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The Washington Capitals Hockey School for adult beginners held its final exam at Tucker Road Ice Rink last week. After enduring three weeks of seminars and skills drills, the class of 1996 got to play its first hockey game. The on-ice action during the intramural tilt—replete with tripping over the blue line and teammates viciously checking each other—was less Messier than messy.
“You see my wrist shot?” sighs Ron Pruitt, a 41-year-old P.G. County policeman off the ice, as he rests between two-minute shifts. “It’s so weak, the goalie can eat a sandwich while he’s waiting for the puck.”
The chance to put on the pads and go full-speed during the final class forced the 34 players in this year’s group to confront the gaping holes in their new game. Luckily for Pruitt, the goalies’ holes were even more visible than his: You may not need an infrared Fox flare to follow a Pruitt shot, but one of his slow-motion swats was streaky enough to tickle the twine and put his White squad up 3-0 over the Blues. From the looks of absolute bliss on virtually every face at the rink, nobody was letting incompetence spoil a good time.
“It’s still hockey!” cackles former Capitals defenseman Yvon Labre, in his customary role as rinkmaster for what has become an annual instructional circus on ice. “And hockey’s a great, great game.”
Labre has seen the same combo of sad play and happy faces ever since the school started in 1986; he’s the only head instructor the school has ever had. You’d think Labre would’ve gotten his fill of bad hockey during his playing career.
Back in 1974, Labre became an original Capital via the expansion draft, and the record books show he scored the franchise’s first-ever goal at the Capital Centre, during the team’s and the arena’s first year of existence. The books also, however, reveal the Caps’ 1974-75 team as the worst in the history of the league. Those Caps still hold records for fewest wins (8) and longest losing streak away from home: Amazingly, the team lost every one of the first 37 road games it played.
The Caps improved only a little during the time Labre played here. The team never won more than 27 games in a season while he was on the roster. And even though the league’s playoff system was as inclusive as a Fugazi show, Labre’s edition of the Caps never got invited to the postseason dance.
“I have to plead temporary amnesia whenever anybody asks me about those teams,” smirks Labre, who was the Caps’ captain during the franchise’s gory years.
When injuries forced his retirement before the 1981-82 season, Labre had scored just 12 goals in seven years. His most notable statistic came in the category of career penalty minutes, 756—a team record that stood for years. Even so, his No. 7 jersey was hoisted—without him in it—to the rafters of the home arena; to this day, Labre remains the only Cap ever to have his laundry retired with honor.
“My god, the only players who get their jerseys retired are guys like Orr or Esposito or Howe, guys with records going out their gazoo. Not guys like Yvon Labre,” gushes the Sudbury, Ontario, native. “I guess the jersey thing shows that I was in the right place at the right time, and I worked very hard. I know those years may not have been the greatest for the franchise, but they were definitely some of the best years of my life.”
Labre, at 47, says he’s still frequently amused by the way Washingtonians who didn’t grow up with hockey like to pretend they did.
“A man came up to me this week and says, ‘Yvon, my dad used to take me to the Cap Centre to watch you play, and you were my favorite,’ like he was a youngster back then,” Labre says. “So I look at the guy, and he’s older than me! I’m thinking, ‘Too bad your father waited so long to introduce you to hockey.’”
Labre’s enduring status as a crowd fave led to an offer from the Caps’ front office upon his retirement. His current title is director of special programs. The most special of those is the hockey school, where for four Thursdays each February, Labre goes over every aspect of hockey short of driving the Zamboni. Tu-ition is $80 per pupil. Equipment, other than a jersey that students get to keep, isn’t provided. An appreciation for the game is.
“All I ever got growing up was Bear Bryant this, Bear Bryant that,” shrugs Pruitt, who was born and reared in, you guessed it, Alabama. “I’d never been on skates before taking this class, and once I started, the biggest question going was, ‘Is that guy gonna fall down again?’ But now, you can’t believe how much I regret not getting to hockey before I got this old. I really, really regret it.”
Pruitt’s fellow White teammate Sara Shorin voices those same feelings of lament, but for different reasons. “I grew up in Detroit,” says Shorin, a 32-year-old Wheaton resident, “and all I wanted to do was play hockey like all the boys in the neighborhood did. But girls weren’t allowed to play back then. I know if I were 10 years old now, I’d be playing junior hockey. I was just born too soon. I missed that opportunity.”
The gender-based injustice that kept the young Shorin from lacing up anything but figure skates isn’t apparent in Labre’s program: Five females took the class this year.
“We were at a Capitals game together when a message about the school flashed on the scoreboard,” recalls Greg Shorin, Sara’s husband and classmate. “As soon as it went up, we looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do it!’ at the exact same time.”
Their performance during the final exam made the Shorins the closest thing to a Gretzky/Hull pairing the class of 1996 possessed. Sara scored her team’s second goal, while Greg’s tally in overtime gave the Whites a 5-4 victory and class bragging rights.
After the game, Sara said she intended to start looking for a local league where she might be able to use the skills she’d just shown off. Until she finds one, Shorin would be more than welcome to lace ’em up at Fort DuPont Ice Rink in southeast D.C., where ex-students of the Capitals school gather every Saturday for some pickup hockey.
“Before I took the class, all I knew was that I enjoyed watching hockey,” gushes Scott Kingsley, a 51-year-old alumnus of the class of 1986 who organizes and participates in the Fort Dupont games. “But I realize now that I had no idea what hockey is about, how difficult the game is. And how exhilarating! I get an exhilaration from actually playing the game that I can’t find elsewhere.”
Even the instructor is awed by the passion Kingsley and other hockey school alumni have for the game after graduation.
“These are grown people playing hockey at Fort DuPont ’til midnight all the time now,” says Labre. “Now, I love the game, but when I hear that… well, that’s nuts. CP