33 and Counting

Today marks the 33rd anniversary of the Washington Capitals’ first-ever regular season game, a 6-3 loss to the New York Rangers (the first of 37 consecutive losses on the road that season) while wearing white pants at Madison Square Garden. Seventy-nine more games would follow that season with only eight of them ending up in the win column. Speaking of eight, that’s how many seasons the local faithful were forced to endure before they finally were able to watch postseason hockey in the District. (Well, in Landover anyway.)

Oskar Schindler of “Schindler’s List” fame died on that same day. Frank Robinson became baseball’s first African-American manager on that day. A race riot caused by the busing issue broke out in Boston. Up the road from D.C., the Orioles’ Mike Cuellar and Ross Grimsley combined to one-hit the Oakland A’s in an ALCS game before a paltry crowd of just 28,136 at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. And despite that lone safety — a double by Reggie Jackson in the top of the seventh — the A’s still managed a 2-1 win that eliminated the O’s from the postseason. Oakland would go on to wax the L.A. Dodgers in the World Series, winning a third straight championship, a feat only the 1998-00 New York Yankees have achieved since.

I was oblivious to most of that, in suburban Chicago listening to Sister Mary Holywater expound on algebraic formulas in the chalk-dusted classroom of Sacred Bleeding Feet. The only formula I was interested in was how fast my patent leather shoes could carry me home to watch that ballgame.

The Caps? Expansion teams came along only slightly less frequently than city buses in those days, and my interest consisted only of watching the local team — the Chicago Blackhawks — play these new curiosities so I could see what their uniforms looked like. That meant waiting for the Hawks to play the expansionites on the road; the late Bill Wirtz refused to let his team’s home games be shown on local television out of respect for the “season reservation holders,” something the Hawks actually had in substantial number back in those days.

I didn’t have to wait long. The Hawks played the Caps in Landover on Oct. 17, and dutifully rolled over for a 4-3 Washington win, the first of those eight wins I mentioned earlier. I witnessed this game on WGN, with no earthly idea that some 20 years later I’d be witnessing and chronicling virtually all of these Capitals’ games for more than a decade.

Less than a week later, the Caps visited the Hawks. It wasn’t televised and I didn’t go, tickets were far too hard to come by and I was lucky to get to a game every other season in those days. But Washington goaltender Michel Belhumeur stopped two penalty shots — from Jim Pappin and Stan Mikita — in that game. Belhumeur also lost the game, 3-2. He went winless in ’74-75, posting a 0-24-3 mark and eventually rolling up a 0-29-4 log in his two seasons in the red, white and blue.

I don’t have to tell any of you that the Caps are still seeking their first Stanley Cup championship. Or that there have been a lot of ups and downs during the last 33 years. But today, the Caps look a lot more like a Cup contender than they did for most of their first decade of existence and for most of the last several seasons. I may be going out on a limb here, but it shouldn’t take another 33 years before the Caps get to sip from Lord Stanley’s chalice.

And even if it does take another 33 years, that puts them decades ahead of the pace being set by another red-white-and-blue clad team from that midwestern metropolis of my youth.

According to Sister Mary, x=100. At least as far as the Chicago Cubs are concerned. Happy Birthday to our Washington Capitals.

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4 Comments on “33 and Counting”

  1. fatdaddy Says:

    Hah, I remember those years. My dad took me to see a game that year, I think it was the Canadians. Even at the age of 6 I could tell that the Caps were getting hammered.

  2. Mike L Says:

    The first time I saw the Caps in person was in 1977 in the fall. (I could give the exact date if WashingtonCaps.com still had the game by game log it used to have for every Caps game). Anyway, the Caps were playing at MSG against the Rangers, and I was a Ranger fan back then.

    The game opened well enough for the Rangers, in that they jumped out to a 2-0 lead after one. We sat at the end the Rangers shot at twice, so this was fun. However, at the end of the second, the Caps answered with 5 goals and it was 5-2 Caps after 2. A lot of folks left, but they shouldn’t have, as when the 3rd period began, the Rangers scored right away and eventually rallied to tie the game at 5-5, which was the final. Got to see all 10 goals in our end.

    Of course there have been many other moments at MSG for the Caps of more significance. Some good (1990 Division final overtime winner by John Druce), Some bad (blowing a 6-1 lead in the 1991-1992 season) and the weird (a 15 round shoot-out. 15 rounds at the Garden usually meant Ali-Frazier.)

    And, of course, 33 years ago today…

  3. Kerplunk Says:

    Ah, Sacred Bleeding Feet. I can sympathize. I attended Our Lady of Perpetual Misery. Nothing like Catholic school to wring the religion out of you. Happy Birthday, Caps. My life eerily matches their successes… or they mine. One of us needs to do the other a fair turn eventually… how narcissistically egocentric.

  4. kenhockey Says:

    I was at the first Caps home game in 1974, a1-1 tie against the LA Kings. They even handed out a Certificate of Attendance! Ron Low saw more rubber that year than Goodyear. Feel like I’m really geezing!

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