Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Alexander Semin

William Howard Taft served as the 27th President of the United States. If there ever should have been a “natural” for the job, it would have been Taft.  He had an impressive resume, one that one might have thought would have prepared him well for executing the duties of President, perhaps better than any individual ever to hold the office.  But his single term in office was a disappointment, lacking in achievements and lost in the shadow of the Theodore Roosevelt administration that preceded him.

A Washington Capital who might have been seen as a “natural,” a player of almost unparalleled skill in stickhandling and shooting, who might have been counted among the greatest players in franchise history, but who ultimately might be judged a disappointment, lost in the shadow of a teammate and fellow countryman is one contemporary Caps fans would recognize: Alexander Semin.

William Howard Taft was born in 1857 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to one of the most famous families in American political history, one dating backto the late 1600’s.  His upbringing was typical of the child of a political family preparing for a career in public service.  After graduating from high school, he attended Yale College and graduated second in his class.  He returned to Ohio to enter law school, his classroom study supplemented by his working as a newspaper reporter who had the local court beat.

After graduation from law school and admission to the Ohio bar, Taft’s career climb began in earnest.  Rather than pursue reporting full-time, Taft accepted an appointment to be county assistant prosecutor.  That lasted only a year.  He was appointed by President Chester A. Arthur to become a district Collector of Revenue, a position in which he served five years before taking his first judgeship.  At only 29 years old, he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Superior Court of Cincinnati by the Governor of Ohio.  He would be elected to a full five-year term a year later (keep that thought of being elected to the position in mind).

With barely two years of experience as a superior court judge, Taft’s name would be sent by the Governor of Ohio to President Benjamin Harrison to fill a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court.  Taft did nothing to discourage the effort, but he would not be nominated by Harrison (that nomination went to David Josiah Brewer, who once joked of the famously overweight Taft, “Taft is the most polite man I ever saw in my life. Why, the other day I was in a street car with him and he got up and gave his seat to three women.”).  Harrison did, however, appoint Taft to be Solicitor General of the United States, the official charged with representing the United States government before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Taft lasted a little more than a year in that office before Harrison appointed him in 1891 to a newly created judgeship in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Ohio.  At this point in his career, at age 34, it appeared his career path was locked in, given that his Federal judgeship was a lifetime appointment.  It would have been, but President William McKinley called Taft to Washington in 1900 to offer him the position as head of a commission to organize a civilian government in the Philippines.  He accepted, with McKinley providing assurances that he would nominate Taft for the next vacancy on the Supreme Court.

While Taft served as Governor-General of the Philippines, McKinley was assassinated.  His successor, Theodore Roosevelt, was inclined to nominate Taft for the first Court vacancy that opened, but Taft declined, citing his unfulfilled goals in the Philippines.  He did, however, accept appointment as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War in 1904, which was more in the role of assistant to Roosevelt than it was as an independent administrator.

Taft served in that position for the remainder of Roosevelt’s administration, and the President settled on Taft as his preferred successor in the White House.  It made for little drama, as Taft was nominated by the Republican Party as their candidate for President in the election of 1908 on the first ballot.  He was comfortably elected in the general election over Democrat William Jennings Bryan (the third time Bryan ran on the national ticket), besting him by more than 1.2 million votes in the popular vote and by an almost 2-to-1 margin in the Electoral College (321-162).

Taft was inaugurated indoors, in the Senate Chamber of the U.S. Capitol, due to inclement weather that hit the Washington region.  It might have been a harbinger of things to come.  Taft was no natural politician, certainly lacking in the skills Roosevelt had in this area.  He isolated himself from the press, and he was far more “procedural” in his approach to governing than the charismatic Roosevelt.  His administration did, at least at first, follow a policy agenda not very different from that of his predecessor.  However, when Roosevelt went to Europe in 1909 on a trip that lasted 15 months, the physical distance become a philosophical one between the men.

Upon his return, Roosevelt expressed dissatisfaction with Taft’s progress and snubbed an invitation to the White House. The rift deepened when Roosevelt leaned harder toward a progressive agenda.  The conflict erupted at the Republican convention of 1912.  Roosevelt was successful in winning primary delegates and, in fact, won a heavy majority.  However, Taft, having inherited the party’s machinery with the party’s nomination in 1908, won a majority of delegates selected in state conventions.  His command of the party apparatus was enough to win nomination over objections from Roosevelt’s camp that the nomination was stolen (the flash point for the establishment of the Progressive Party under whose banner Roosevelt ran in 1912).

Taft, not a gifted politician, compounded his problem by not actively campaigning (a custom of the time that presidents seeking another term did not campaign).  His shortcomings as a politician, a first term lacking in noteworthy accomplishments, and the presence of Roosevelt in the race doomed his chances.  Woodrow Wilson won an election split three ways, taking 435 electoral votes to 88 for Roosevelt and 8 for Taft, who won only Vermont and Utah.

Taft’s term in office was disappointing in many ways, especially given the long list of positions he held on his way to the White House.  But in a way, that was the problem.  Almost all of the positions he held were the product of appointments or nominations by someone else – a governor or a president.  He ran on his own just three times for public office, winning a full term as a judge and twice running for the Presidency.  In that context it might not be as surprising that he was disappointing in an office that required skills he did not possess in any great measure.

Alexander Semin came to the Washington Capitals as something of an unknown commodity among casual fans, but he was a highly-regarded prospect, the second-ranked European in the NHL Central Scouting rankings of 2002 draft eligibles, behind Finnish defenseman Joni Pitkanen.  He was coming off a fine season with Traktor Chelyabinsk in Russia (13-8-21) and an impressive performance in the World Junior Under-18 torunament (8-7-15 in eight games).  At the time, Red Line Report compared Semin to Markus Naslund and said this of him:

“One of the biggest late movers up the charts. No one helped himself more at the Five Nations or World Under-18s. His game all flows from tremendous skating — one of the best pure skaters in this draft. Fabulous balance, speed and acceleration. Reaches top speed in one stride and has great cutting ability and change of direction. Has a slashing style and plays a very up-tempo game. High energy guy who rubs off on whole team. Unbelievable at taking hard passes in skates on the fly and shooting all in one motion. Terrific offensive instincts. Oustanding puck skills — quick stick, can dangle and make all his moves at top end speed. Equally adept as a sniper and play-maker. Very opportunistic around net with a quick release and can pick corners.” 

The Caps took Semin with the 13th overall pick in the first round of the 2002 draft (one of three picks the Caps had in the first 17 selections: Steve Eminger, taken with the pick before Semin, and Boyd Gordon were the others).  It would not be a smooth road from Chelyabinsk to Washington, though.  He played one more year in Russia after he was drafted, with Lada Togliatti, then made his debut with the Caps in the 2003-2004 season, posting ten goals in 52 games.  However, when the league went dark in 2004-2005 due to a labor-management dispute, Semin chose to play in Russia rather than in Portland with the Caps’ AHL affiliate.  The team suspended him, but that was only the beginning of a tortured process to get Semin to North America permanently.

In 2005-2006, Semin still had military obligations that were only partially fulfilled.  Since Lada Togliatti, the team with which he played the previous season, was in the military district in which he was conscripted, he was given permission to fulfill his remaining obligation there.  The Caps took legal action in an effort to compel Semin to report to the team.  The Caps ultimately lost this challenge, but while the process was moving to its conclusion, Semin was released from his contract with Lada Togliatti due to the financial situation of the club.  Semin did not report to the Caps, though.  He signed with Mytischi Khimik and played with that club for the remainder of the 2005-2006 season.

Finally, in 2006-2007, Semin joined the Caps, and it was quite a season.  Despite the club missing the playoffs, Semin went 38-35-73.  He was one of six players in the league that season under the age of 25 to record at least 35 goals and at least 70 points (the others were teammate Alex Ovechkin, Thomas Vanek, Ilya Kovalchuk, Sidney Crosby, and Alex Frolov).  He became just the fifth player in Caps history to record 35 or more goals in a season by the time he reached the age of 22 (the others were Mike Gartner (three times), Bobby Carpenter, Dmitri Khristich, and Alex Ovechkin).  One could envision a long run of Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin – teammates and fellow countrymen – setting records for goal scoring in Washington.

