It’s been almost two weeks now since the Capitals successful trip out west came to an end, but there were a few off-ice items that I wanted to chronicle while they’re still relatively fresh in my mind.
I think I covered the Denver stop and much of the Vancouver portion of the trip, but that’s when the games started piling up.
It rained throughout the entire 48 hours or so we were in Vancouver, which was a marked departure from the five beautiful and sunny days we spent in that city for the draft last summer. After spending almost all day Thursday writing, I finally freed up some time to eat dinner. Tarik El-Bashir (of the Washington Post) and I picked out a spot along the water and walked through the mist to the restaurant.
Once inside, we had to wait in the bar until a table opened up. At this point, we ran into Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal. He was in town to work on a story on Alex Ovechkin. Even though we were to be in Edmonton two nights later, Matheson was eager to spend some time with Ovy and get his first live look at him on the ice. It was enlightening to see how eager the journalists of western Canada were to spend some time with Ovy and to watch him ply his trade.
Matheson joined us for dinner and regaled us with some great stories of his days covering the Oilers during their dynastic days in the 1980s. He earned the Elmer Ferguson Award a few years back. That’s the hockey writers’ equivalent to enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame. I like talking shop with the writers and broadcasters around the league, but especially with someone like Matheson, whose work I’ve enjoyed for a long time.
At the morning skate the next day, Matheson was telling us about a trip the Caps made out west in the late 1970s. Tom McVie was the head coach at the time, and he had the reputation for being a bit of a taskmaster. The Caps lost the last game of the trip in lopsided fashion, and McVie decided to call for a practice the next morning at 7 a.m., a few hours before the team’s flight was slated to return to Washington.
To a couple of the Caps, namely the late Ace Bailey and Ron Low, this was cruel and unusual punishment. They telephoned the local bus company, posed as McVie, and canceled the bus that had been chartered to pick up the players at the team hotel at 6 a.m.
It was a brilliant plan in theory. At 6 a.m. the next morning, most of the Capitals assembled in front of the hotel and waited for a bus that would never arrive while McVie seethed. Two Caps were still upstairs sleeping soundly in their rooms, which is where the plan’s flaw lies. In not being downstairs with their teammates, Bailey and Low inadvertently revealed themselves as the perpetrators of the ruse.
Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo was a popular guy at the morning skate prior to the Caps’ Oct. 27 meeting with Vancouver. Since he had limited Ovechkin to just two goals in eight games in 2005-06, the assembled media wanted to know the “secret” to stopping the 2006 Calder Trophy winner.
“I don’t know if there is a secret,” he said. “I played him aggressive last year and it worked out well for me. Maybe because I am a bigger guy, there is a little advantage. I’ll try doing the same tonight and see what happens.”
I decided to spend a little time with Vancouver’s Taylor Pyatt, whose career has taken a bit of an upswing this season now that he is playing the right side of a line with the Sedin twins. Pyatt was chosen eighth overall by the Islanders in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, one pick after the Caps chose Kris Beech. Pyatt is now with his third NHL organization, and has an opportunity to establish himself as a legitimate scoring threat this season.
“When you struggle a little bit at a young age, you lose a little bit of your confidence and sometimes it is tough to get it back,” admits Pyatt. “It’s nice to get off to a decent start. But I’ve gotten off to good starts before, I just want to continue to play well for the rest of the season.”
Last season, Pyatt netted six goals in 41 games with Buffalo. Three of those came against Washington last Nov. 17, when he notched his second career hat trick. Pyatt’s career high was 14 goals with the Sabres in 2002-03. He has already accrued half his career high this season with seven goals in his first 17 games. That’s tied for the team lead. Playing with the Sedins was a boon for Anson Carter (33 goals) last season, and may be the same for Pyatt in 2006-07.
“They’re a lot of fun to play with,” he says of the twins. “They are so smart with the puck and tremendous passers. For me, it’s a matter of trying to get around the net as much as possible, trying to find some open areas and getting the puck on net whenever I can.”
After the Caps suffered a 3-2 loss to the Canucks in the shootout, Washington’s traveling party began to gradually assemble aboard the team bus. The bus was parked outside GM Place, and a few dozen fans had assembled there, hoping to catch a glimpse of some players and perhaps snag an autograph or two.
As Ovechkin and Alexander Semin came out together and hopped on the bus, the fans began chanting in unison: “O-VECH-KIN! O-VECH-KIN!!”
After Caps general manager George McPhee urged the pair on and assured them they had a few minutes before departure, Ovechkin and Semin got off the bus to a huge cheer, and several scattered camera flashes. The pair signed autographs and posed for pictures for about five minutes, then climbed back on the bus for the trip to the airport.
At one point during the journey to the airport, the bus became entangled in some late night traffic. Caps defenseman Shaone Morrisonn, very adept at getting pucks through traffic and out of his own end of the ice, went up to the front of the bus and advised the driver as to a “shortcut” that would take the vehicle through some residential areas and around the snarled traffic. We were at the airport minutes later. A Vancouver native, Morrisonn knows his way around.
Future installments will include impressions of Edmonton, Calgary and the recent one-game jaunt to Raleigh.