Debut Debacle: Remembering the Expansion Capitals' Worst-Ever 1974-75 Season

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistApril 9, 2015

AP Images

For other men, it was just a trash can. To the men of the Washington Capitals on March 28, 1975, it was their treasure. 

"The Washington Capitals won a road hockey game tonight. Honest," read the game story in the next day's issue of The Washington Post by Ken Denlinger.

On this night, nearly eight months since Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency, in a week when "Lady Marmalade" by Labelle topped the singles charts, when gas cost 44 cents a gallon and the average United States home price was $11,787, the Capitals topped the California Golden Seals, 5-3, in front of 3,933 people at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. 

It would be the expansion Caps' lone road victory in 1974-75. One win, 39 losses. It was time for a parade of sorts. 

Caps players took turns holding aloft a green, cylindrical object, each one taking their turn pumping the cheap, thin metal onto which they signed their names with a black Sharpie. 

"That was our Stanley Cup," said goalie Ron Low, who recorded the victory. "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."

Forty years later, the Caps will take the ice at the start of this year's playoffs. The franchise has been a winner—if not a championin the era of winger Alex Ovechkin.

But that first Caps club? The 1-39 road record is one of several NHL records of futility, including 17 straight regulation losses, fewest wins in a season (final record 8-67-5), fewest points in a modern-era full season (21) and most goals allowed (446).

Other teams have come close, including the 1992-93 versions of the Ottawa Senators and San Jose Sharks, but Washington's expansion club, now in its 40th year, still stands as the worst ever in the NHL.

1974-75 Washington Capitals by the Numbers
Points21NHL record
Wins8NHL record
Losses673rd-most in NHL history
Goals against446NHL record
Goal differential-265NHL record
Longest losing streak17NHL record
Hockey-Reference.com

Psychiatrists say we push our darkest memories as far into the background as they can go, so perhaps it's no surprise former Golden Seals rookie and later 50-goal scorer Charlie Simmer doesn't much recall that night.

"I don't even remember the huge bag skate we must have had the next day," Simmer says today with a laugh.

Low, retired and living in the Edmonton area, can laugh now about the worst season any NHL team has ever had. The coach who guided the Caps to that win in Oakland, 97-year-old Hockey Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt, still cannot.

"I don't wish to discuss that, thank you," Schmidt said by phone from his Boston area home. "It's still too painful to think about."

BOSTON, MA. - 1970's: Milt Schmidt coach of the Washington Capitals watches play from behind bench. Schmidt is a Bruin legend and Hall of Fame member .  (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Steve Babineau/Getty Images

Capitals owner Abe Pollin, who also owned the NBA's Bullets and the new Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, lured Schmidt, the architect of the great Boston Bruins teams of the early 1970s, to Washington with a big-money offer. 

Schmidt hired a Massachusetts friend in the Bruins' minor league system named Jim Anderson as his first coach, despite the fact Anderson had no previous NHL coaching experience. Before the season was over, Anderson would resign, the stress of the job proving so much he suffered from stomach ulcers.

The Capitals didn't just lose in 1974-75. Very often they got crushed. Washington lost four games by 10 or more goals. One of the backup goalies to Low, Michel Belhumeur, went 0-24-3—yet his 5.36 goals-against average was tops on the team.

"He actually played pretty well for us!" Low said.

Another goalie, John Adams, went 0-7 with a 6.90 GAA. If Washington's other John Adams had performed that poorly, he would have been impeached.

It wasn't all the goalies' fault. Some of the players had minus numbers worse than a night in the Arctic Circle. Defenseman Bill Mikkelson was a minus-82 in 59 games. Left wing Mike Marson, the second black player in NHL history behind Willie O'Ree, was a minus-65. Defenseman Greg Joly, the first player picked in the 1974 NHL amateur draft, was a minus-68 in just 44 games.

Mike Marson, left
Mike Marson, leftSteve Babineau/Getty Images

About that Joly pick: While it deserves its place among the NHL's worst No. 1 selections in history (some of the players picked after Joly include Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies, Pierre Larouche, Wilf Paiement, Doug Risebrough, Dave Maloney, Mark Howe and Simmer himself), Washington's draft process was made tougher by a few factors.

It was a brand-new team, so scouts and other front-office personnel were hastily assembled. The World Hockey Association was beginning its third year heading into the fall of 1974, and plenty of players who might have been picked by NHL clubs were taken in the WHA draft as well and wound up signing contracts with teams there.

The WHA scooped up some players who were too young to be drafted by NHL teams (one such player a few years later went by the name of Wayne Gretzky). In 1967, the NHL raised the minimum draft age from 18 to 20, but in 1974—to combat the renegade WHA—it allowed clubs to select one 18-year-old in one of the first two rounds.