The following season, Semin’s production slumped, dropping from 38 goals to 26, from 35 assists to 16, and from 73 points to 42.  The minus-7 he posted for a non-playoff team in 2006-2007 dropped to minus-18 for a playoff club in 2007-2008 (only Michal Nylander was worse at minus-19).  He rebounded in 2008-2009 to finish 34-45-79, plus-25, and he added five goals and 14 points in 14 postseason games.  He did even better in 2009-2010 regular season, posting career highs in goals (40), even strength goals (30), points (84), and plus-minus (plus-36).  It was one piece of a team that set a franchise record for wins (54) and points (121), winning the Presidents Trophy. 

Then…crickets.  In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Montreal Canadiens, Semin failed to score a goal on six shots.  He went 0-for-5 in Game 2.  Another 0-for-5 in Game 3.  By the time the series was over, the Caps losing in seven games in what qualifies as one of the biggest playoff upsets in NHL history, Semin went 0-for-44 shooting, becoming just the second player at the time in the post 2004-2005 lockout era to go without a goal in the postseason while recording at least 40 shots on goal (ironically, Joni Pitkanen, the European ranked ahead of Semin in the NHL Central Scouting rankings for the 2002 draft, did it the previous year on 46 shots for the Carolina Hurricanes) and the first forward in the modern era (post 1967 expansion) to do it.  Semin did not make up for it by setting up teammates, either.  He had just two assists in the seven games.  It was a continuation of postseason frustration for Semin, who, despite the five goals in 14 postseason games the previous season, recorded none of them in the second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins (another seven-game loss).  In his most recent 14 postseason games, Semin shot 0-for-59.  The term “enigma,” which had been applied to Semin intermittently in his career (in part because of his discomfort with doing interviews in English), was now stamped plainly on his forehead

No one could have known it at the time, but that series against the Canadiens marked the beginning of a long, slow slide in Semin’s production with the Caps.  After he was re-signed to a one-year contract for the 2010-2011 season, his goal production dropped frm 40 to 28, his assists from 44 to 26, and his points from 84 to 54 in eight fewer games played than in the 2009-2010 season.  His postseason numbers improved somewhat, with four goals in nine games, but he failed to record any in the last three games (all losses) in the second-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Despite being given a $700,000 raise in another one-year contract for the 2011-2012 season, Semin’s goal scoring production dropped further, down to 21 goals, but he did finish with the same 54-point total he had the previous season.  Worse, his postseason performance continued that disturbing trend of going into hiding late.  He scored three goals in the first five games of the first-round series against the Boston Bruins, then went silent for the remaining nine games of the postseason (on 22 shots).  In his last 37 postseason games with the Caps, through 2012, Semin scored seven goals on 122 shots (5.7 percent).  He did not have a goal in 16 second round playoff games, and starting with the Pittsburgh series in 2009, he was 2-for-44 in shooting (4.5 percent) in Games 5-7 of any series.

The 2012 postseason would be his last with the Capitals.  The team did not enter into negotiations with Semin’s agent in advance of the start of the free agent signing period, and the two sides parted ways when Semin signed a one-year, $7.0 million contract with the Carolina Hurricanes on July 26, 2012.  He would later sign a five-year, $35 million extension with the club, but, unable to halt the slide in his production, had his contract bought out by the Hurricanes in July 2015.  He signed a drastically reduced one-year deal ($1.1 million) with the Montreal Canadiens.  He played in just 15 games with the Canadiens to start the 2015-2015 season before he was waived.  He went unclaimed and refused to report to the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate.  Semin returned to Russia, finishing the 2015-2016 season with Metallug Magitogorsk, his NHL career seemingly over at age 31.

William Howard Taft was a reporter, lawyer, prosecutor, superior court judge, Solicitor General of the United States, Federal judge, Governor-General of the Philippines, and Secretary of War.  His record had the appearance of one that provided him ample preparation to be President.  But underneath it all, his advancement came from the efforts of others who nominated or appointed him to many of those positions.  He never had to develop and invest the personal capital that one needs to do to be successful in politics and elective office.  He was seen by many as too much a product of Theodore Roosevelt’s rise to the presidency.  It made for a disappointing presidency that ended before many thought it would (although he would go on to serve in another position via nomination – Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the job he appeared to want more than any other).

Alexander Semin was a supremely gifted player, one with innate skills and instincts that are hard to teach, if they can be taught at all.  If one watched him on film, he was a human highlight reel.  But that term “enigma” followed him around, encapsulating a host of other attributes – the appearance of laziness in the defensive end, a propensity to take offensive zone penalties that blunted his team’s momentum, a habit of disappearing in the postseason at the worst possible times.  He was more a “sidekick” of Alex Ovechkin than a star player in his own right.  It made for a career in Washington that is among the more disappointing in recent team history, certainly one that ended long before it should have, given his talents. 

You would never look at William Howard Taft and Alexander Semin side by side and immediately see the similarities.  But in the way they came to Washington and the manner in which they left their respective positions do suggest a common road traveled. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Alex Ovechkin

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt uttered those words while delivering a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, in April 1910, just over a year after he left office as the 26th President of the United States.  It is among the most widely quoted passages of anyone who ever served in the office.  One can draw a bright line from this speech, officially titled “Citizenship in a Republic,” but more commonly known as “The Man in the Arena,” to the life and hockey career of perhaps the most accomplished, if not yet complete, player in Washington Capitals history: Alex Ovechkin.

To say Theodore Roosevelt was a force of nature in his lifetime and as a figure in American history is beyond argument.  He was born in New York City in 1858, the second of four children.  He had the misfortune of suffering from asthma as a child, but during one attack he was sent away to recuperate.  On his way he met a couple of boys his age who were in good health, but had enough of a mischievous streak to make Roosevelt’s life miserable.  Roosevelt tried to defend himself, to no avail, but it was a hard lesson upon which he built.  It was in that instance that he took stock of himself and decided to try and physically train himself out of his deficiencies.  He learned to box, moved on to wrestling, began horse-riding, he weight-trained and took up rowing.  He took up what he would call “the strenuous life.”  Paired with a more natural intellectual curiosity (he studied German, natural history, zoology, forensics, and composition while at Harvard), and a father who had considerable influence over Roosevelt by the example of his own active life, it made for an impressive personality.

It served him well, even if he decided after only a year at Columbia Law School to abandon that pursuit and begin a career in politics (he still managed to do much of his work writing “The Naval War of 1812,” a book he completed at age 23 and that is still thought to be a classic in military history).  By the time he was 26 years old, he won a seat as a state assemblyman in New York, where began a career-long effort to confront corruption in politics.  That effort carried over to his activity in the election of 1884 where, at the Republican convention, he aligned with reformers (the “Mugwumps”) to try to influence the national ticket.  His efforts and those of the Mugwumps failed, and in a fit of pique, noted that he would give “hearty support” to any Democrat, not the Republican candidate James Blaine.  He recanted and learned another lesson, that if he was to play a larger role in the party, he had to avoid such displays.

After an unsuccessful run for Mayor of New York in 1886, he headed west, building a ranch in North Dakota and serving in law enforcement.  He immersed himself in the life of the west, taking up roping and hunting, and writing about the life on the frontier.  When his herd of cattle was wiped out in a severe winter, he returned east.

From the time he returned he was once more active in politics.  He was appointed to the United States Civil Service Commission by President Benjamin Harrison, where he served for six years, then became president of the board of the New York City police commissioners.  He continued his war on corruption as a police commissioner, often turning to walking officers’ beats late at night to experience first-hand what was happening on the street and to make sure officers were fulfilling their duties. 

