How Low Can You Go?
The 1974-75 NHL season was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The Philadelphia Flyers, who were the only expansion team to have won the Stanley Cup at the time, hoisted the coveted trophy for the second consecutive season. Their star center, Bobby Clarke, won the second of three Hart Trophies of his career, and their goaltender, Bernie Parent capped off one of the best two-year runs of any goalie in NHL history. Phil Esposito, who was the only player in NHL history to that point to score 60 goals in a season, led the league – with his fourth such season – with 61 goals. Bobby Orr, the only defenseman to win the Art Ross to this day, won his second scoring title with a remarkable 135 points.
While those mentioned in the paragraph above were on top of the hockey world, there was a famine in other cities. The Kansas City Scouts and Washington Capitals joined the league that season, and as would be expected, both floundered as expansion teams. The Kansas City Scouts posted an abysmal 15-54-11 record, but compared to their fellow freshman, they looked strong. That season, the Washington Capitals had the worst season of any team in NHL history with a beyond dreadful 8-67-5 record. For the Capitals, 1974-75 was definitely the worst of times.
While every expansion team is expected to struggle, the Capitals seemed to have a few things working in their favor. Their owner, Abe Pollin, also owned the NBA’s Washington Bullets, and had built them into a successful franchise. He had built the Capital Center in 1973 for the explicit purpose of housing his two Beltway teams. Upon winning his expansion bid, Pollin immediately hired hall-of-famer Milt Schmidt as general manager. Schmidt’s playing career with the Boston Bruins was highly successful, with the team winning two Stanley Cups and Schmidt himself winning the 1951 Hart Trophy. Following his playing days, he coached the team, and despite the generally bad teams that Boston put on the ice during the Original Six era, coached them to two Stanley Cup Finals.
With an owner who knew how to run a business, a brand new building to play in, and a general manager with a history of success in the league, what could go wrong? Plenty, as it turned out. As bad as the team’s overall record was, even that masked how bad the team was in some areas. The Capitals’ road record that season was a jaw-dropping 1-39-0. Their 181 goals scored was the fewest in the league that season, and their 446 goals allowed is an NHL single season record. On four occasions, they lost a game by 10 or 11 goals, though ironically, all but one of their wins came by a multiple goal margin.
Statistically, their best goaltender was Michel Belhumeur, with his 5.36 goals against average, but that wasn’t good enough to win him any games, and he went 0-24-3. John Adams went 0-7-0 with a 6.30 GAA. Only Ron Low managed to win even a single game in net, and his stats were a paltry 8-36-2 record with a 5.45 GAA. The offense was no better. Tommy Williams’s 22 goals, 36 assists, and 58 points were all enough to lead the team in an era during which offense was beginning to skyrocket. Besides Williams, only Denis Dupere was able to manage 20 goals, and no one else exceeded 35 points.
Over the course of the season, the Capitals were led by three head coaches. Jim Anderson, a career AHL left winger who played seven games with the Los Angeles Kings during their inaugural season began the season behind the bench, but was fired after a 4-45-5 start. Next up was Red Sullivan, who had played over 500 games in the NHL and had coaching stints with the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. He was also shown the door after winning only two of 18 games as team boss. Finally, Schmidt himself took over coaching duties, and by the Capitals standards that year, was relatively successful, going 2-6-0.
The fact that they were bad was not lost on the players, and some of them look back on the season and laugh. The team celebrated their lone road win of the season by signing a trash can in the locker room and hoisting it as though they had won the Stanley Cup. One person who still does not laugh about the disastrous season is the now 97-year-old Schmidt. When contacted for a recent Bleacher Report article, his response made very clear that it is a period he would prefer to forget. “I don’t wish to discuss that, thank you. It’s still too painful to think about.”
The futility of some teams is remarkable, and few teams in NHL history have even approached the depths of the first edition of the Washington Capitals. In fact, few professional sports teams have period. It seems highly unlikely that that Capitals squad will be erased from the history books anytime soon. Even if the potential expansion to Las Vegas and Quebec City proceeds, it would be a stretch for those teams to “top” the Capitals’ record. It truly makes me wonder, just how low can a team go?