Hockey is a tough game, played by tough men.
But some men are tougher than others.
This toughness does not only apply to fighting. It also applies to other aspects of the game, such as doing the dirty work, playing injured and generally being a tough opponent to play against.
In their almost 40 years of existence, the Capitals have had their fair share of tough hombres. Here is a list of the five toughest players in Washington Capitals' history.
Note: All statistics courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise.
Throughout NHL history, certain hockey players have done all the dirty work yet gotten none of the glory.
Joe Reekie is one of those players, and now he is receiving his due recognition.
During his playing career, Reekie spoke to Dave Feete LCSHockey about his motivation as a hockey player:
As a defensive defenseman, I'm not going to get a lot of points in a year,. But you know, I just can't get scored against. I take a lot of pride in [defense], just like a goal scorer does scoring goals, and I do whatever it takes not to let one in. It eats me alive when I get scored against.
Reekie maintained that attitude throughout his tenure with the Capitals, as described by Joe Pelletier of WashingtonCapitalsLegennds.com:
From 1994 to 2002 Reekie served as a top four defender. He was often used against the other team's top players because of his strength and seemingly flawless defensive positioning. He was smart and tough, although that brought inevitable injuries that slowed him. Regardless, he always played with a subtle savvy that I always admired, as well as with a tough and physical, yet clean, presence.
A tough customer, in more ways than one.
Playing goalie in the NHL requires an intrinsic toughness. Goalies are expected to stop vulcanized rubber with whatever body part or piece of equipment they have at their disposal, even if the puck approaches at 100 mph. The 250-pound ogres trolling through the goal crease certainly don't make the job any easier.
Of all the players who played this demanding position for the Washington Capitals, Olaf Kolzig was the toughest.
As proof of his ability to play a tough position better than any other Capital–game in and game out, season after season–take a look at the significant franchise records Kolzig holds, and the difference in each category between Kolzig and the second place entry:
|CATEGORY||OLAGF KOLZIG||SECOND PLACE||DIFFERENCE|
|Time On Ice||41,259:36||15,185:41||26,073:55|
To put those numbers in perspective, Kolzig spent a total of 28 days, 15 hours, 39 minutes and 36 seconds in goal for the Washington Capitals.
Those regular season numbers do not even account for the toughest minutes of Kolzig's career, at the most trying time of the NHL season. During the 1998 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Kolzig led the Capitals to the Promised Land as he compiled a .941 save percentage and a 1.95 goals against average, with four shutouts. The Capitals lost the Stanley Cup Finals, but Kolzig authored a Conn Smythe-caliber performance along the way.
Olie became our backbone. Everyone in the dressing room liked him because he was so intense, and people who saw him interviewed on TV liked him because they could tell he was genuine. Olie was just one of the guys you root for.
The intense Kolzig had a legendary temper, which he learned to control. Michael Farber wrote that "Kolzig used to be the Wild Thing in the net" but he "found that by controlling himself he could master others. He curbed his hotheadedness and became an elite goalie."
Kolzig still unleashed the fury on occasion. There was the time he repeatedly confronted reputed enforcer Francois Leroux in a 1996 melee between the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs. Kolzig also had to be restrained by best friend Byron Dafoe in a 1998 brawl with the Boston Bruins, as Dafoe kept Kolzig from squaring off with another giant in Ken Belanger. Finally, in 2007, Kolzig expressed his displeasure with Jim Slater of the Atlanta Thrashers after Slater ran Kolzig in his crease by promptly punching Slater in the face with his boxing glove...I mean, catching glove.
They called him Godzilla for a reason.
Matt Hendricks spent only three seasons with the Washington Capitals, but he left quite an impression.
Hendricks did all the unpleasant tasks for the Capitals: fore checking, shot blocking, penalty killing. What's more, he was willing to complete these dangerous tasks while already injured. Hendricks spoke to Mike Vogel of the Monumental Network's Dump 'N Chase blog about how a now-legendary incident from the 2011-12 season in which he was unfazed by a rather gruesome injury:
We were in groups. There’s a group taking some shots at one end, and we were out by the blueline working on our face-offs. [Alex Ovechkin] took a shot and missed the net a little high. It hit the glass and came out. We all know how hard he shoots; it ended up catching me in the ear. It wasn’t direct, but from what he says it was picking up speed on the glass. It hit me and it was kind of surprising. It felt like somebody came up and hit me in the head with a baseball bat. It stunned me. I realized I was bleeding and pain was setting in. I knew it wasn’t good. I was pretty upset. I was thinking of all the worst possible injuries I could have had and I was hoping that it wasn’t going to be that bad. The immediate thing I did was to go to a mirror to see how bad it was. It was pretty funny once the guys started coming off the ice. Their comments weren’t too comforting. They made it sound like it was a lot worse than it really was.
Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Sports then explained how Hendricks played the very next day in a matinee against the arch rival Pittsburgh Penguins. Hendricks took a big hit from Penguins defender Zbynek Michalek and still received the most ice time in his career, up to that point. Wyshynksi opined that Hendrick's severed ear deserved to enter the "pantheon of groteqsue hockey injuries."
Hendricks was prone to suffer even more injuries while fulfilling his role as a hockey fighter, a role he did not shy away from in the least. At 6' 0", 211 pounds, Hendricks is a middleweight, at best. But he consistently fought up in class, further showing his toughness. On March 16, 2013 in Boston, Hendricks had already fought Nathan Horton (6' 2", 229). Later in the game, Hendricks actually declined to fight Shawn Thornton (6' 2", 217) and instead, chose to fight Adam McQuaid (6' 4", 197) in the same sequence.