Two years later, Roosevelt was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President William McKinley.  Despite his rank as an assistant secretary, he was influential in preparing the Navy for war with Spain.  When war broke out after the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor in early 1898, Roosevelt resigned his civilian office and formed a cavalry regiment, the First U.S. Volunteers, commonly known as the “Rough Riders.”  Roosevelt’s regiment participated in their most famous battle in July 1898, the “Battle of San Juan Hill.”

His war record was a prominent feature of his campaign for Governor of New York upon returning from the conflict.  It helped provide the margin of victory, fewer than 18,000 votes out of almost 1.4 million cast.  The narrow victory did nothing to slow the pace of his activity.  He promoted what he called a “square deal” that provided for "honesty in public affairs, an equitable sharing of privilege and responsibility, and subordination of party and local concerns to the interests of the state at large (G. Wallace Chessman, “Governor Theodore Roosevelt: The Albany Apprenticeship”)."  His attention to economic issues, especially with respect to large corporations, trusts, railroads, and protections for the poor, served as something of a warm-up for his turn on the national stage.

That came when President McKinley’s first-term Vice President Garret Hobart died in office of heart failure in November 1899.  Roosevelt was promoted for the position by a number of Republican leaders and accepted nomination, serving as something of the energetic “bad cop” in taking on the Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, enthusiastically.  The McKinley-Roosevelt ticket won election, and fate would elevate Roosevelt to the White House when McKinley was assassinated in September 1901.

Roosevelt served the remainder of McKinley’s term and a full term of his own.  In more than seven years in office as President, Roosevelt aggressively pursued an agenda that involved curbing the power of “trusts” and supporting organized labor.  He took on railroads and what he believed to be their corrupt business practices with respect to the shipment of coal and commercial goods.  Under his administration, the Meat Inspection Act was enacted (legislation that still serves as the basic authority for meat inspection programs), as was the Pure Food and Drug Act (legislation that led to creation of the Food and Drug Administration).  His was an aggressive administration in the use of executive orders, becoming the first President to issue more than 1,000 orders in his administration.  He was a champion of conservation issues, extending Federal protection of lands, seeing the creation of the United States Forest Service, and signing into law the establishment of several national parks and 18 new national monuments.

His administration was not without its difficulties, though.  Roosevelt’s relationship with the press was complicated, using them frequently, even daily, to convey his message, but coining the term “muckraker” to describe a dishonest journalist making false or unsubstantiated charges.  His second term was characterized by a move to the ideological left with promoting an income tax, limiting the role of courts in labor disputes, campaign reform, and national statutes governing corporations.  None of the reforms were enacted under his administration (although some were later), and the effort left him a somewhat diminished figure in his own party.

It did not prevent him from successfully advocating for William Howard Taft as his successor.  Taft won the party nomination and the general election of 1908 to succeed Roosevelt.  The trouble was that Roosevelt tried to exert his influence on Taft after leaving office in a persistent and obvious way.  It led to a split between Roosevelt, and Taft and the party.  By 1912, Roosevelt was receptive to running as a “progressive” and did so as the standard bearer for the new “Progressive Party,” more commonly referred to as the “Bull Moose” party.  His efforts were insufficient to move enough Republicans away from the GOP, but he did cut deeply into Taft’s vote totals, pushing Taft into third place in the Electoral College voting and providing Democrat Woodrow Wilson with the opening he needed to win election.

Roosevelt hardly missed a beat in his activity after the 1912 election.  He participated in a scientific expedition to South America in 1913 and was a strong opponent of the foreign policy of President Wilson upon his return to the United States.  He even was encouraged to seek the 1920 Republican nomination for President, but health (the after effects of malaria he contracted in South America) prevented him from mounting a serious challenge.  His health issues and the death of his son, Quentin, in World War I, left Roosevelt devastated.  In early January 1919 he passed in his sleep at Oyster Bay, Long Island, the victim of a  pulmonary embolism.

If there is a force of nature in the NHL, one that transcends the dimensions of the hockey rink to spill over into media and his private life, it is Alex Ovechkin.  No player of this era combines his size, speed, skill, and willingness to deploy a physical style of play in portions ladled out by Ovechkin on a night-to-night basis.  He is a player who inspires respect and who conjures up visions of the “dirty” hockey player.  He is praised for accomplishments unique to him in this era of depressed offense, yet derided for his inability to lead his team into the deeper rounds of the postseason.  And that doesn’t even address his international play, which features a resume of world championships and Olympic disappointment.  In an era of ubiquitous social media outlets, his private life is chronicled to an extent perhaps greater than any player in hockey.  He is a sports icon on two continents.

Born in Moscow to parents who themselves were athletes (his father was a professional soccer player, his mother a winner of two Olympic gold medals as a member of the Soviet Union women’s basketball team), Alex got an early start in sports, and in hockey in particular.    By the age of 16 he was playing for Dynamo Moscow and would soon be getting attention from the North American hockey community.  In 2002, the 17-year old Ovechkin was being described as “Hockey’s Next Big Thing,” a player with more of a “Canadian” approach to the game…
"Ovechkin has what hockey people refer to as Russian skills, which are distinct from Swedish or Czech skills.  Russians stickhandle a lot, handling the puck in traffic well.  And they're explosive. But he's not like [Boston Bruins left wing] Sergei Samsonov, who scores by stickhandling. And he won't be circling like [Pittsburgh Penguins right wing] Alexei Kovalev, looking like a ballerina, waiting for the perfect play.  There's more of a Canadian approach that Ovechkin combines with those Russian skills. He's not reluctant to shoot. He already has an NHL-caliber shot, and he uses it – wrister, slap shot, one-timer. He knows how to go high on a goalie."
He was even being compared to Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Penguin Mario Lemieux…in Pittsburgh.  It was said that but for his birthday, two days after the cut-off for eligibility for the 2003 draft, he might have been the first overall pick of that draft.  In fact, the Florida Panthers tried a novel approach to the matter of Ovechkin’s birthday.  Panther General Manager Rick Dudley argued that if leap-days were factored into the eligibility equation, Ovechkin would turn 18 four days earlier than his birthday of record and thus would have been eligible for the 2003 draft.  Dudley tried to draft Ovechkin in four separate rounds of the 2003 draft, but they were rebuffed by the league each time.

Ovechkin was eligible for the 2004 draft, but when the Caps finished with the third-worst overall record in the 2003-2004 season, their chances of leapfrogging the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins to win the 2004 draft lottery looked slim.  But win it they did, and when Washington General Manager George McPhee announced his name with the first overall pick in the 2004 Entry Draft, Ovechkin was a Capital, the cornerstone of the rebuild they began with their selloff of players in the 2003-2004 season to set the stage for his selection.

Since then, Ovechkin has not disappointed his fans, with one exception.  He has won 14 personal awards since coming into the NHL in 2005-2006:
  • Hart Trophy/Most Valuable Player (3 times)
  • Maurice Richard Trophy/Top Goal Scorer (6, most of any player since the award was established)
  • Ted Lindsay Award/Outstanding Player (3)
  • Art Ross Trophy (1)
  • Calder Trophy/Top Rookie (1)

He is a seven-time selection to the first NHL All-Star team (he won selection to the first All Star team as a right wing and to the second team as a left wing in 2012-2013), the only player in NHL history to have been selected to the first team in each of his first five seasons.  He has been selected NHL player of the year by various publications, including The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, and The Hockey News.  He is a seven-time winner of the Kharlamov Trophy as the top Russian hockey player of the previous season (Pavel Datsyuk is the only other player to have won it more than once).  He has been an all-star in world championships (2005 as a junior, 2006, 2008) and in the Winter Olympics (2006).  He has three World Championship gold medals (2008, 2012, 2014).  He has seven 50-goal seasons on his resume; only Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky have more in NHL history (nine apiece)..

