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There is some sublime symmetry in this Stanley Cup final series between the Las Vegas Golden Knights and the Washington Capitals, a matchup between arguably the greatest first-year expansion franchise in sports history and a team that has the ignominious distinction of being the very worst.
Back in the mid-1970s, I very occasionally covered the lousy latter for The Washington Post. Though my primary beat back then was the ‘Skins, in the football offseason I headed out to the old Capital Centre every once in a while to give the main Capitals writer, the late Bob Fachet, a night off from what must have been among the most depressing assignments in the annals of sportswriting.
Consider the first-year Caps in 1974 and their unprecedented, and still unmatched, record of futility. That dreadful team lost 67 of its 80 regular season games, a National Hockey League record. They won only eight games, another record, with five ties. They were 1-39 on the road, and held several more records of ineptness, including 17 straight regulation losses, the fewest points in a modern-era full season (21), and most goals allowed (446).
When the Capitals defeated the California Golden Seals 5-3 in front of 3,933 at the old Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on March 25, 1975, the players celebrated in the locker room by taking turns lofting a green garbage can over their heads and marching around in their underwear. Then they signed their names on it with a black Sharpie.
“That was our Stanley Cup,” said goalie Ron Low, who recorded the victory that night, many years later. “We came into the dressing room and the trash can was tall and skinny, so guys just started lifting it up and parading it around. Ace Bailey, one of the great jokesters of all time, took it after everybody signed it and twirled the rink with it. It was the most hilarious thing.”
That first year began with losses in their first two games, both on the road, by a combined 12-3 margin. But in their home opener on October 15, 1974, against the Los Angeles Kings, more than 15,000 filled the new Largo building just off the beltway, and Low was brilliant in a 1-1 tie. In their next game, also at home, they actually beat the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the NHL’s six original teams, in a stunning 4-3 decision.
But it didn’t last. As the losses and goals-against continued to mount, their head coach, Jim Anderson, decided that he and the ulcer he’d developed had had more than enough misery, and quit in February. As the losses kept coming, he once said: “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.”
Anderson’s successor was Red Sullivan, a former New York Ranger great, and he was fired after going 2-16, replaced at the end of the season by the general manager who hired him. That would be Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt, a great player and administrator who had built several Stanley Cup champions in Boston.
It didn’t matter. Schmidt was fired from both jobs in the team’s second season and replaced as the head coach by Tom McVie, a delightful fellow who actually lasted two more years after that.
In his first offseason, McVie asked me to introduce him to George Allen, then the head coach of Washington’s professional football team. In the summer of 1976, McVie actually came up to the team’s training camp in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and Allen—who aways moaned about distractions—actually invited him to have lunch with him. McVie said it was one of the highlights of his career.
Remember the 1970s movie Slap Shot starring Paul Newman as the graybeard veteran player/coach of a raucous minor league hockey team in an industrial mill town? McVie once told me he was absolutely convinced that his own playing and coaching experiences in the nether regions of pro hockey had been the inspiration for that memorable character.
McVie went on to coach several other NHL expansion franchises, but none of them could ever match the futility of those early Capitals teams, not to mention the incredible success of the Las Vegas team they’re now playing for what would be the first Stanley Cup championship for both franchises.
At least for these once woebegone Capitals, isn’t it about time?