35 years ago today, the Capitals made the biggest trades in franchise history, acquiring eventual Hall of Fame defenseman Rod Langway as well as Craig Laughlin, Doug Jarvis, and Brian Engblom from the Montreal Canadiens. The Capitals sent 38-goal-scorer
Ryan Walter and 1976 first-overall pick Rick Green back to the Habs in exchange.
33-year-old rookie general manager David Poile, 10 days removed from being hired by owner Abe Polin, completed the blockbuster trade that would shape the franchise for years to come. But there was one problem. Walter was Pollin’s favorite player. According to a Ben Raby/NHL.com interview with Poile, Pollin’s reaction was classic: “You did what? Well, you better know what you’re doing.”
The Caps, coming off the end of their eighth year of existence as a franchise (1982), had yet to end a season with a winning record. They had also failed to make it to the playoffs for each of those eight seasons, in a 21-team league that sent 16 to battle for the Stanley Cup.
That all changed with the introduction of these four new players.
“I think it was an opportunity, for myself especially,” Craig Laughlin said, reflecting on the trade. “The other players, Doug Jarvis, Brian Engblom, and Rod, obviously, were established players coming out of a storied franchise. I was just sort of this guy who was… I remember Jack Button, bless his heart, said, ‘Well, we need one more guy. We need this young Craig Laughlin.’
“So they went through the four players and they got down to me and they said, ‘Yeah, a tough grinding fighter.’
“I was like, ‘What?’ I never fought at all. I was from college.”
The trade also happened months after owner Abe Polin, who was losing tens of millions of dollars on the team every year, listed four criteria that had to be met for the team to remain in Washington.
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.
Still smarting over losing the Senators to Texas a decade earlier, the Washington area started a grassroots effort to save the team. Former NBC 4 sportscaster George Michael held a “Save the Caps” telethon to sell tickets. People’s Drug put “Save the Caps” banners out with its advertising. And many local businesses chipped in to help sell out those first 10 games, including the Washington Post.
“So when I arrived in Washington, it was the ‘Save The Caps’ campaign,” Laughlin said. “We were trying to save the franchise. There was a lot of talk that it was going to be moved, that it was going to be sold, that it was going to disappear.”
Three of the four criteria would end up being met. The team got its rent and entertainment tax lowered. The first 10 games of the 1982-83 season would sell out. Pollin also got a new minority investor in Dick Patrick (the son of Hockey Hall of Fame coach and GM Lester Patrick). Patrick, now the Capitals’ Vice Chairman, still holds a minority stake in the club today.
New general manager David Poile also utilized two other future Hall of Famers: rookie defenseman Scott Stevens and 24-year-old Mike Gartner.
“Being part of that gave me opportunity,” Laughlin said. “I thought I won an opportunity under new coach in Bryan Murray, in a new GM in David Poile. They had trust me. They wanted to build the franchise. That gave me an opportunity to play more than I would have in Montreal.”
In their first season with the team, the Caps went 39-25-16, sending them to the playoffs for the first of what would be 14 straight consecutive playoff appearances. This made them one of only four teams (the Caps, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, and St. Louis Blues) to qualify for the playoffs each year from 1983 to 1996.
The Capitals new number one defenseman, Rod Langway, who was previously stuck behind Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe in Montreal, won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman in his first year with the team. Langway became the first Capital to win an individual NHL award.
He repeated the following season and remains the only Capital to have won the award.
More hardware came to Washington after the 1983-84 season when Doug Jarvis received the Frank Selke Trophy as the League’s best defensive forward.
“He was a winner,” Poile said of Jarvis, according to NHL.com. “He could win key faceoffs, he killed penalties and he could be trusted late in games. … He did the little things that you need on a winning team.”
“It was a good first step and it was the start of a successful era,” Engblom added. “It was tumultuous for us, too, because it was so different from Montreal where every move you made was dissected and then in Washington we started at the bottom of the ladder. But we built something, the fans rallied behind us and without that success, who knows what would have happened with the franchise? Fortunately it worked out really well.”
The Capitals would go on to retire Langway’s No. 5 in 1997 at the final game played at the Capital Centre. He would be inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003. The Secretary of Defense remains a team ambassador and a constant presence in the community.
Laughlin stayed with the Caps for six seasons, becoming an instrumental part of the team’s offense and registering three seasons with 20 or more goals. But as we all know, that was by no mean’s the end of Locker’s time in Washington. Laughlin is now coming up on his 26th year of an illustrious broadcasting career that makes him the longest formally-affiliated player in Caps franchise history.
Jarvis and Engblom would only stay in Washington for several seasons before being dealt to other teams. Engblom was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings early in the 1983-84 season for another future Hall of Fame defenseman in Larry Murphy. Halfway through the 1985-86 season, Jarvis was traded to the Hartford Whalers for Jorgen Pettersson.
While Poile remained in Washington for 15 years, Irving Grundman, the Canadiens general manager who was a part of this particular deal, was canned within months of the trade. According to NHL.com, Grundman eventually went into municipal politics and has not worked in hockey since.
Why is it always called the "Langway Trade" lol https://t.co/kKi9sQ1zrq
— Craig Laughlin (@Laughlin18) September 9, 2017
Additional reporting by Ian Oland.
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