But with all the offense is a physical dimension almost unprecedented, particularly in the modern era of hockey.  For example, since he came into the league in 2005-2006, concurrently with the league beginning to record “hits” as a statistic, Ovechkin has recorded more hits (2,268) than all but four players (Dustin Brown, Chris Neil, Brooks Orpik, and Cal Clutterbuck).  The flip side of that is that Ovechkin has been suspended three times in his career for hits outside the rules, once in 2009 for a hit on Carolina’s Tim Gleason (two games), once in 2010 for a hit on Chicago’s Brian Campbell (two games), and again in 2012 for a hit on Pittsburgh’s Zbynek Michalek (three games).

Ovechkin has been the rare athlete who has not been confined within the lines of his sport.  In addition to playing it, he has been a hard-working promoter of the sport…

He has become a fan favorite for what he does off the ice

He hasn’t been afraid of trying his hand at other sports…and doing in his first try what people who play it spend a lifetime hoping they can accomplish…

And he has managed to share moments of “adventure” with teammates…

And he has even shared the office Teddy Roosevelt once occupied…

The disappointment that stands as an exception to his record of accomplishments, of course, is Ovechkin’s lack of success on the biggest of stages – an Olympic gold medal or a Stanley Cup.  The best that can be said for that is he is still compiling his body of work, and it is too late to close the door on either of those accomplishments being added to his resume. 

Theodore Roosevelt and Alex Ovechkin are two of a kind, outsized personalities who are perhaps unsurpassed as examples of “The Man in the Arena.”  Roosevelt overcame illness in his youth and personal misfortune (his first wife, Alice, died two days after giving birth to their daughter, Alice Lee) to become one of the most impressive figures, not just in American politics, but in American history.  Alex Ovechkin overcame personal misfortune of his own (his older brother, Sergei, died in a car accident when Alex was ten years old), and the cultural and language barriers the came with entering the NHL to become not just one of the greatest players in NHL history, but an athletic icon with a fearless attitude to experiencing life outside of hockey.  In the nature of their accomplishments, their personal history, and their personalities, Theodore Roosevelt and Alex Ovechkin each occupy a place that “shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Friday, August 26, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Michal Pivonka

In “William McKinley and His America,” H. Wayne Morgan wrote of the 25th President of the United States:
“McKinley was a major actor in some of the most important events in American history. His decisions shaped future policies and public attitudes. He usually rises in the estimation of scholars who study his life in detail. Even those who disagree with his policies and decisions see him as an active, responsible, informed participant in charge of decision making. His dignified demeanor and subtle operations keep him somewhat remote from public perception. But he is once again at the center of events, where he started.”

Some might look at that passage and think that McKinley was, and is, an underappreciated President in American history, who accomplished more than many might realize.  It calls to mind a former Washington Capital who might be somewhat underappreciated.  People might be surprised to realize just how highly he ranks on a number of all-time lists in franchise history.  That player would be Michal Pivonka.

William McKinley’s early years leading to his entry into politics looks very similar to that of his predecessors in the latter half of the 19th Century.  Born in Ohio in 1843 as the seventh of eight children, he worked in his father’s iron foundry as a youngster before heading off to Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.  Illness and financial troubles cut short his college education, but he volunteered for the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry at the start of the Civil War.  He rose through the ranks, starting as a private and mustering out as a brevet major after four years.

After the war, McKinley studied law and was admitted to the Ohio bar.  He earned support from labor when he defended a group of coal miners in a high-profile case and won an acquittal.  More than the verdict, though, he met and began a friendship with Mark Hanna, a Cleveland businessman who would be a crucial benefactor in his later political career.

That career started when he ran for, and won, a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Except for a brief absence from office because of gerrymandering of his congressional district that cost him an election, he served in the House from 1877 until 1891, when he was Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and an expert on tariffs.  In 1892 he ran for Governor of Ohio and won, setting the stage for his run for President in 1896.  McKinley won the Republican Party nomination on the first ballot, and in the general election, with the assistance of Mark Hanna, who helped craft a campaign on the issues of protectionism (for) and free silver (against), McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan by more than a million votes of almost 14 million cast.  He won in the Electoral College by a 271-176 margin.

His administration was one of tension and transition.  Shortly after assuming office he called Congress into special session for the purposes of enacting new tariffs, the result of which would be the highest and longest-lived in American history (the “Dingley Act”).  He supported territorial expansion, pursuing annexation of Puerto Rico, Hawaiii, and the Philippines.  He advocated expanded trade, especially with China, a gambit that would be related to his efforts to negotiate with Great Britain on the matter of a canal in Central America.

On the other hand, he was a committed pro-business, pro-industrial President, so much that he was caricatured as a child who was easily controlled by business interests.  He was viewed by many as too closely attached to and to much a creature of the pro-business Mark Hanna, who had managed his campaign.  There was also the Spanish-American War, a conflict between Spain and the United States that lasted three months when McKinley could not successfully achieve a resolution of differences peacefully, and war broke out over the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba in February 1898.

Troubles did not keep McKinley from winning renomination for President by the Republicans in 1900, nor did they keep him from defeating Bryan in a rematch of the 1896 election by the largest margin for a Republican candidate since Ulysses S. Grant won office in 1872.  However, six months after his inauguration for a second term as President, was greeting the public at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York, when he was shot twice by Leon Czolgosz, a former steelworker and an advocate of anarchism.  McKinley lived for eight days after the shooting before succumbing to gangrene on September 14, 1901.

Michal Pivonka came to the Washington Capitals long before the NHL was the melting pot of international players fans see today.  The native of Kladno, Czechoslovakia, was selected by the Caps in the third round of the 1984 Entry Draft, but getting him to North America proved much more difficult.  It took more than two years, involved meetings in eight countries (starting at a hunting lodge in northern Sweden), and had enough intrigue to provide a story line for a spy novel, but Pivonka defected from Czechoslovakia and landed in the United States with his wife on July 18, 1986.  It would be another four days before the team introduced Pivonka to the press, and another two months before he would finally don a Capitals sweater.

Based on his rookie season, it was worth the wait for Pivonka.  He finished sixth among rookies in goals (18) and seventh in points (43) in 73 games.  He added another goal and an assist in the seven-game postseason series against the New York Islanders.  It was the start of a 13-year career for Pivonka.  By the time it was over, he appeared in 825 games, at the time the third-most in team history, behind only Dale Hunter (872) and Kelly Miller (940).  His 181 goals was, at the time, tied with Hunter for eighth in team history.  He was second only to Gartner in total points in franchise history, 599 to Gartner’s 789.  He was, at the time of his retirement, the club leader in assists (418).

However, there were bumps along the way, most notably a contract dispute in the summer of 1995.  At the conclusion of the 1994-1995 season, he and Peter Bondra were restricted free agents, eligible to sign offer sheets with any team presenting one (the Caps would have had the right to match the offer).  Neither player received an offer, but that did little to break the impasse between the club and the players.  Each reported to training camp, but neither played in any preseason games in advance of the 1995-1996 season.  When a contract could not be agreed upon for either player, both headed west to join the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League.  Pivonka and Bondra each played in seven games with the Vipers (Pivonka went 1-9-10, Bondra went 8-1-9) before finally agreeing to terms with the club in late October

Pivonka went on to have his most productive season as a Capital after signing the new contract, finishing 16-65-81, plus-18, in 73 games, the 65 assists then being the second-most in a season in team history (Dennis Maruk had 76 assists on his way to a 136-point season in 1981-1982).  It would be the high point of his regular season production, though.  The following season he sustained a knee injury in late October (and would be the seventh player to land on the injured reserve list by that point in the season ) that limited him to 54 games.  In 1997-1998 he appeared in only 33 games, going 3-6-9, and did not score a goal in 13 games of the Caps’ playoff run to the Stanley Cup final.  By 1998-1999, despite the fact that he was just 33 years old, injuries had taken their toll.  He played only 36 games and went 5-6-11, failing to score a goal in his last 16 games and recording only two assists in that span.  The 46 games he missed was part of a ledger that recorded a franchise record 510 man-games lost to injury that season.  It would be the last NHL season of Pivonka’s career. He did play one more season in the IHL, appearing in 52 games for the Kansas City Blades, before ending his hockey career at the end of the 1999-2000 season.

