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The First Captain

August 28, 2014

Some 20 years before the Washington Capitals began their NHL existence, a 19-year-old kid from Capreol, Ont. cracked the Boston Bruins’ 1953-54 opening night roster. More impressively, he did so at the height of the Original Six era in the NHL without any minor league seasoning whatsoever.

More than two decades after that debut season, that same player would spend his final NHL season as the 41-year-old captain of the first-ever Capitals team in 1974-75.

Speed has always been an asset in the NHL, and 19-year-old Doug Mohns had speed in spades. There were a few teenagers who took to the ice for their respective NHL teams during that 1953-54 season, but Mohns was the only one who played in all 70 of his team’s games. A left wing at the time, Mohns finished off his rookie season with 13 goals and 27 points for the Bruins.

Also on that ’53-54 Bruins club was a wily and wizened 35-year-old veteran center who was playing out the penultimate season of a celebrated 16-year NHL career that would eventually land him in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Milt Schmidt was the captain of the Boston club that season; he made his own NHL debut at the tender age of 18 in 1936-37. His career would stretch just 23 games beyond that ’53-54 campaign, but soon enough, Schmidt would be coaching Mohns from behind the Bruins’ bench.

It was Schmidt who moved Mohns from left wing to defense in 1955-56; Mohns had never played the position previously but finished fifth in Norris Trophy in his first season as a rearguard. His versatility combined with his skating prowess and his booming slapshot enabled him to forge a 22-year NHL career, and helped earn him the nickname, “Diesel.”

The first half of Mohns’ NHL career was spent in Boston. He went to Chicago in a three-player deal in the summer of 1964. With the Blackhawks, Mohns was again deployed primarily as a left wing. Hawks coach Billy Reay put Mohns on a line with Stan Mikita and Kenny Wharram, a unit that had been known as the Scooter Line with Ab McDonald on the left side before McDonald was sent to Boston along with Reggie Fleming in exchange for Mohns. The Scooter Line peaked in ’66-67 when the trio accounted for 91 goals between them, and Mikita won the Hart, Ross and Lady Byng Trophies.

Mohns recorded four straight seasons with 20 or more goals with the Hawks. In 1969-70, Reay moved Mohns back to the blueline for good. Late in the following season, Mohns was dealt to the Minnesota North Stars for a pair of younger players. At the age of 38, Mohns led all North Stars defensemen in scoring with 36 points in 1971-72.

His production and effectiveness dipped in ’72-73, and he was claimed by the Atlanta Flames in the intra-league draft in June, 1973. The Flames were then a second-year expansion team. Mohns suffered through a difficult season as a 40-year-old defenseman with the Flames in ’73-74. Injuries – the most serious of which was a bothersome back ailment – limited him to just 28 games and three points, all assists. It appeared as though Mohns might have reached the end of the line.

Here in Washington, Schmidt had been named the Capitals’ first general manager. Bitterly disappointed at the dregs he’d been left to sift through in the 1974 expansion draft, Schmidt knew he needed to inject his youthful and talent-challenged franchise with a few experienced hands, and he turned to Mohns. Eight days after the expansion draft, Schmidt conditionally purchased Mohns’ contract from Atlanta.

The transaction was a conditional one because no one was quite certain about the condition of Mohns’ balky back. He underwent a procedure in which enzymes from the papaya were used to dissolve two protruding discs in his back. The treatment took, and Mohns found he was able to spend five hours a day on the ice and skating while conducting hockey schools in the summer of 1974.

“I can do things I haven’t been able to do for a long time,” Mohns told Robert Fachet in the Sept. 10, 1974 edition of The Washington Post. “This is the first summer as long as I can remember that I haven’t had to wear a corset.”

Schmidt said that Mohns was in camp on a “look-see-basis,” and that if he couldn’t make the Caps’ team, his career was almost certainly over.

“That’s the way Milt put it,” said Mohns. “If you can’t play for us, you won’t be playing anywhere.”

Mohns’ memories of Schmidt as a player were still fresh after two decades.

“I went into the training room one night before we were to play and saw Schmidt up on the [trainers’] table,” Mohns told Russ White in the Sept. 25, 1974 edition of The Washington Star-News. “They were administering to both of his legs. When they got the bandages on, they had to help him off the table. An equipment man had to help Schmidt get his skates on.

“No one helped Schmidt skate up and down the ice. He did that himself.”

Mohns’ back held up through training camp and he made the team. Three days before the Caps played their first game, Mohns penned a piece for The Star-News in which he went over some of the basics of hockey for the local folks, who hadn’t had a pro hockey team in their town for 15 years.

Four of the 42 players who suited up for Washington during that inaugural season had yet to enter this world when Mohns began his own NHL career in 1953-54. At the outset of the season, Mohns and Tommy Williams (34) were the only players on the Caps roster who were over 30. Mohns was the oldest player in the league throughout the season, and the only player over 40 in the NHL throughout the campaign.

The Caps did not name a team captain at season’s outset, and perhaps because management was still unsure as to whether Mohns could make it through the season, the veteran defenseman was not one of three alternate captains when the Caps first took the ice against the Rangers in New York on Oct. 9, 1974.

Mohns struggled a bit early in the season, and he was a healthy scratch for four consecutive games early in the season. But he only missed one more game aside from those, and only Yvon Labre played in more games (76 to Mohns’ 75) and totaled more points (27 to 21) among all Washington defensemen during that first difficult season.

Midway through the season, the Caps were staggering along with a 3-30-4 record and they were 0-17 on the road. It was at this juncture that Schmidt named Mohns the team’s first captain, with Williams, Labre and Bill Mikkelson serving as alternates.

“Mohns will be [head coach Jimmy] Anderson’s right hand man,” Schmidt declared to White in the Jan. 2, 1975 edition of The Star-News.

“So far,” Mohns told White, “I have not had the authority to interfere in anything. Now, as captain, perhaps I can help.

“Anderson has had his hands full. There is just no way that one man can do everything. My job is to help share the load. I believe the players respect me. They can come to me when they have something to say. They can talk to me freely.”

One of the first issues that Mohns addressed as team captain was the shifting of the team’s practice times at its Tyson Corner practice rink from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. It was hoped that with an additional hour to get to the rink, players wouldn’t get hung up in beltway traffic and incur a $25 fine for being late.

Not knowing the area well and starting off with an expansion franchise, most of the ’74-75 Capitals lived closer to the team’s home in Landover and found it difficult to get halfway around the beltway for practice on time.

Nothing Mohns – or anyone else for that matter – could do would save the Caps from the ignominy of an 8-67-5 finish that season, the worst single-season mark ever for an NHL club. But Mohns scored the game’s first goal in the Caps’ 5-3 win over the Seals in Oakland on March 30, 1975. That triumph stands as the team’s only road win of the season; they finished 1-39 away from the Capital Centre.

The goal was the last of 248 tallies registered during Mohns’ excellent 22-season, 1,390-game NHL career. Some 40 years after he retired from active NHL duty, Mohns still ranks 36th on the league’s all-time games played ledger. In his prime, he was an extremely valuable asset to have at a coach’s disposal. And in his waning years, he was a strong guiding force for younger players trying to navigate their way through the NHL’s rapid expansion.

After retiring from the NHL, Mohns went on to a second career in hospital administration and was also an avid volunteer for a number of worthy causes. Doug Mohns passed away at the age of 80 on Feb. 7 of this year. Those who played with him and watched him play over the years will always remember the Capitals first captain fondly.