar” and that’s exactly what the team will do with a pre-game ceremony on Dec. 28.
“I felt that if we had invited Mike and he had accepted over the last three years, it would look like the franchise is trying to have a gesture that is self-promoting,” Leonsis said Tuesday on a conference call. “I wanted to make sure that this was about Mike.
“We just had to feel very, very confident that we could handle this night and embrace all that Mike accomplished and have it be pure, have it be focused on what he accomplished.”
Gartner is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who scored 708 goals during his time in the NHL. Almost 60 per cent of those goals came while he played for Washington, where he spent 10 seasons after being drafted fourth overall in 1979.
Ten years have passed since the 48-year-old retired from the game. Gartner isn’t insulted that it took some time to get recognized by the Caps, noting that it took the Montreal Canadiens 25 years to retire Ken Dryden’s number.
“Sometimes these things take a little time,” he said. “I’m really looking at this as a terrific honour. It doesn’t matter whether it was five years ago, whether it was today or 10 years from now – I don’t think it diminishes the honour in my eyes at all.”
Gartner ranks second in Capitals history in goals (397), assists (392) and points (789).
He scored at least 35 goals in each of his first nine seasons and was on pace to reach that mark in the 10th before getting traded to Minnesota midway through the year.
The Ottawa native is one of only three players in Capitals history with a 100-point season – he had 102 in 1984-85 – and was a member of the first six Washington teams to reach the playoffs.
“Mike could fly,” said Leonsis, a former season-ticket holder who founded the company that bought the Caps in 1999. “The game was a little more open then. Mike just always seemed to have the puck in the right place and once he got it, he turned on the jets and scored a lot of goals.
“He just seemed to be not only a great player but a great ambassador for the team.”
Gartner’s No. 11 will be the fourth retired by the team, joining Rod Langway’s No. 5, Yvon Labre’s No. 7 and Dale Hunter’s No. 32.
The ceremony will take place before a Capitals game against the Toronto Maple Leafs – one of the four other teams Gartner played for.
While he also enjoyed his other stops, Gartner thinks he’ll be remembered most for his time in Washington. That point was driven home when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001 and a Capitals jersey was on display as part of his presentation.
Team president Dick Patrick first started working for Washington more than 25 years ago and remembers a time when kids – including his son – only wanted to wear a No. 11 jersey.
“He was the idol,” said Patrick. “I feel the Capitals are honoured to do this.”
In some ways, the time that has passed is kind of a blessing in disguise.
Gartner sees his jersey retirement as a chance to look back an important time in his life.
“A lot of times I don’t reflect back, I kind of try to continue to look forward,” he said. “What it does though when you have times like this, it gives you an opportunity to reflect. Although you don’t want to live in the past, it’s important to not forget your past.
“The Capitals were a big part of my past as a hockey player.”