William McKinley was a President that went unappreciated in his time and was treated indifferently by historians after his death.  He was thought to be less a “manager” and more a “managed” chief executive.  With the passage of time, his reputation has improved, historians acknowledging that the scope of his activity merits reconsideration – a President who tried to avoid war, who was an effective advocate for expansionist foreign policy, who led the country into a greater leadership role in a global economy.  He was, some argue, the first “modern president,” with his use of the telephone and media as essential tools of his administration and political apparatus.  His lack of personal charisma might have been a factor in his being judged harshly in his time, but time has provided perspective on his accomplishments and his flaws.

Michal Pivonka endured a challenging and dangerous journey to play hockey in North America.  Having to perform at the highest level while confronting cultural and language obstacles on the way speak to a singular determination, even if he was not a demonstrative personality on or off the ice.  With the passage of time, his production stands out on closer examination.  He is sixth in Capitals history in games played (825), tied for tenth in franchise history (with Dale Hunter) in goals (181), third in assists (418), fifth in points (599), seventh in power play goals (56), fifth in shorthanded goals (12).  He and Alex Ovechkin are the only players in franchise history to have played in at least ten NHL seasons and spent their entire NHL careers in the Capitals organization.

It is in their similarities of being underappreciated in their time but looking more impressive in their accomplishments as the years go by that place William McKinley and Michal Pivonka next to one another in this look back at Presidents and Capitals.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Kip Miller

Benjamin Harrison was the 23rd President of the United States.  Holding office between the non-consecutive terms served by Grover Cleveland, Harrison’s rise to the top political office in the United States should not be surprising, given his family history.  His grandfather, William Henry Harrison, served briefly as the ninth President of the United States.  His father, John Scott Harrison, was a congressman from Ohio (and the only man to be the son of and a father to an American President).  Benjamin Harrison III was Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses.  Benjamin Harrison IV was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.  Benjamin Harrison V was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a Governor of Virginia.  Benjamin Harrison (actually the eighth Harrison to take that given name) is a member of a family that has a long and storied history in Virginia and the United States.  What he does not have is an especially high ranking among American Presidents, generally in the lower third of those serving in office. 

If there is a Capital who might be recalled with a history similar to that of Benjamin Harrison, it might be a player who comes from a family of hockey tradition, who had a relative (or two) who preceded him as a member of the Capitals, but who might not have had the most illustrious of careers in Washington.  That Capital might be Kip Miller.

Benjamin Harrison was born, raised, and schooled in Ohio.  After graduating from Miami University in Oxford, he moved to Cincinnati to study law.  He returned to Oxford before completing his law studies and began his legal career there, joining the Republican Party shortly thereafter.  When the Civil War broke out, Harrison volunteered to assist in recruiting then took command of a company in 1862.  Promoted to colonel, he took command of the 70th Indiana Regiment.  By the end of the war he had been promoted to brigadier general.

After the war, Harrison involved himself more deeply in Indiana politics.  He served as reporter of the Supreme Court of Indiana and campaigned for the Republican nomination for Governor of the state.  He lost that run, but four years later accepted the party’s nomination when the original nominee left the race.  He lost the statewide race, but it positioned him to make a run for the United States Senate in an election to replace the deceased Senator Oliver Morton.  Since senators were, at the time, selected by state legislatures, and the Indiana legislature had a Democratic majority, Harrison lost in this campaign as well.  He finally won office when in 1880 a Republican majority in the state legislature picked him to serve as Senator.  After serving one term, he lost his bid for re-election as the state legislature once more changed majorities.

This was all prelude to the election of 1888.  The Republican Party convention was crowded with candidates.  Thirteen individuals won votes on the first ballot, Harrison coming in fifth.  Through six ballots, however, his vote totals rose steadily until he won the most votes on the seventh ballot but not enough to win nomination.  On the eighth ballot he finally won enough votes to defeat the five remaining challengers.

Harrison won the general election in the constitutional oddity of having lost the popular vote to Democrat Grover Cleveland by about 90,000 votes of more than 11 million cast, but winning in the Electoral College by a 233-168 margin when Cleveland’s home state Electoral College delegation of New York cast their 36 votes for Harrison.

Harrison’s presidency was largely consumed by issues that dominated the administrations of his immediate predecessors – tariffs and trade, civil service reform, currency, and expanding the Navy.  But his was a presidency of “firsts,” too.  He was the first president to have his voice preserved, originally done so on a wax cylinder.  He had electricity installed in the White House.  He was the first (and, to date, only) president from Indiana.  He signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the first such Federal act of its kind signed into law.  His administration also saw an expansion of the nation, itself.  North and South Dakota were admitted to the Union under Harrison (although as the story goes, due to a rivalry between the two new states, Harrison had the proclamation documents shuffled before he signed them so it would not be known which of the two states would be admitted first). 

He also had a “first” he was not counting on.  In 1892 he became the first president to lose office to a former President when he lost a rematch with Grover Cleveland.  He returned home to Indianapolis, serving on the Board of Trustees of Purdue University and practicing law until his death in 1901.

Kip Miller was the sixth of ten members of the Miller family to play hockey as a collegian at Michigan State University and the third of that family to play for the Capitals.  He was preceded in Washington by brothers Kelly, who played 13 seasons for the Caps, and appeared in 940 regular season and 116 postseason games with the club; and Kevin, who appeared in ten games of the 1992-1993 season with the Caps as part of a 13-year NHL career.

In his freshman year at Michigan State, Miller scored 22 goals and recorded 42 points in 45 games, good enough to get the attention of the Quebec Nordiques, who took him in the fourth round (72nd overall, right after, it turned out, another former Capital, Joe Sacco) of the 1987 Entry Draft.  Miller went on to play four years at MSU, winning the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s top player in 1990, beating out former NHL defenseman Rob Blake and former Capital Joe Juneau, among others. 

Miller split time in the 1990-1991 season between the Nordiques and the Halifax Citadels in the AHL and did the same to start the 1991-1992 season.  However, in March 1992 he was traded to the Minnesota North Stars for Steve Maltais.  And so began quite a journey for Miller around the NHL, as well as the AHL.  Beginning with his trade to the North Stars in March 1992 and ending with the 1997-1998 season, Miller played for the North Stars, San Jose Sharks, New York Islanders (twice), and Chicago Blackhawks organizations.  He only appeared in 41 NHL games, though.  The rest of his time was spent in the IHL, playing for the Kalamazoo Wings, Kansas City Blades, Denver Grizzlies, Indianapolis Ice, Chicago Wolves, and Utah Grizzlies.  He was one of those “tweeners” who could put up big minor league numbers (200-344-544 in 434 games with those teams over the period), but could not perform well enough at the NHL level to secure a permanent spot on an NHL roster (5-12-17 in 41 games over the same period).

After that 1997-1998 season, Miller was left exposed by the New York Islanders to the waiver draft, and in early October he was claimed by the Pittsburgh Penguins.  At the age of 29, Miller finally had a regular spot in an NHL lineup.  He played 77 games for the Penguins in that 1998-1999 season, finishing sixth on the club in both goals (19) and points (42).  His travels were not over yet, though.  The following season he was traded at mid-season to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim for a ninth-round draft pick in the 2000 Entry Draft.  But then it was back to Pittsburgh as a free agent for the next season, and with it a return to intermittent play.  He played just 33 games with the Penguins in 2000-2001 before joining the New York Islanders (for the third time, it is worth noting, the only player in that team’s history to pull off that trifecta) as a free agent in 2001-2002.  There he played in just 37 games, and at age 32 it looked as if his days as a fixture in an NHL lineup might be approaching an end.

