Four decades ago this month, Richard Nixon resigned as president of the United States. Disgraced by the ongoing Watergate nightmare, Nixon bade the nation farewell and yielded the office to vice president Gerald Ford on Aug. 9, 1974.
While all this political intrigue and drama captured the headlines and captivated millions, the brand new Washington Capitals hockey team was quietly going about the business of preparing for its first season in the NHL.
Hockey Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt was appointed as the team’s first general manager in the summer of 1973; he and a handful of scouts spent the next year watching amateur and pro games in preparation for the 1974 NHL expansion draft, which was held on June 12, 1974. Original team owner Abe Pollin conducted a contest to name the new NHL entry from Washington, and the “Capitals” nickname was announced to the general public on Jan. 21, 1974.
In mid-May of 1974, Schmidt received permission from his former employer (the Boston Bruins) to interview Bruins’ scout Jimmy Anderson for the Capitals’ head coaching gig. While Schmidt served as GM of the Bruins, Anderson had coached for him twice, with Oklahoma City of the Central League and with Dayton of the International League. Anderson accepted the post on May 31, signing a two-year deal that was believed to be worth approximately $30,000 annually.
On May 28, 1974, the league conducted its annual Entry Draft for amateur players. The draft was held in secret and conducted via conference call in an effort to stave off ongoing raids of NHL talent by the upstart and rival World Hockey Association, which opened for business in 1972-73. Owning the first overall pick in the 1974 draft, Schmidt opted for defenseman Greg Joly.
Schmidt chose 25 amateur players in the May entry draft and added 24 pro players to the nascent Washington organization in the June expansion draft. But there wasn’t much talent available to the Capitals in that expansion draft. The NHL had swelled from six teams in 1966-67 to a dozen teams the next season. Two more clubs were added in 1970-71 and two more in 1972-73. The addition of the Capitals and the Kansas City Scouts for the 1974-75 campaign tripled the size of the NHL in less than a decade.
The WHA took the ice for the 1974-75 season with 14 teams, meaning there were 32 “major league” hockey teams in operation in North America. Suddenly, there were more than 600 jobs available in major league hockey where there had been just over 100 less than a decade earlier. Europe was still a largely untapped market for hockey talent; of the 450 skaters who suited up for NHL duty in 1974-75, 406 were born in Canada and 30 hailed from the U.S.
The talent pool was severely diluted when Schmidt and Scouts GM Sid Abel set about scouring the rosters of the existing 16 NHL clubs for whatever vestiges of talent they could find.
“It’s not fair,” Schmidt was quoted as saying in the June 11, 1974 edition of The New York Times. “We paid 6-million dollars to join the league and look how little the other teams have left for us.”
The 16 existing clubs were each permitted to protect 15 players. Players whose first pro season was 1973-74 were deemed draft exempt, and existing clubs were permitted to pull back a player each time they lost one. Each existing club would lose three players. So in effect, the Capitals were drafting the 16th, 18th and 20th best players from the existing clubs, and most of those existing clubs were facing an expansion draft for the third time in five years.
Of the 24 players Washington chose in the expansion draft, only three never played for the Capitals in a regular season NHL game. But only nine of the 24 played for Washington beyond the team’s first dismal season in the league, and only three – goaltender Ron Low and defensemen Yvon Labre and Gord Smith – appeared in as many as 75 games as a member of the Capitals.
Schmidt recognized right away that he would need to fortify his roster by any means possible, and he began doing so shortly after the expansion draft. Forward Jim Hrycuik was claimed from AHL Hershey in the intra-league draft; he would go on to score the first goal in franchise history.
Schmidt acquired veteran blueliner Doug Mohns from Atlanta on June 20 and he obtained veteran American forward Tommy Williams from Boston on July 22. A week later, Bill Lesuk was procured from Los Angeles. Each of those three players was purchased in a cash deal, and each had history with Schmidt from their days together in the Boston organization.
Mohns, who celebrated his 41st birthday midway through the 1974-75 season, was named the team’s first captain. The ’74-75 season proved to be Mohns’ only season in Washington and the final campaign of his 22-year NHL career.
Early in July, Schmidt finalized an agreement in which Washington and the Philadelphia Flyers would share the AHL Richmond Robins as the top farm affiliate for both clubs. The Capitals also firmed up an agreement in which they would also supply players to the IHL Dayton club.
Schmidt signed each of the team’s top six amateur draft choices over the summer, and the Caps’ schedule for their inaugural 1974-75 season was released in late July. The Caps would face the Rangers in New York on Oct. 9 in their historical first-ever NHL game and they would host the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 15 in the first regular season game at Landover’s Capital Centre.
The Capitals also unveiled their new uniforms that summer, an ensemble that briefly included white hockey pants as part of the team’s road uniform. The team’s ticketing structure featured a top ticket price of $8.50 along with tickets in the $6.50 and $4 slots as well.
In late August, the Caps named Ron Weber as their radio play-by-play voice and Jack Doniger as Weber’s color man.
The Capitals opened their first-ever rookie camp on Sept. 8 in London, Ont. The team’s first-ever training camp followed with 29 veterans reporting on Sept. 14. Washington’s first on-ice workouts of its inaugural training camp took place on Sept. 17. Mohns and Williams were the only two of the 53 players over the age of 26.
The Capitals’ rookie camp cost the club $16,100 and the training camp that followed came with a price tag of $55,000.
The lack of experience and talent did nothing to dim Schmidt’s excitement over that first camp, although he did become frustrated with those limitations as the season wore on.
“I’m like a baby with a toy,” exuded Schmidt to the late Robert Fachet in the Aug. 21, 1974 edition of The Washington Post. “I’m anxious to get started. I wish camp was here now.
“We should have a great training camp. We have so many players of equal ability. They ought to bust their necks trying to win spots on this team.”
The start of training camp is always an exciting time, but Schmidt was overly optimistic. The Caps were about to embark upon the worst season any team would have in the league’s history, winning just eight of their 80 games (8-67-5).
“We will fool a lot of people,” Schmidt told Fachet in August. “I like a lot of people on this team. We will be all right.”
In reality, nearly a decade would pass before the Capitals could be classified as “all right.”