Sunday, August 14, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Rod Langway

By the time Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as 16th President of the United States in March 1861, the country was beset by turmoil and conflict that could have torn the nation apart.  It is no stretch to believe that he was exceptionally qualified and uniquely positioned to lead the Nation through its most difficult moments.

The Washington Capitals had their long night of the soul, of sorts, in the early 1980’s.  An expansion franchise that averaged only 20 wins per season over its first eight years

The years before his presidency are the stuff of high school history classes.  Born in a cabin near what is now Hodgenville, Kentucky; raised in what is now Spencer County, Indiana; striking out on his own after his family moved to Illinois.  He was lacking in formal education, but he was a voracious reader.  Eventually gaining admission to the Illinois bar and practicing law.

As it turned out, his career timeline tacked closely with that of the nation.  He entered public service in 1834 as a newly-elected member of the Illinois House of Representatives; Alexis de Toqueville’s “Democracy in America” was published a year later.  In his eight years as a member of the Illinois House, the U.S. House passed a resolution barring discussion of antislavery petitions (the original “gag rule”).  Lincoln was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846, the year the Mexican-American War started and the year in which the Wilmot Proviso was introduced in Congress, banning slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico in the Mexican War (it failed but deepened divisions over slavery).

Lincoln fulfilled a pledge to serve only one term in the U.S. House, but remained active in politics while practicing as a lawyer in Illinois.  He ran for the Senate in 1854 (unsuccessfully), but he was a key figure in the establishment of the Republican Party, dedicated to the antislavery movement.  In 1858 he ran for the Senate once more in a campaign that featured a series of debates with his Democrat opponent Stephen Douglas held over a two month stretch that would become among the most famous debates in American political history.

Although Lincoln lost his Senate race with Douglas, the campaign and the debates were, for Lincoln, a prelude to the presidential election of 1860.  After two presidencies – those of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan – characterized by northern incumbents sympathizing with Southern views on slavery, the country and its political parties were badly fractured along regional lines.  The Democrats were hopelessly split on the question of slavery, and a new party, the Constitutional Union Party made up of former Whigs, made for a four-way race. Lincoln won the popular vote with less than 40 percent of the votes cast, but he won solidly in the North while the other three candidates split the border and Southern states, giving him an electoral vote majority.

From the day of his election until Lincoln’s inauguration, seven states in the South seceded from the Union.  Four more left the Union in the three months following his taking office.  Barely a month into his administration, the Battle of Fort Sumter triggered the civil war that had been brewing for years.  And thus began the Civil War, Lincoln assuming executive control over the war’s strategy and management.  For the next four years the war would dominate the national landscape and his attention as President.

Lincoln’s ultimately successful prosecution of the Civil War is well-chronicled, but it was not the extent of his achievements.  He signed legislation creating the first income tax in American history, he signed legislation creating a national banking system, he signed the Morrill Land Grant Colleges Act to provide grants for agricultural colleges in each state.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture was established under his administration.  The first celebration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday was proclaimed by Lincoln in 1863.  He made five appointments to the Supreme Court.  Only George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, all of whom served at least two full terms.  West Virginia and Nevada were admitted to the Union during Lincoln’s presidency.

While dwarfed in the larger scheme of things by a national conflict on the slavery issue in the mid-18th century, the Washington Capitals were suffering a growing crisis of their own in the early 1980's that threatened their existence.  Getting an NHL franchise to start play in the 1974-1975 season was a coup for the region and for team owner Abe Pollin.  Things soured quickly, though, as the team set a record for futility in their inaugural season (8-67-5, fewest wins (8) and fewest points (21) in a full NHL season (minimum: 70 games).  They did not get much better in the seven seasons to follow, and the club was at a crossroads after the 1981-1982 season.  Pollin, who claimed to lose $20 million since the club started play (about $50 million in current dollars) and was seeing far too many empty seats at Capital Centre to his liking, threatened to move, merge, or dissolve the Capitals.

Pollin had four criteria to be met to get him to call off the threat.  The club had to achieve a season-ticket base of 7,500, the team had to record sellouts in their first ten home games of the season, arena rent had to be reduced, and the county tax rate on tickets had to be cut to virtually zero.

The response was a “Save the Caps” campaign  It was successful, but not completely so.  Three of the four demands were met, the 7,500 season ticket goal left unmet.  But the success of the effort, and bringing in local investors, gave the Caps a hope of remaining in the region.  What might have gone under the radar was the club hiring David Poile as general manager.  Poile wasted no time in putting his stamp on the club and made a move that might have saved the franchise as we have come to know it.  In early September 1982, Poile traded Ryan Walter and Rick Green to the Montreal Canadiens for Doug Jarvis, Craig Laughlin, Brian Engblom, and a 25-year old defenseman who already had more than 250 games of NHL experience and played for a Stanley Cup winner: Rod Langway.

Langway was installed immediately as team captain, replacing the departed Walter.  For the Caps it was a winning move.  They finished with a 39-25-16 record, including a 14-game unbeaten streak, and their 94 standings points was a 28 point improvement from the previous season.  For the first time in club history, the Caps reached the playoffs.  Langway won the first of his two Norris Trophies as the league’s top defenseman.  Odd thing about that; he won the Norris having posted the worst plus-minus he would record for any of his 13 seasons appearing in more than 50 games (even).  He had a worse plus-minus than any of the defensemen finishing in the top-ten in voting, and no defenseman receiving votes scored fewer goals.   Perhaps more important, attendance at Capitals games increased by almost nine percent per game.

The following season, the Caps reached the 100-point mark for the first time in team history and reached the playoffs for a second consecutive season.  Langway won his second straight Norris Trophy, becoming the sixth defenseman in NHL history to win the Norris more than once, joining Doug Harvey, Pierre Pilote,  Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin, and Larry Robinson.

Langway would serve as captain for ten seasons with the Caps before he handed the “C” over to Kevin Hatcher mid-way through the 1992-1993 season.  Over those 11 seasons he spent with the club, the Caps won an average of 42 games per season and reached the playoffs each year.  On the ice his style of play could be summed up as an old school approach that emphasized simplicity, or as he put it, “to prevent goals and get the puck out of our zone, that's all. And that's all I try to do. There are other players for flash, that's fine for them. But I'm on a team that has disciplined..”  That disciplined style became the signature of the Capitals in the Langway era.  They lacked the flash of the Edmonton Oilers and the star power of a Wayne Gretzky, but it was a club that gave an honest effort night-in and night-out that was very difficult for opponents to play against.

The effort was appreciated, at least as far as attendance reflected it.  Year-over-year attendance increased in eight of the 11 seasons Langway was in Washington, eventually reaching a high-water mark of 17,251 per game in the 1989-1990 season, more than 50 percent higher than average attendance in the year before Rod Langway arrived in Washington.  

More books have been written about Abraham Lincoln (more than 15,000) than any other person in history except for Jesus Christ.  It is just one measure of his place in American history.  Rod Langway is not a deity in the history of the Washington Capitals franchise, but it is no stretch to state that his arrival in Washington and his play for over a decade in a Capitals sweater saved the franchise, allowing it to get a foothold in the region when it could have ended up in Tacoma or Regina or merged with the Colorado Rockies as part of the Rockies’ move to New Jersey and rebranding as the Devils, or perhaps dissolved altogether  In that sense, Rod Langway was the central figure to help guide the Caps through the most difficult period in franchise history, not unlike what Abraham Lincoln did on a far larger scale in a difficult period of the Nation’s history.