There was a team that thought it could use a player with Miller’s experience, though.  Not so much for the 400-plus games of regular season experience Miller had, but for with whom he played some of those games.  Having acquired Jaromir Jagr the previous season, the Caps signed Miller – a former teammate of Jagr’s in Pittsburgh (as was Robert Lang, also signed as a free agent by the Caps) – with the hope of juicing Jagr’s game and finding some of the scoring touch he displayed with the Penguins.  Miller did his part.  In 2002-2003 he appeared in 72 games and went 12-38-50, setting a career high in total points, while the 12 goals was topped only by the 19 he had with the Penguins in 1998-1999.

The 2003-2004 season saw the Capitals in full sell-off mode in advance of their rebuild, and although Miller was not part of that sell-off, his numbers did dip.  He finished 9-22-31, minus-10, in 66 games.  It was his last season with the Caps, and he was not able to hook up with any team until the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL signed him in December 2004.  Miller played three seasons in the AHL before ending his career after the 2006-2007 season.

Benjamin Harrison and Kip Miller come from famous families in their respective vocations.  Neither could depend on that lineage to guarantee them noteworthy careers in Washington.  That is what makes them partners in this series of presidents and Capitals.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Bobby Carpenter

Before he became the 22nd…and 24th President of the United States, Grover Cleveland was Mayor of Buffalo.  Those two facts about Cleveland, by themselves, bring to mind a hockey player who was a “carpenter” who served two separate tours as a member of the Washington Capitals: Bobby Carpenter.

Steven Grover Cleveland was born in New Jersey, the fifth of nine children, but his family moved to upstate New York in his early teens.  After leaving school to work after his father passed away, he moved to Buffalo.  There he obtained a clerkship at a local law firm, was subsequently admitted to the bar, and began a career as a lawyer, eventually starting his own practice.

It was during this period that he became involved in Democratic Party politics, and after losing an election for district attorney, won election as county sheriff.  He served only two years in that position before returning to private practice, but in 1882 he decided to run as a reform candidate for Mayor of Buffalo and won.  He served only ten months, spending most of it fighting with local political machines, moving on to a run for Governor.  He won the party nomination and won the subsequent general election.  His two year term was characterized by a fiscal conservatism and a willingness to root out corruption.

Those battles in the governor’s office were not the worst way to prepare for a national campaign, as it turned out, as the Democratic nominating convention was split after Samuel Tilden declined nomination, citing poor health.  Cleveland emerged as a favorite and won the nomination on the second ballot after a first ballot with ten candidates receiving votes did not yield a winner.

Although the general election was setting up as a close one, Cleveland did have an ace up his sleeve than made him a “can’t miss” prospect: New York’s 36 electoral votes.  The election fractured along regional lines, Cleveland taking the South and Republican James G. Blaine winning most of the North.  The split left Cleveland with 183 electoral votes and Blaine with 182.  But Cleveland won the New York prize, the 36 electoral votes, and the Presidency despite winning the popular vote by fewer than 60,000 of more than ten million votes cast.

Cleveland took office intent on pushing civil service reform, using a merit-based method for appointments.  His reform attitude extended to contracts for naval construction, interstate commerce (the Interstate Commerce Commission was established under his administration), and land interests.  He took on Congress on spending across a range of areas, promoted reductions in tariffs, and argued for adherence to a gold standard.

His re-election effort in 1888 was hampered as much by the management of his campaign (poor) as it was a product of policy differences with Republicans.  Because of political divisions in New York, the state that gave him the 1884 election flipped in 1888, and despite winning the popular vote by more than 90,000 of more than 11 million votes cast, Cleveland was defeated soundly by Benjamin Harrison in the Electoral College, 233-168.  Had he won New York’s 36 electoral votes, denying them to Harrison, Cleveland would have won.

Cleveland did not retire to private life permanently.  Finding himself at odds with Harrison on the matter of reform, he ran for the Democratic Party nomination in 1892 and won on the first ballot, albeit narrowly over challenger David Hill, a Tammany Hall backed candidate.  In a rerun of the election of 1888, Cleveland and Harrison faced off, this time with Cleveland winning by more than 350,000 votes in the popular vote and by a 277-145 margin in the Electoral College.

Cleveland’s second term proved to be more difficult than his first, starting with having to confront the Panic of 1893 shortly after he took office.  When the panic became an economic depression, Cleveland and Congress could not agree on a remedy, a problem exacerbated by a gold shortage.  Cleveland was successful in reversing Harrison’s policy on silver as a basis for currency, but he shortly found himself at odds with Congress on tariff policy.  The problems snowballed, as labor took issue with Cleveland’s views on silver, the resulting weakening of currency affecting availability of funds for public works projects and to assist farmers in retiring their debts.  Business failures, a depressed farm economy, unemployment resisted solutions and affected Cleveland’s popularity.  It made for a difficult situation as Cleveland prepared for the election of 1896, one that his enemies in the party were able to exploit, denying him the nomination and choosing William Jennings Bryan in his stead.  After returning to private life, there were murmurs of a run for the United States Senate, but he did not run for office again.  He died in June 1908 in Princeton, New Jersey.

Bobby Carpenter was a “can’t miss” prospect of his own, dubbed as such in February 1981 by Sports Illustrated magazine, the first American-born hockey player to land on the Sports Illustrated cover.  

When the Capitals took the Massachusetts native with the third overall pick in the 1981 Entry Draft, it was the highest an American had ever been drafted in the NHL, and when he won a roster spot for the 1981-1982 season, he became the first player to make the jump from high school directly to the NHL.

Carpenter did not disappoint in his rookie season with the Caps, finishing with 32 goals in the 1981-1982 season (fifth among first year players) and 67 points.  He followed that up with 32 goals the following year and 28 more in 1983-1984.  To that point in NHL history, he was one of three players 20 years old or younger who posted a career total of 90 or more goals.  In addition to Carpenter’s 92 goals, the others were Dale Hawerchuk (122) and Wayne Gretzky (106).  When Carpenter scored 53 goals in 1984-1985, the first American-born player to hit the 50-goal mark, he was on a career path that seemed unlimited.

As good as things appeared for Carpenter, though, there were problems.  Head coach Bryan Murray thought Carpenter, drafted as a center, was better suited to playing left wing.  Carpenter chafed at the way he was being used, and his relationship with the head coach soured.  After seeing his goal total drop to 27 in the 1985-1986 season, he and the club got off to a poor start in the 1986-1987 season.  When the Caps lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 5-4, on November 22nd, it extended a winless streak to seven games and left the Caps with a 7-11-4 record and fifth place in a six-team Patrick Division.  Carpenter played in all 22 games to that point, going a disappointing 5-7-12, minus-7.  Worse, his situation with Murray had become toxic.  Two days later, General Manager David Poile suggested that the Caps and Carpenter go their separate ways.  Carpenter, whose consecutive games-played streak reached 422 (then a team record, since broken by Karl Alzner) since he played his first game with the Caps, was now sitting at home, waiting on a trade.

That trade came on New Year’s Day 1987, Carpenter and a second round draft pick sent to the New York Rangers for Bob Crawford, Kelly Miller, and Mike Ridley in one of the more consequential trades in team history.  For his part, Carpenter did not mince words on his way out the door about his relationship with Murray. 

Carpenter lasted just 28 games with the Rangers before he was on the move again, traded to the Los Angeles Kings in March with Tom Laidlaw for Jeff Crossman, Marcel Dionne and a third round pick in the 1989 Entry Draft.  He spent parts of three seasons in California before he was traded once more, this time to the Boston Bruins for Steve Kasper and Jay Miller.  Once the “Can’t Miss Kid” of Peabody, Carpenter returned to the Boston area late in the 1988-1989 season not having reached the 20-goal mark in a season since leaving the Caps, scoring just 34 goals in 148 games.  “Can’t miss” was not a term one would use to describe Carpenter, even if he was still just 25 years old.  He rebounded to score 25 goals in 80 games for Boston in 1989-1990, but he played in just 29 games the following season due to his shattering his kneecap.  Carpenter returned to play in 60 games in 1991-1992 and scored 25 goals for the Bruins, but it would be his last season in Boston.

