Before Martin Van Buren was elected the eighth President of the United States, he earned a number of nicknames. Perhaps the best known of them was “The Little Magician,” a nickname bestowed upon him to reflect his stature (he stood five feet, eight inches tall) and his activity in political matters across the country.
Hockey does not have elegant nicknames as what one finds in politics as much as it has clever ones (at best). Most nicknames in the sport are some derivative of the players last name, usually with a “ie” or “er” appended, but sometimes a simple, but descriptive one sneaks through. And that brings us to the Washington Capital who might best be paired with Van Buren – “Pee Wee” himself, Dennis Maruk.
Van Buren’s spent his early career in politics as both leader and follower. He started as a lawyer in New York, a leader of the “Albany Regency,” helping dispense political favors. It was the first of several stepping stones on his path to the presidency. The next of those was his election to the United States Senate by the New York state legislature (this was before popular election of senators). It was there that he became a supporter of Andrew Jackson in his bid for the presidency. In return for that support, Jackson appointed Van Buren Secretary of State.
At this point, Van Buren’s career took a turn. He became perhaps Jackson’s closest advisor in a Cabinet that was dividing its loyalties into a Jackson camp and one aligned with Vice President John C. Calhoun, a man with presidential aspirations of his own. Van Buren proposed a solution to that problem by offering, along with Secretary of War John Eaton, to resign so that the Calhoun faction would be forced to do likewise. It worked out for Van Buren, who would be given a recess appointment by Jackson as Minister to Great Britain. He failed to gain Senate confirmation for a permanent appointment, but it hardly slowed his progress. He would become Vice President in Jackson’s second term as President. After serving one term as Vice President, he was elected to the Presidency in 1840 to succeed Jackson.
Dennis Maruk has his own winding path on his way to Washington. It started as a second round pick of the California Golden Seals in the 1975 Amateur Draft. Having earned a reputation as a prodigious goal scorer in Canadian junior hockey (159 goals in 191 games over three years with the London Knights), he jumped right into the NHL with the Golden Seals for the 1974-1975 season. Maruk finished that season second among rookies in goals scored, recording 30 in 80 games to the New York Islanders’ Bryan Trottier’s 32 in 80 games. He finished third in the voting for the Calder Trophy that season (top rookie) behind Trottier and Islander goalie Glenn Resch.
When the franchise relocated to Cleveland the following year, Maruk brought his goal scoring talent with him. In two seasons with the Barons, Maruk scored 64 goals in 156 games. Those two seasons would mark the end of the Cleveland franchise, it being merged with the Minnesota North Stars following the 1977-1978 season. While this was going on, though, the Capitals were putting Maruk in their sights as a trade target. In October 1978, with Maruk having played just two games for the North Stars, the Caps had their man.
In 1837, Van Buren reached the pinnacle, sworn in as eighth President of the United States. The new job came with its headaches, though. Barely a month into his Van Buren’s administration, financial and economic problems emerging before Van Buren assumed the Presidency came to a head. Banks in New York City suspended redemptions of promissory notes at full value. Thus, the “Panic of 1837” began. The Panic was the beginning of an economic slowdown that lasted for much of the next decade. Van Buren would be a casualty, losing in his bid for re-election in 1840 to William Henry Harrison.
In 1978, Maruk arrived in Washington to play for a franchise that won just 60 games over its first four seasons. And it was not as if they started the 1978-1979 season reversing the trend. When Maruk was acquired, the Caps were 1-2-1, scoring 12 goals, a light volume for the era. Maruk injected a measure of goal scoring – he had his third 30-plus goal season in his fourth year in the league – and the Caps had their “best” season in franchise history. However, “best” should not be equated with “good.” Washington finished 24-41-15 and 63 points.
It would be a recurring theme in Maruk’s career in Washington. “Pee Wee” was a “little magician” with the puck. In 343 games over five seasons with the Caps, Maruk led the club in total goals (182 to 157 for Mike Gartner over the same period), assists (249 to 163 for Ryan Walter), and points (431 to 318 for Gartner). When he scored 60 goals in the 1981-1982 season, he became just the seventh player in NHL history to accomplish the feat, and it was just the 12th such occurrence in league history. His 76 assists that season remain a team record for a single season, as is his 136 points that season.
But the club remained anchored to the lower reaches of the league standings. In Maruk’s five years in Washington, the Caps went through four coaches and finished with 70 or fewer points four times, averaging just 72 points per season, an average lifted by a 94-point season in 1982-1983.
Upon leaving the White House, Van Buren returned to his birthplace, Kinderhook, New York. He made efforts to return to politics, seeking the Democratic Party nomination in 1844 (he lost, largely due to his opposition to the immediate annexation of Texas) and was nominated for the Presidency by two minor parties in 1848. However, he never held public office again.
After the 1982-1983 season, one in which he scored barely half (31) of the 60 goals he scored in 1981-1982, Maruk was traded back to the team that sent him to Washington – the Minnesota North Stars – for a second round pick in the 1984 draft. Maruk played another six seasons in Minnesota, but he never reached the 30-goal mark again.
The connection between Martin Van Buren and Dennis Maruk even extends to the medium on which Maruk played his career -- ice. Van Buren has a mountain in Antarctica named for him. It is just a reflection of how much (or how far we will go to make) a connection there is between the First Residents of Washington and the players who have contributed to the history of the city’s hockey team.