It was 35 years ago this weekend, that the Washington Capitals made the most significant trade in franchise history. It was on September 9, 1982, when then-General Manager David Poile traded captain Ryan Walter and defenseman Rick Green to the Montreal Canadiens, in exchange for All-Star defensemen Rod Langway and Brian Engblom, and forwards Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin. The trade is considered by many to be the one that kept the Caps in Washington.
In a news conference announcing the trade, Poile said, “This trade makes the Capitals competitive. We’ve added four quality players. For the first time in Capitals’ history, we have a defense.” Langway himself had told a Montreal news station that he was “ecstatic” upon hearing the news, as he was hoping for a trade to an American team for tax reasons, adding that Montreal’s General Manager, Irving Grundman, had made “the worst trade in the NHL”. Years later, Langway admitted, “I pushed the button for that trade. I tried to rearrange my contract in my fourth year. I was married, I had two kids and the money situation wasn’t the greatest in Canada and because I am American, the taxes were a problem. I wanted to get a new deal with Montreal that would give me an extended contract in U.S. funds, but they didn’t want to cause problems within the organization.”
In his last year with the Caps at the age of 23, Walter scored 38 goals and had 49 assists for 87 points. Walter was the second overall pick in 1978. Rick Green, meanwhile, was the first overall pick in the 1976 NHL Entry Draft who had developed into a solid defenseman by the 1981-82 season. Poile had become General Manager of the Capitals just 10 days prior to the trade, on August 30 just over a month after owner Abe Pollin had discussed the team’s bleak financial position and “conditions” that would need to be met to ensure continued operations of the team in the Washington D.C. area. These conditions included doubling their season ticket sales; sell out their first 10 games at the Capital Centre in the 1982-1983 season; and gain tax relief from Prince George’s County. All of this had to be within 30 days or the team would have been sold or folded.
Prior to the trade, Langway had played for the Canadiens for just over three seasons. After beginning his career with their farm team during the 1978-1979 season, he was recalled by the Habs later that season. The 1979-1980 season was his first full season in the NHL. In 1982, he was named to the All-Star Team for the Prince of Wales Conference in a game that was, ironically enough, played at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. Engblom, the other defenseman the Caps acquired in the trade, had begun playing with the Canadiens in 1977-1978. He was the NHL leader in Plus/Minus during the 1980-1981 season, and was named a Second Team All-Star for the 1981-1982 season. In short, both Langway and Engblom had great defensive resumes prior to the trade to Washington. In fact, legendary Montreal Gazette writer, Red Fisher, said they were “generally regarded as the best defensive pair in the National Hockey League”. At the time of the trade, Fisher mourned the loss of Engblom more than the loss of Langway, seemingly knowing that Langway had to go due to his salary demands but wondered what Grundman was thinking when he traded Engblom.
Washington also acquired two forwards in the trade in Jarvis and Laughlin. Jarvis was first recalled by the Canadiens during the 1975-1976 season.
Throughout his career with Montreal, he scored between 10-20 goals a season, with his best season coming in 1981-1982, when he scored 20 goals and had 28 assists for 48 ponts. Laughlin was a promising rookie who had scored 12 goals in just 36 games played for Montreal prior to the trade.
While the players coming to Washington were excited about the prospect of playing for the Capitals, the outgoing Caps had very different reactions. Walter was shocked, given that he had been a leader both on and off the ice for Washington and had become settled there. Green, however, was glad to be leaving Washington and getting the chance to play a Stanley Cup contender.
The Capitals’ head coach at the time, Bryan Murray, expressed concern that the team was too confident after the trade since both fans and players were so excited about the new infusion of talent to the team. Two days after the trade, the team reported to training camp in Hershey, Pennsylvania , and the newcomers were asked for their reactions to the trade. “I know the Montreal feeling,” Laughlin said. “Once you play there, wear a Canadiens uniform, you get a feeling that every time you play, you have to go out and give better than 150 percent. You just go out and win. Maybe Washington didn’t have that”. “Winning and losing are kind of trends,” Engblom said. “You’ve got to break one to get into the other. It’s time for the Capitals to break a trend.”
“Washington got a great deal,” Langway said. “Here, I know I’ll have a chance to bloom.”
The trade had a positive effect on the Caps for the 1982-1983 season. Langway was appointed captain of the team within days of the trade. They made the playoffs for the first time ever on the heels of a 39-26-12 record, and finished third in the Patrick Division, though they lost to the New York Islanders in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was also the first season in which the Capitals had finished with a winning record. Langway won the Norris Trophy (Best defenseman) and received First Team All-Star honors after the season. He was also runner-up to Wayne Gretzky for Most Valuable Player. Langway played for the Caps for ten more seasons and earned many more honors for the team as they consistently made the playoffs.
As for the other players acquired in the deal, Engblom played only one season for the Caps before being traded to the Los Angeles Kings early in the 1983-1984 for future Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Murphy. Jarvis did not do as well for the Caps statistically as he had done for Montreal. He scored eight goals in 1982-1983, which was less than the 20 he had scored during his last season with Montreal. However, helped solidify the Caps defensively. He won the Selke Trophy after the 1983-1984 season for his outstanding two-way play. He played for the Caps until the 1985-1986 season, when he was traded to the Hartford Whalers for Jorgen Pettersson. He never missed a regular season game during his NHL career and holds the NHL record for consecutive games played with 965. Laughlin played with the Caps until the 1987-1988 season and topped 15 goals in each of his five full seasons with the team, topping 20 goals, three times and scoring 30 goals once. He has been a television color analyst for the Capitals since 1990.
By Diane Doyle