A free agent for the first time in his career, Carpenter signed with the team with which he started, agreeing to a one-year deal with the Capitals on June 30, 1992.  It was an older and perhaps more thoughtful Carpenter, who at the time of the deal said of his previous experience in Washington:
"A lot changes in six years.  It was just a mistake, what happened. . . . It's a lot different when you play six years -- it's six more years in different places -- you realize different things. It was just a misunderstanding that got blown way out of proportion. I don't think it was as serious as everyone made it out to be.  I had some talks with Bryan [Murray], and we patched things up pretty good. We don't have any problems at all anymore.  I hope they can get over it; I sure have.  It was a bad situation, a misunderstanding, and it's over with."
Carpenter was just short of his 29th birthday. 

In what should have been the prime of his career, Carpenter was a shell of the player who once scored 50 goals for the Caps.  He started the season without a goal in his first 15 games, and in 68 games played for the season he went 11-17-28, his minus-16 being worst on the club.

The Caps did not re-sign Carpenter, and he ended up getting a try-out deal without compensation with the New Jersey Devils in September 1993.  He won a roster spot with the Devils and played in 353 regular season and 60 postseason games with the club over six seasons, winning a Stanley Cup with them in 1995.  After the 1998-1999 season, having played in 1,178 regular season games (490 with the Caps) and 140 postseason games (26 with Washington), Carpenter’s NHL career came to an end at the age of 35.

Grover Cleveland and Bobby Carpenter both came to their roles in Washington with clear ideas of what they wanted to do and how they should fulfill those roles.  Cleveland ended up fighting with a resistant Congress, Carpenter ended up resentful of his head coach.  They left under difficult circumstances, but they would later return for a second tour in Washington, somewhat humbled but neither quite up to the task of what their positions demanded.  As much as any President and Capital, Cleveland and Carpenter experienced similar paths in their two tours in the Nation’s Capital.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Bill Clement

Imagine a President of the United States who came to office upon the death of his predecessor.  It was a struggle for him, reluctant as he was to exercise the powers of the office as his predecessor was struggling to recover from an assassination attempt.  Add to this his being attached to machine politics in New York before becoming President, and he came to office under difficult circumstances.  Things did not improve much upon his assuming office, contending with warring factions in his own party, an unfinished agenda of his predecessor, and his own health problems.  He served only the remainder of his predecessor’s term.  He might be more famous for his “role” in a movie than he is for having been President.  He is Chester A. Arthur, 21st President of the United States. 

If there is a parallel in the history of the Washington Capitals, it might be a player who, from a Caps fans’ perspective, might remembered for having played for perhaps the team’s most bitter rival at the time, who came to the Capitals in as part of a trade that sent the first overall pick in the draft to that rival, who captained the team but who lasted barely a half season before moving on.  And, he might be better known for his “role” in the hockey media than for anything he did with the Caps, or as a player for that matter.  He is Bill Clement.

Born in Vermont and raised in New York, Chester A. Arthur took a road that would be recognizable to those who look at the history of American presidents.  A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Union College, he went into teaching and eventually found himself studying law before moving to New York City.  It was not long thereafter than he began his involvement in Republican Party politics. 

After serving in the Civil War and holding a number of administrative positions during the conflict, Arthur straddled the divide between the parties, supporting ex-Governor Edwin Morgan’s run for the United States Senate, support that led him to be hired by a Republican operative (Thomas Murphy) who provided services to the Union Army during the Civil War, but who also maintained a relationship with William Tweed of the New York Tammany Hall organization of the Democratic Party.

His efforts on behalf of the political machine brought him to the attention of Roscoe Conkling, a congressman who was elected to the Senate in 1867.  Arthur became attached to Conkling’s rising star, and he became chairman of the New York Republican executive committee.  The Conkling “machine” was one of growing influence and supported Ulysses S. Grant in the election of 1868.  As this was going on, Arthur was becoming more involved in the back office tasks of politics, helping the machine run smoothly and serving as an appointed official with machine help.  Finally, Arthur, who had operated largely anonymously in Republican politics, was appointed Collector of the Port of New York by Grant in 1871. 

Arthur held the office for two four-year terms, the second the product of wheeling and dealing between Conklin and Grant.  That job came into the crosshairs of the Rutherford B. Hayes administration, which promoted civil service reform and took aim at the Conkling machine.  Arthur survived the effort until Congress was in recess in 1878, and Hayes replaced him with a recess appointment.  Arthur returned to working for Republican causes and the Conkling faction that became known as “Stalwarts.” 

That led to the 1880 Republican nominating convention in which the “Stalwarts” supported Grant in his effort to win a third term in office against a group supporting James Blaine, known as “Half-Breeds.”  The sides were in stalemate through almost three dozen ballots until the convention looked to a dark horse compromise candidate – James A. Garfield – who was a member of neither faction.  Winning the support of Stalwarts with placing Arthur on the ticket, Garfield won the nomination on the 36th ballot.

Garfield won the general election, but he was felled by an assassin’s bullet just 120 days into his term.  While two months went by with Garfield trying to recover from his wounds, Arthur was caught in a constitutional trap, since there was no provision for how the duties of the office would be fulfilled if the President was incapacitated.  He was reluctant to fill the vacuum, and the executive branch of government was more or less on hold until Garfield passed away in September 1881.

Arthur, perhaps unsurprisingly, had a very uneven experience as chief executive.  He struggled with his cabinet, one that was appointed by Garfield, but despite being very much a child of and proponent of the spoils system, signed the Civil Service Reform Act (perhaps in response to a scandal in the Post Office).  On the other hand, Arthur could never get a handle on fiscal policy, unable to manage the surplus built after the Civil War and how to balance the Federal budget.  He was unable to navigate effectively the differences between those who advocated a cut in tariffs to reduce the deficit and those advocating for more spending on public improvements.  His administration won successful enactment of a comprehensive immigration law, but not without considerable difficulty.  Arthur did win some victories in expanding the Navy and in Civil Rights that helped balance the ledger of success in his administration.

Arthur prepared to run for re-election in 1884, but he found that the factions that existed before his taking office were still battling.  Without a base of solid support in either faction and confronting his own health issues, he ran a lackluster effort as James Blaine won the Republican nomination.  Less than two years later, his health issues caused him to fall ill, and following a cerebral hemorrhage, he passed away on November 18, 1886.

Bill Clement was a second round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1970.  After a year with the Quebec Aces in the AHL, he split time in the 1971-1972 season between the Richmond Robins of the AHL and the Flyers.  A year later he was a full-time Flyer, and a year after that he was a member of a Stanley Cup champion.  He and the Flyers won another Cup the next season, but shortly after the celebration died down, he was traded to the Caps on June 4, 1975 with Don McLean and the Flyers’ first round pick in the 1975 Amateur Draft for Washington's first round choice in the 1975 Amateur Draft.

Clement came to a club that had just completed its inaugural season, having posted the worst – still the worst – record in NHL history, 8-67-5.  He came to a team that was missing 19 players who dressed in that inaugural season and that would dress 17 players, including Clement, who did not play for the Caps the previous season.  To that add the fact that Clement was installed as captain and that he was coming from a Stanley Cup champion to a team one year removed from an ugly year, and it was a difficult situation.

It did not get better as the second-year Caps started the season.  They lost their first five games and were winless in their first nine contests.  It did not get much better.  When the Caps lost to the New York Islanders, 5-2, on January 21, 1976, the Caps were 3-39-5 and on a pace to finish with fewer wins than they had in their inaugural season.  The following day, Clement was traded to the Atlanta Flames for Gerry Meehan, Jean Lemieux and a first round pick in the 1976 Amateur Draft, his record complete with the Caps showing 46 games played and a scoring line of 10-17-27, minus-30.  Even having appeared in just 46 games, Clement finished tied for ninth on the club in goals and tied for eighth in points.  On the other hand, the Caps did improve after his departure (these things being relative) with a record of 8-20-5 to finish 11-59-10 for the season.