In effect, that opened the pool of available talent to other NHL clubs with deeper scouting staffs.

The Caps thought they had the next great offensive defenseman in the Regina Pats star, but Joly scored just one goal and tallied eight points in 44 games, and Washington traded him two years later to Detroit, where he stumbled through a few more poor and mediocre seasons before retiring.

"He was the one guy the fans were just merciless toward after a while. What people wanted was for somebody to hit somebody, and he wouldn't hit anybody," said Mike Feldman, an original Capitals season-ticket holder.

Feldman, a Maryland attorney, laughs when he thinks back to the biggest reason why he went in on season tickets with his best friend, Craig.

"I'm from Philadelphia originally but moved to Washington in 1967 to go to American University. I always loved watching hockey and the Flyers on TV, and they were always sold out every game. I mean, every game," Feldman said.

"So when the Caps came into existence, I thought, 'This will be a great investment. We'll be able to watch some games, and sell the others for a profit!' Each ticket required a $500 deposit, and he loaned me the money for that. So not only did I talk him into this horrible investment, he lent me the money so I could do it."

Photo courtesy of Michael Feldman

By season's end, you could swing a dozen cats in any direction and not hit anyone in the stands of the Capital Centre.

But on opening night, Oct. 15, 1974, against the Los Angeles Kings, more than 15,000 packed into the new building, which had a roof shaped like a saddle and a brand-new, first-of-its-kind four-sided video "telescreen" above center ice that had players and coaches continually looking up to see themselves.

The Caps' first game ever, which was at Madison Square Garden Oct. 9 against the Rangers, was a 6-3 loss. Three nights later, they were shut out for the first of 12 times, 6-0 against the Minnesota North Stars at the old Metropolitan Center.

But in that home opener, Yvon Labre scored the first Caps goal in the new arena and Low backstopped his team to a 1-1 tie. The next game, at home, Washington beat the Original Six Chicago Blackhawks, 4-3.

Before the season, some pundits had actually picked the Caps to be better than some established clubs, and they were looking smart by the fourth game. The Caps would not win again for 15 games, a 6-4 home win on Nov. 19 over the Golden Seals.

"Cancel the plane to Buffalo. The Washington Capitals were flying so high last night they could make the trip without one," went the opening paragraph to The Washington Post account of the win, penned by staff writer Robert Fachet. "After 14 winless games and 33 days without a victory celebration, the Capitals took advantage of a Golden opportunity."

It would be another 12 games before Washington's next win. Other pedestrian losing streaks followed, but then came the granddaddy of them all, a 17-game skid, all in regulation, from Feb. 18 to March 28, 1975. Included was a 12-1 loss to a mediocre Pittsburgh team on March 15.

"We went into every game looking to win, and I guess it was the hype and the adrenaline," Labre told WashingtonCaps.com writer Mike Vogel of the team's comparatively fast start. "But as reality set in, we just didn't play that well together."

Ron Low, later in his career as coach of the Oilers.
Ron Low, later in his career as coach of the Oilers.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Through it all and through all the goals against, Low refused to give in mentally. He was highly respected by teammates for never quitting in a game, always fighting for the next save in a contest already long lost.

"You get frustrated with it, but we were all together. We were playing in the NHL," Low said. "Whether we belonged there or not, I'm not positive. Probably, we didn't. We would have made a great AHL team. But we persevered. We came to the rink with pride in that Capitals logo on our sweater, no matter what the record."

That kind of attitude is what made fans such as Feldman stick with the team through the brutal early years. He has renewed his season tickets every year since 1974. The Caps have played to more than 95 percent capacity every season since 2007-08 in the Verizon Center, and the arena is regularly monochrome with red-clad Caps fans, particularly when they make the playoffs—as they did this season.

"There are very few of us around who have been here from that first year," Feldman said. "I think I handled it with a sense of a humor—I think, anyway. We actually all sort of spoke proudly of how bad we were playing but were still there. But it could be frustrating. We would go to games where the score was 10-0, 11-0, and that is pretty tough to take, you know?"

Low, who went on to play 10 more years in the NHL and later coached the Oilers and Rangers, says he still gets requests to sign his 1974 Capitals trading cards and other memorabilia. He wouldn't trade that first year for anything, he says. Well, maybe that 17-game losing streak he might. It remains the lowest moment in Low's memory.

"You started to really feel like you might never win another hockey game again," he said. "You started to think, 'Maybe it's just not possible.' It felt like forever. That's why there was so much jubilation in our room that night when we broke it."

"(But) that actually was probably the best thing that ever happened for me, playing on that team," Low said. "Because, in the end, people looked at you and said, 'If you could deal with that, you can probably deal with anything.'"

 

Adrian Dater has covered the NHL since 1995. Follow him @Adater.