Original Capitals reflect on early struggles: ‘Losing was so entrenched’

WASHINGTON — The original Washington Capitals were just hoping to avoid more embarrassment.

Saddled with an ugly 0-37-0 road record late into their appalling first season, the Capitals travelled to Oakland for a game against the California Golden Seals when something miraculous happened.

They won.

“We took the garbage pail and we signed it,” former Washington defenceman Jack Lynch recalled in a recent phone interview. ”That was our Stanley Cup.

“As sad as that was, it really was a fun moment.”

It was one of very few for the 1974-75 Capitals.

Unlike the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who trailed the present-day Capitals 2-1 heading into Monday’s crucial Game 4 of this season’s best-of-seven Cup final, Washington’s original incarnation was set up to fail on the ice from the start.

Abe Pollin paid a relative pittance of US$6 million to bring the NHL to the U.S. capital — roughly $30 million in today’s dollars — chump change compared to the $500 million Bill Foley ponied up for his Sin City hockey team.

That meant there was an expectation the Knights, who stunned almost everyone in hockey by winning the Pacific Division before breezing through the first three rounds of the playoffs, would be competitive from the start.

The leagues other 30 teams could only protect seven forwards, three defencemen and one goaltender, or eight combined skaters and a goalie in the expansion draft held last June to stock the Vegas roster.

The Capitals and the Kansas City Scouts, who joined the league together as the NHL’s 17th and 18th teams in 1974, were not given even close to the same opportunity, with franchises being allowed to keep 15 skaters and two goalies.

“Tommy Williams, one of our better players, used to say, ‘We’ve got a good team. The problem is we should be in the minors,’” former Washington forward Ron Lalonde said. ”He probably wasn’t very far off because of the talent pool we had.”

The expansion 1974-75 Capitals remain statistically the worst team in NHL history after finishing with a record of 8-67-5, good for just 21 points.

Lynch joined the club relatively late in its inaugural campaign, coming over in a trade with the Detroit Red Wings that February.

He knew things would be bad, but nothing prepared him for what came next.

“I was shocked. Losing was so entrenched,” Lynch said. “Guys were counting down how many games were left, how many practices, how many periods.

“They just really wanted to get the season over with.”

You could hardly blame them.

Defeats by five, six or seven goals weren’t uncommon. Washington, which went through three coaches that first season, lost games 12-1 (twice), 11-1, 10-0, 10-2 and 10-3.

Lalonde was acquired by Washington, which dressed nearly 40 players that year, in a deal with Pittsburgh in December 1974, a couple of weeks after the Penguins humbled the Capitals by a combined 14-1 score in a weekend home-and-home series.

“Washington had selected my good friend Yvon Labre in the expansion draft,” said Lalonde, now 65. ”I’m sitting on the bench and I’m looking over at Yvon and I’m saying, ‘Geez that poor bugger. This is going to be a long season.’

“A few weeks later I was there with him in the dressing room.”

Hockey was brand new in Washington, and the region had very few rinks. The team, which didn’t make the playoffs until 1983, played in suburban Landover, Md., and breaking into the market was difficult in a city that already had the NFL, NBA and professional soccer.

Lynch, 66, remembers going to countless events trying to promote the team, including one particularly humbling experience.

“The kids thought we were air hockey players,” the Toronto native said with a laugh. ”That was a little bit of a shot to the ego. It was an area they wanted to get into, and it’s obviously been extremely successful, but at the time it was tough.

“The fact that the team was so poor made it even harder.”

While the conditions the Knights entered the league under were completely different, Lalonde said he’s marvelled at how tight-knit the Vegas roster was right from the start after going through the Capitals’ miserable beginnings.

“That is the most difficult thing for an expansion team,” said Lalonde, who is also from Toronto. ”We had players from every organization. Some were disgruntled with how they were treated previously.

“To get 20 guys to play as a unit, as a team, as a family supporting each other, that to me is the story.”

The original Capitals battled hard, the same way the Knights have, but just weren’t good enough.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t appreciate every second in the show.

“A lot of kids playing hockey in Canada never got the chance to play in the NHL,” Lalonde said. ”That’s what kept you going — no matter how bad it is, there’s 100,000 kids who would love to take your place.

“We strived to get better. It wasn’t easy taking all the losses, but you kept going with the idea that somehow you were going to get better, that things would get better at some point.”

And they eventually did. It just took a while.

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