When they finally won a road game, finally ended that 0-for-37 streak of unplumbed wretchedness, there was only one thing to do, so they did it. They skated back onto the ice after the game, carrying their prized possession – an old, beat-up metal garbage can.
Ever so giddy, the players hoisted it over their heads as they victory-lapped the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, then they signed it with a black marker, then they took it back to Washington, D.C., where it was proudly displayed in a corner of the team’s dressing room.
Unfortunately, like so many things associated with the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, Lord Stanley’s cherished garbage can was misplaced and lost. Losing, after all, was what the expansion Capitals did best. Their record of 67 losses in an 80-game season may have since been surpassed by the 1992-93 Ottawa Senators and San Jose Sharks, but the Capitals’ win count – a meagre eight over an entire year – still ranks as the toxic standard for ineptitude.
Thirty-eight years later, there are former Washington players who can’t say for sure how they endured all that losing. What they do know is that it made them better, more philosophical, more determined, if not in hockey then in life. Some were lucky enough to go on to other teams and win games and championships. Later on, some went into scouting and coaching while others bought and sold homes, owned golf courses, worked as police officers, worked for IBM, life insurance companies, investment firms. Many are retired; some have died. The memories of that ’74-75 season, as cruel as they are, still resonate as if they took place yesterday. For a group that didn’t win much, it did a lot of things right once the hockey playing was done.
“What did I learn from that season? Perseverance,” said Ron Low, the former goalie who later was the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers. “There were times I wanted to leave the building and drive home to Manitoba. But you always figured things would be better the next day. There was always that next game, that next chance. That’s what got us through it, I think.”
Imagine how hard it must have been. In their debut season, the Capitals made their expansion brethren, the Kansas City Scouts, look like playoff contenders. In one stretch, Washington went 0-16-1. Not long after, the team went on a 17-game losing smear in which it scored 33 goals and gave up 115. For the season, eight players finished with a plus/minus rating worse than -50. Defenceman Bill Mikkelson still holds the record with an unfathomable -82. Asked how that could have happened, the likeable Mikkelson replied: “While we were playing, it never crossed my mind. You look back and, in a sense, it’s, ‘Boy, that is bad. It’s almost embarrassing.’”
Thirty-nine players dressed for the Capitals that year; three head coaches tried their hand at making them winners. The first, Jim Anderson, said once: “I’d rather find out my wife was cheating on me than keep losing like this. At least I could tell my wife to cut it out.” The second coach, Red Sullivan, had a different perspective.
“We checked into a hotel one night in Boston,” Low recalled. “The guy at the front desk says, ‘We have a nice suite for you on the fourth floor, Mr. Sullivan.’ Red says, ‘Is it near the ice machine?’”
As the losses piled up, so did the need to laugh, and the Capitals were never shy for material. Like the time tortured young defenceman Greg Joly, who was rushed into the NHL too soon, corralled a loose puck in his own zone and tried to backhand it around the boards. Instead, he picked the top corner past his own goalie. His teammates applauded. Best shot he made all year. Or the time when Low looked at a scoreboard in Buffalo and saw the Nos. 68 and 62 – 68 was the temperature in Fahrenheit inside the arena, 62 was the shots on goal against Washington.
“I remember standing at centre ice in the Montreal Forum,” said forward Dave Kryskow, the first skater claimed by Washington in the 1974 expansion draft. “[Habs defenceman] Larry Robinson was there and he looked at me and I smiled and asked, ‘What’s the over/under on tonight’s game?’ He said, ‘Ten.’ I said, ‘Sounds about right.’”
The final score was 10-0.
“If you don’t have a sense of humour, you’re going to die,” was defenceman Yvon Labre’s survival technique. “Someone called me after Ottawa lost [for the 68th time, breaking the Capitals’ record] and asked how I felt. I said I was very happy for them. … Actually, I felt for them. Losing is hard, but it does help you. In business, you get turned down nine out of 10 times, then all of a sudden it works. That’s what I learned.”
Labre played seven seasons for the Capitals and saw some good, too. Teammate Gord Lane went from not playing enough in Washington to being a worthy cog with the New York Islanders, winning four Stanley Cups in a row. Bill Lesuk, another former Capital from ’74-75, had a similar experience. When he left Washington, he signed with the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association and won an Avco Cup with teammates Bobby Hull, Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg. The lesson? Whether you’re in the wrong place or right place, your best can get you through.
“[Washington forward] Pete Laframboise once said, ‘We’re not that bad. We’re just in the wrong league,’” Lesuk recalled. “You learn to win, you learn to lose. You just can’t accept the losing.”
Time has reinforced what the win-starved Capitals learned the hard way. Garnet (Ace) Bailey was in the wrong place on United Airlines flight 175 when it crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Low was leaving a pub in downtown Calgary one night in 2010 when he was mugged and had to be hospitalized for eight days. Low was fortunate; his injuries could have been more serious. He overcame them the only way he knew how – by persevering, as if it were another kick at Lord Stanley’s garbage can.
“We won [5-3 over the California Golden Seals] and it was Ace Bailey’s idea, 100 per cent,” Low said of the Capitals’ lone road-win celebration. “He said, ‘This is the Cup.’ We took it out on the ice and skated around with it. People in Oakland thought we were out of our minds.”
They had to be. The worst team ever in hockey history and all they could do was laugh about it.