Clement went on to finish the season with the Flames and played another six seasons with the organization, including their first two years in Calgary when the franchise moved from Atlanta.  It would be his post-NHL career for which he is best remembered, though.  He became a fixture as a television analyst for hockey and participated in broadcasts of at least one Stanley Cup finals game for 19 consecutive years, from 1986 through 2004.  Only the league lockout interrupted the streak, resuming for three more years after the lockout was settled.

Chester A. Arthur was a President of mixed accomplishments, serving only the uncompleted term of his predecessor, was in many respects the product of machine politics, and who might be remembered more for having a fictitious school named after him in the movie, “Die Hard with a Vengeance (the school is actually the Alexander Humboldt School/PS115 in Washington Heights, New York).”  Bill Clement was a Capital who wore the uniform and served as captain for barely half a season, who was the product of the system of a bitter rival, who had decent personal numbers for a struggling team, and who might be remembered more for having a long career as a television analyst after his playing days were over.  You could say that Chester A. Arthur and Bill Clement had similar histories in their comings and goings to and from Washington.  But Arthur had the better playoff beard.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Pat Peake

If one were to ask you, “who was James A. Garfield?,” you might stumble while looking for an answer before you remembered that he was a President of the United States.  His administration lasted just 199 days, the second-shortest presidency in American history.  It was cut short when he was shot by an assassin in July 1881 and succumbed to his wounds two months later.  Given the nature and volume of his accomplishments in the few months he was active as President, there is a lingering “what if” attached to his presidency.  What more might he have been able to accomplish in a full term?  In that respect, his presidency resembles that of a player who could be the franchise’s poster child for the question, “what if?”  Pat Peake.

James A. Garfield was born in Ohio in 1831.  He was the last of the seven “log cabin” presidents (the others being Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant).  His youth was a difficult one, losing his father at the age of two and growing up in poverty.  It was not until he reached his later teen years that he found a particular interest in public speaking.  It led him to begin a career in teaching, but after a short time he came to the belief that a career in education would not serve his development.  He decided to pursue a legal career.

Becoming a lawyer opened other avenues for Garfield, leading him to accept an offer from local officials to run for a state senate seat, winning election as a Republican.  When the Civil War broke out, Garfield’s inclination was to join the Union Army, but he was prevailed upon by the Governor of Ohio to keep his seat in the legislature.  That lasted only a short while, though.  In the summer of 1861 he accepted a commission and was eventually promoted to brigadier general.  Despite the increase in rank, he was concerned over the future of his military career and let his name be placed in nomination to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.  He won election and would serve as a member of the Ohio delegation for more than 17 years.

By 1880, Garfield had become the leading Republican in the House.  From that position, he could be expected to exert considerable influence on the 1880 nominating convention for the Republicans, and he was a supporter of the Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman (brother of General William Tecumseh Sherman).  Complicating the matter was that President Ulysses S. Grant was running for an unprecedented third term in office.  Those were just two candidates in what was a crowded field to open the balloting for the nomination.  Six candidates received votes on the first ballot, and while Grant captured the most, he failed to get a majority (Garfield received no votes on the first ballot).  Things did not change much on the second ballot, or the third.  In fact, nothing changed much over 35 ballots, Grant stuck between 304 and 313 votes, and James G. Blaine stuck between 257 and 284 votes, with other candidates, including Garfield, splitting the rest.  Blaine finally saw the writing on the wall after the 35th ballowt and cast his support to Garfield.  On the 36th ballot, Garfield won 399 votes and the nomination.

The general election was one of those odd instances in presidential politics in which the popular vote was extremely close (Garfield won by fewer than 2,000 votes of more than nine million cast), while the electoral vote margin was comfortable (Garfield: 214 – Hancock: 155).

Having won election, Garfield had to contend with warring factions in his own party, a leftover of the convention the previous summer, but it did not keep him from undertaking an ambitious agenda.  He was a strong advocate of promoting civil rights among African Americans, pursued civil service reform, encouraged expanded trade (particularly with Latin America), began efforts to expand American influence in Panama (with an eye toward building a canal there) and in Hawaii, and began efforts to expand the Navy.

Garfield’s role in those efforts came crashing to a halt on July 2, 1881, when he was shot twice by Charles Guiteau, a rebuffed office seeker, at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington (near what is now the site of the National Gallery of Art West Building).

Garfield's condition improved somewhat over the next several weeks and was even able to hold a meeting with his cabinet from his sick bed.  But, his condition soon worsened, and by the end of August had lost a considerable amount of weight (likely a product of lingering infection brought on by his physicians searching for the bullet that pierced his abdomen with unsterile hands and fingers).  He was moved to Elberon, New Jersey, in early September, but two weeks later, on September 18th, Garfield passed away two months short of his 50th birthday.

Capitals fans of a certain age remember Pat Peake as a player with immense promise unfulfilled, a victim of a moment’s misfortune.  For those fans of more recent vintage who might vaguely recognize the name, it would be hard to overstate the idea that Peake did nave such promise.  First, consider his draft position.  The Capitals took Peake with the 14th overall pick of the 1991 draft.  That might not sound especially impressive until you realize who was taken with the next two picks.  The New York Rangers selected Alexei Kovalev with the 15th pick, and the Pittsburgh Penguins then took Markus Naslund.  Kovalev and Naslund went on to play a combined 2,433 regular season and 175 postseason games in the NHL, and they would combine to score 825 regular season and 59 playoff goals over their respective careers.

Peake certainly brought the goods from amateur hockey.  In 162 games over three seasons in the OHL, he scored 138 goals and recorded 319 points.  He made the jump to the Caps in the 1993-1994 season, and when he finished in the top-15 among rookies in goals (11) and points (29) despite appearing in only 49 games.  Among rookies appearing in at least 40 games, he was seventh in goals-per-game and points-per-game.  The sky looked to be the limit for Peake.

Things started to unravel for Peake the following season.  Mononucleosis limited him to just 18 games, failing to score so much as a single goal that season.  He rebounded in 1995-1996, going 17-19-36 in 62 games, but then he suffered the injury that would define his career as a Capital.  As the 1996 playoffs got underway, Peake was nursing a knee injury that kept him out of the lineup for two weeks, but he returned to play in Game 1 of the opening round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he scored a pair of power play goals in Game 2 as the Caps took a 2-0 lead in games.  The Caps lost Games 3 and 4 at home, Peake recording only an assist in the two games.  That sent the series back to Pittsburgh for Game 5, the teams tied at two games apiece.  In the second period of the contest, Peake found himself in a footrace with Penguin defenseman J.J. Daigneault trying to prevent an icing call.  Peake tried to hook Daigneault to get position on him, but he lost his footing and crashed into the end boards feet-first.  The impact fractured Peake’s right heel in 14 places.

The injury ended Peake’s season, and he returned to play in only four games the following season.  In 1997-1998 he missed the first 16 games of the season before returning to the ice against the Edmonton Oilers on November 8th.  In that game he injured his ankle in what would be his last NHL game, his career over at the age of 24 (he officially retired the following September).  

No one can say with any certainty that Pat Peake would have been the sort of player to get his number retired and his banner raised to the rafters of Verizon Center, but there is this.  If you look at his first two full seasons – his only two full seasons with the Caps (discounting the year he lost to mononucleosis), his 38 goals in 111 games (0.34 per game) at age 22 looks a lot like another player who had 40 goals in 125 games (0.32 per game) over his first two seasons at age 23: Peter Bondra.

It is the not knowing, the never realizing part that is so haunting about Pat Peake’s short career with the Caps.  It is not unlike the not knowing just what sort of President that James A. Garfield might have been had he not been assassinated six months into his first term.