Hendricks endeared himself to teammates and fans alike for his willingness to fight larger opponents not simply because he wanted to, but because his team needed him to. The best example of this came on January 18, 2012. The Capitals were playing the Montreal Canadiens for the first time since they acquired Rene Bourque from the Calgary Flames. Bourque was playing with the Flames on January 3, 2012 when he elbowed Nicklas Backstrom in the head, forcing him to miss 40 games with a concussion.
With Backstrom still out of the lineup on January 18, Hendricks fought Bourque as retribution, and it wasn't even close. Bourque is 6' 2", 213 pounds, and is good with his hands. Hendricks lost easily, as he took one for the team.
Fans received an in-depth look into Hendricks's life as a hockey fighter on HBO's 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic, during the 2010-11 season. Scott Stinson of The National Post described a telling scene from the second episode:
The Capitals enforcer gets treatment for an eye injury suffered in a fight with Sean Avery in a game that ended Episode 1. In high-definition, that is one nasty-looking eye: red and bloody, with several stitches having sewn up a cut. Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau tells Hendricks that he doesn’t have to fight every night. “Let someone else do that tonight,” he says. But with his battered face already telling a story, Hendricks explains to the camera that he didn’t intend to be a fighter. “It comes down to I want a job, I want a career,” he says. He had a good year last year, he says, but he spent most of it in the minors. “I had to figure out a way to make the opening night roster,” he says. “A good friend of men said ‘you gotta fight. If you don’t someone else will.’ I kind of stick by that motto now.”
Tough way to earn a living.
Defense in the NHL is tough. But the challenge becomes even tougher when you decide to actually play defense, instead of joining your offensive brethren on the odd-man rush.
Rod Langway was one such defensive-minded defenseman, and he was the best blueliner who ever laced them up for the Washington Capitals.
Langway joined the Capitals in 1982-83, and went to work immediately. He won the Norris Trophy that season and again in 1983-84. Joe Pelletier of WashingtonCapitalsLegends.com wrote about the significance of this double:
This is an amazing accomplishment when you consider how rare it is for a defensive d-man to win the award since the arrival of Bobby Orr in the late 1960s. Since Orr revolutionized the role of a defenseman from defender to attacker, the trophy almost always went to the best offensive defenseman. For Langway to capture the Norris trophy twice based on his defensive excellence and not his offensive elements is the best tribute to how good he was. And to make it even more impressive, Langway beat out superstars Ray Bourque, Denis Potvin and Paul Coffey. Coffey in particular dared to come close to Orr's offensive exploits, yet the NHL recognized Langway's great play over that. Langway was also the first American player to win the award.
But Langway was worth more than just statistics and awards. A lot more.
On January 10, 1988, William Gildea of The Washington Post (archived by The Los Angeles Times) wrote a piece about Langway, upon his return to the Capitals lineup after an injury.
Crucial to the Capitals' goal of winning the Stanley Cup, Langway is the player who "represents everything we are as a team," as General Manager David Poile has put it. Langway works at the game, and will demand effort from non-performers. The cornerstone and soul of the Capitals, Langway, at 30, remains a coach's ideal–respected and entrenched, he will still sacrifice his body in games and practice as if he were about to be shipped out to Binghamton. Back after suffering a ruptured disk in his spine Nov. 25, Langway sets the tone for the now hot Capitals.
Craig Laughlin spoke to Joe Pelletier of WashingtonCapitalsLegends.com about the tone that Langway set:
Rod’s presence made a statement to all the other teams. Nobody wanted to play against him when he was in his prime. The statement that I heard most from opponents was that he was like playing against an octopus. He had the size, the reach and the strength.”
Langway still hold the Capitals' franchise mark for plus/minus rating at plus-117. No other play is even in triple digits. Plus, Langway is one of only four Capitals players to have his sweater number retired, according to Hockey-Reference.com.
Tough to top.
Throughout the years, win or lose, regardless of personnel, one thing has remained fairly constant about the Capitals. If you’re the opposing team and you’re going up against the Caps, you know you’re in for a struggle from the opening faceoff to the final horn. That’s how Dale Hunter played it every night—1,407 times over 19 seasons.
Yes, Dale Hunter was tough to play against. He was also tough.
Hunter suffered a severe leg and ankle injury during the 1986-87 season, in what would be his final season with the Quebec Nordiques, according to Mike Vogel of Capitals.com. Quebec doubted that Hunter could resume his previous production, so they shipped him to Washington that summer. Vogel describes how "during his first year with the Caps, Hunter was still in a lot of pain because of the injury. Yet he missed only one game while totaling 59 points and 240 PIM."
But Hunter was also a tough guy, in the classic hockey sense. In fact, he was almost the tough guy, ranking second in NHL history with 3,565 penalty minutes, according to NHL.com. Hunter also holds the distinction of being the only player with 3,000 penalty minutes and 1,000 points.
Teammates such as Steve Konowalchuk valued Hunter's intimidating presence. Konowalchuk explained to Mike Vogel of Capitals.com that "when I think of him, I think of him always being involved in the game, being tough and being there and sticking up for you all the time. You always felt safe and ready to go to battle playing together.”
All this from a guy who was listed at 5' 10", 198 pounds.
Like I said, it was tough to find someone more qualified to lead this ranking than Dale Hunter.