Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Curtis Leschyshyn

No President in American history served a shorter term of office than did its ninth President, William Henry Harrison.  Elected in 1840, sworn in on March 4, 1841, Harrison served 31 days before he became the first American president to die in office.  There can be but one Capital who can compare to Harrison.  No, not Alexandre Volchkov, who played in just three games for the Caps, but who was a member of the organization from his being drafted fourth overall in 1996 until he was traded in February 2000.  No, not Jonas Johansson, who from the time he was traded to the Caps in October 2003 until he left the organization in 2007 played in only one game for the Caps.

No, the Capital who gets the call here can only be Curtis Leschyshyn. 

Both had very short stays in their respective “offices” in Washington – Harrison for 31 days as President and Leschyshyn for a week as a Capital, but it isn’t as if they didn’t have long and steady climbs before getting to their respective posts.  Take Harrison.  Born in 1773 in what would become the Commonwealth of Virginia, he became Secretary of the Northwest Territory at the tender age of 25.  Less than a year later, barely eligible for the office, he became a member of the United States House of Representatives, representing the Northwest Territory as an at-large member.  He served only a year in that position before assuming the duties of Governor of the Indiana Territory, a position he held for almost 12 years.

Then, Harrison returned to the national stage, returning to the House of Representatives in a special election to finish the term of John McLean (no, not that John MacLean), who was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  After returning to Ohio to serve in the state senate and losing an election to return to the U.S. House of Representatives, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served for three years before being appointed minister to Gran Columbia. When he was recalled at the end of the President’s term of office, his public service appeared to come to an end after more than 30 years in various positions. 

Life as a private citizen did not take though, and he returned to public service in county government in Ohio.  In 1836 he ran for President, losing to Martin Van Buren, but in 1840 he ran again, defeating Van Buren in a rematch.  And thus was set in motion a series of events that would result in the shortest presidential tenure in American history.  Harrison, who had just turned 68 years old, the oldest ever to take office until Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, wanted to convey a sense of strength, calling to mind his history at the Battle of Tippecanoe Pride and weather conspired against Harrison on Inauguration Day, though.  On a cold, snowy day in Washington in March 1841, wearing neither hat nor coat, he rode on horseback to the Capitol and delivered what is still the longest presidential inaugural address in American history at one hour and 45 minutes.  To that he added attendance at several inaugural ball, and while it is unlikely that the activity was a direct cause of the pneumonia that he developed three weeks later, it was still a difficult way to begin an administration.  And, just 31 days into his administration, Harrison passed.

Curtis Leschyshyn suffered no similar misfortune upon arriving in Washington, but his path here was a winding one of its own.  After two seasons with the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL in Canadian junior hockey, Leschyshyn was taken by the Quebec Nordiques as the third overall pick in the first round of the 1988 NHL entry draft.  He jumped right into the NHL, dressing for 71 games in the 1988-1989 season.  It was a difficult one for the Nordiques, who won only 27 games.  Leschyshyn was second worst on the team in plus-minus that season (minus-32), with some guy named “Sakic” finishing behind him (minus-36).

That rookie year would be a high mark of sorts for Leschyshyn in his early career.  His games played dropped in each of the next three seasons with Quebec, and he eventually split time between the Nordiques and the Halifax Citadels in the AHL in 1991-1992.  The slide was arrested after that, Leschyshyn appearing in 275 regular season and 26 postseason games over the next four seasons, winning a Stanley Cup with the franchise after it relocated to Colorado as the Avalanche in 1995-1996.

Never a particularly prolific defenseman at the offensive end of the ice, Leschyshyn started a bit slowly in the 1996-1997 season, going without a goal in his first 11 games.  At that point, he was an undercard player in a multi-player deal between the Avalanche and the Capitals.  In early November, he and the rights to left winger Chris Simon were traded to Washington for Caps forward Keith Jones, and a first and a fourth round pick in the 1998 entry draft. 

About that “to Washington” thing.  Actually, he never really made it “to Washington.”  At the time, Caps General Manager David Poile said, “With Leschyshyn, well, you can never have enough defensemen. With Sylvain Cote being out and Nolan Baumgartner now having surgery {for a dislocated shoulder} and out four to six months, we felt some of our depth was gone." He added that Leschyshyn would “"definitely…be [with the] Capitals for a while." 

“A while” was seven days.  Leschyshyn joined the Caps for road games in Florida against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers, not registering a point and finishing even in the plus-minus numbers.  Then, the defensemen that the Caps could not have too many of and who would be with the Caps for a while was traded to the Hartford Whalers for center Andrei Nikolishin.  Of the deal, Poile said, “"I knew going into the Simon trade that we were going to have too many defensemen but I said we made the deal for a good player and now that asset has turned into a quality forward for us."  He could have had a future in politics, that one.

Leschyshyn did not suffer the end Harrison did; he finished the season with the Whalers and played another seven seasons with the Whalers (later the Carolina Hurricanes), the Minnesota Wild, and the Ottawa Senators.  But in his blink-of-an-eye stay with the Caps, never having actually dressed for a game in Washington, Curtis Leschyshyn bears a striking similarlity in his tenure to that of President William Henry Harrison.

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Dennis Maruk

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.