WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 16: A general view of the start of Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals between the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on April 16, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Today, the Capitals are one of the glamour franchises in the NHL. But 30 years ago this week, the future of professional hockey in Washington was hanging by a thread.
While the Washington Capitals have had plenty of ups and downs during their 38-year existence in the nation's capital, the summer of 1982 was one of the strangest chapters in team history - and one that almost ended with the team leaving town.
The early Capitals weren't exactly competitive. The first edition of the franchise recorded an all-time low of 21 standings points with an 8-67-5 campaign in 1974-75, and followed that up by failing to make the playoffs in their first eight seasons in the league - the last three of those years coming in an era when 16 of 21 NHL teams qualified for the postseason. The team's high-water mark was 70 points in 1980-81, a year in which they finished 10 games below .500 and still only missed the postseason on the final day of the campaign.
The NHL's foray into the Sun Belt was also a far-off venture. At the time, Washington was as far south as the league went on the Atlantic coast, with only St. Louis and Los Angeles further south on the map. The Atlanta Flames had moved to Calgary in 1980, which left Washington as the only team in the souheastern part of the U.S.
As a result of the team's woes and a marketplace where the game was relatively new, the attendance at the old Capital Centre in Landover wasn't what owner Abe Pollin wanted it to be - just an average of 11,377 tickets sold and 2 sellouts in 40 home games in 1981-82. Pollin claimed to have lost $20 million since coming into the league, and he wanted changes for the team to remain in town.
On July 21, 1982, the owner laid out four criteria to keep the team in Washington. If they weren't met, Pollin threatened to possibly move, merge or fold the Capitals before the new season began.
Pollin's criteria were: a season-ticket base of 7,500, an increase of nearly 70 percent over the 4,200 the team had in 1981-82; selling out the team's first 10 games; having the Capital Centre's rent reduced by the arena's bondholders; and Prince George's County reducing the entertainment tax on Capitals tickets from 10 percent to 0.5 percent for the next three years.
"I thought for sure the Caps were done here because Pollin's demands seemed difficult to meet and the team had pretty much stunk since being formed," Ed Frankovic of Baltimore's WNST radio remembers. "People in this area don't usually support a losing team."
However, with Washington still smarting over losing the Senators to Texas a decade before, a grassroots "Save the Caps" campaign emerged that got fans and businesses involved in keeping the game in the area.
A telethon hosted by legendary WRC sportscaster George Michael was held to sell tickets, with volunteers manning phone banks in the Cap Centre and taking orders. People's Drug put "Save the Caps" banners atop all its advertising. And businesses chipped in to help sell out those first 10 games, with The Washington Post among those supporting the venture.
While waiting to see if his demands were met, Pollin made it clear he was exploring his options for the club. The Capitals were rumored to be possibly moving to Tacoma, Washington or Regina, Saskatchewan. But the most likely scenario involved their expansion brothers of 1974, the Colorado Rockies (who had entered the league as the Kansas City Scouts). The Rockies were moving east to play in a new arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey for the 1982-83 season, and The New York Times reported in August that the two teams were negotiating a merger in case the Caps couldn't get Pollin's demands met.
"Abe absolutely was going to move or merge the team, but fortunately a lot of people stepped up and helped save them," Frankovic said.
In the end, three of the four criteria were met. The team got the break in rent, got the entertainment tax lowered, and the first 10 games sold out. While the team fell short of its season-ticket goal of 7,500, with the other tickets sold to businesses, the Capitals' place in Washington was secured. Pollin also got a new minority investor in the club, as Dick Patrick - son of legendary player and coach Lester Patrick, for whom the Patrick Division was named - bought in. Patrick still holds a minority stake in the club today.
On August 24, 1982, the Prince George's County council approved the entertainment tax cut by a 10-1 margin, and Pollin officially agreed to keep the team in Washington. The "Save The Caps" campaign had succeeded.
"Bill McCaffrey, who served in the Maryland House of Delegates for 16 years and also covered the Caps as a member of the media for numerous years, told me a huge amount of credit should go to Peter O'Malley, former Caps Team President, for getting the local Prince George's County politicians to temporarily lower the amusement tax," Frankovic added. "That was a key piece to saving the team."
One week later, the Capitals hired Calgary assistant general manager David Poile to run the club. Less than two weeks later, Poile pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Montreal Canadiens, acquiring defensemen Rod Langway and Brian Engblom along with forwards Craig Laughlin and Doug Jarvis in exchange for Ryan Walter and Rick Green. The deal established the Capitals as one of the top clubs in the NHL over the next decade, and after missing the playoffs in every one of their first eight seasons, Washington didn't miss the postseason again until 1996-97.
"There are no Washington Capitals now without the events of the summer of 1982," Frankovic said. "Scott Stevens was drafted in the first round by Jack Button and his staff. Then the work of many in the 'Save the Caps' campaign got things moving in the right direction off of the ice. Then David Poile came in as GM and did a masterful job with the Langway trade. David also should get credit for sticking with a coach he inherited in Bryan Murray. Murray, who still is the longest tenured coach in team history, was a superb bench boss and the club played very well for him in 1982-83 in a season that turned the whole franchise around."
But for one strange summer, the future of professional hockey was up in the air. While the Capitals are now a mainstay in the market, they could have easily joined the Senators and Washington Diplomats as bygone teams of Washington's past.