Back to the Future: The Washington Capitals in 1974 and 2018

Photos: NHL Via Getty Images

Imagine you fell asleep in 1974, the Caps’ first year of existence. You reawakened in June of 2018, the year the Capitals won their first Stanley Cup. 

What differences between 1974 and 2018 would you confront? What sensory overloads would challenge you? How would an entire generation of Capitals’ fans accustomed to decades of agonies of defeat, finally react to the thrills of victory that emanated from winning the Cup?

Let’s zero in on the years 1974 and 2018. We will examine not only what happened in those unique years, but also the context which defined them and etched them into our collective memories.

Dateline: The World and The Nation, June, 1974

Richard M. Nixon is President. The country is awash in the Watergate scandal that culminates later that summer when Nixon resigns to avoid almost certain impeachment. His vice president avoids prison with a plea deal that includes his resignation. Worldwide inflation spreads causing dramatic cost increases in fuel, food, and manufacturing. The U.S. begins to slowly emerge from the havoc caused by the prior year’s Arab Oil Embargo. The Government imposes a nationwide 55 MPH speed limit.

The Paris Peace Accords, signed earlier, are said to end the Vietnam War. But peace is short-lived. The end of the Vietnam War, including the fall of Saigon, is still 10 months away. The Irish Republican Army initiates a bombing campaign targeting Parliament and other sites on mainland Britain. A gathering storm in the Middle East sows seeds of Iran’s extremist theocracy and begin to take root. Turkey invades Northern Cyprus. India detonates its first nuclear weapon. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger brokers a ceasefire between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights.

Earth transmits its first extraterrestrial message into space. Clumsy mobile “bag phones” appear. Programmable pocket calculators become the rage. The Apple I computer is still two years away.Amateur enthusiasts clog CB Radio airwaves. Pet rocks gain momentum. Pocket transistor radios skyrocket in popularity. Requests for Play-Doh, Silly Putty, Nerf Football, and Crazy Foam flood the North Pole.

1974 has its share of popular cultural icons of the female variety: Jacqueline Bisset, Christie Brinkley, Angie Dickinson, Margaux Hemingway, Lauren Hutton, Sophia Loren, and Mary Tyler Moore. Prominent fashion trends include: flared or “bell-bottom” pants, tunics, pant sets, leisure suits, and overalls. Exotic prints, polyester fabrics, checks, bright colors, embroidered details, and satin, corduroy or velvet textures are very popular too.

The world’s population reaches 4 billion.

This is the nation and world as they existed when you fell asleep in June, 1974. Now let’s examine the Washington Capitals that same year.

Dateline: The Washington Capitals, June, 1974

You went to sleep in June, 1974 under my hypothetical scenario. The case could be made that the Washington Capitals were equally somnambulant. On the bright side, while you slept, you didn’t miss much.

The history of the Capitals begins two years earlier, in 1972. That is when the NHL grants Abe Polin the right to bring an expansion franchise to Washington, starting with the 1974-1975 season. Washington and Kansas City become the 17th and 18th NHL clubs. They beat out Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Indianapolis, Phoenix, and San Diego who also sought franchises. The Capitals played their first game on October 9, 1974, a 6-3 loss at the hands of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

The Caps play in the Prince of Wales Conference, Norris Division. Including the Caps, the Norris Division also includes Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens, and Pittsburgh Penguins. The Capitals finished last. Dead last.

The Caps play 80 games. Their overall record for the year is 8-67-5, making their winning percentage .131, still the worse in NHL history. Their home record is 7-28-5. Their road record is 1-39-0. The Capitals “Goals For” statistic is 181 (18th of 18). Their “Goals Against” is 446 (18th of 18). Their 21 points for the season were half that of their expansion mate, the Kansas City Scouts.

In 2010 and again in 2017, ESPN named the 1974-75 Caps the worst team in NHL history.

In its inaugural season, the team is coached by Jimmy Anderson. Doug Mohns is the team captain. Ron Low is the starting goalie. Home games are played at Capital Centre, Landover, Maryland, with a capacity of 17,962. Attendance is sparse. Only 15 Capitals games are televised. Single game tickets are $8.50, $6.50, and $4.00. Season tickets are available at $340, $260, and $160.

The first regular season scoring leaders (points) are Tommy Williams (58); Denis Dupere (35); Mike Marson (28); Yvon Labre (27); and Ron Lalonde (26).

Arguably, the Caps continue their dreadful performances until the 1980 and 1981 seasons when they remain playoff contenders until the last day of the season.

Dateline: The World and The Nation, June, 2018

Wakie wakie. Time to arise from your blissful, but uninformed sleep. You began your slumber in June of 1974—the Caps inaugural season. A bewildering array of complex change transpired in the world and the nation since you zoned out. You woke on the morning of June 8, one day after the Caps historic capture of the top prize. You woke up to a new world. And a new Caps.

Let’s just explore what happened in June of 2018 and thereabouts. We will forget the other intervening years that spawned monumental changes.

Donald Trump is the President. Yes, really. Both Houses of Congress are held by the Republicans, yet despite the numbers, Congress is mired in deadlock. Smoke from partisan political battles permeates the air. Twitter plays a major role in shaping what only resembles public discourse. Staff shakeups at the White House occur with alarming frequency. Mass shootings schools and workplaces are no longer aberrations or one-offs. Meanwhile, the debate on immigration enflames the public. Immigrant children are separated from their parents. Opioids are the crisis du jour. Terrorism raises its ugly head on a global basis more often than we can imagine. Soccer teams are trapped in underground caves. Incumbent politicians are dropping like flies, sometimes even without the pending specter of election. Forest fires rage. Police are suspects. Movie moguls and TV stars run amok under suspicion of all manner of sordid behavior.

The world’s population balloons to 7.62 billion…and not all of them are our friends. [Time out to stop this litany of woes. Let’s look at the bright side].

The stock market, now almost completely electronic, is booming. The inflation rate has shrunk to 2.8 percent. The U.S. Unemployment Rate dropped to 3.8%, the lowest since 2000. People now carry powerful computers in their pockets. Choices of entertainment are virtually unlimited. News is available 24/7/365. Answers to most questions can be obtained with just one or two clicks—and the information can even sometimes be reliable. President Trump meets Kim Jong Un in Singapore, and the world relaxes somewhat, if only for a second.

Every generation now throws a hero up the pop charts. Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Shakira, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, Catherine Duchess of Cambridge—all are prominent in the present pop culture. In the world of culture, we numerous trends emerge and then sometime fade away equally fast:  lavender pastel shades, glittery boots, the color red, check prints on blazers and trousers, asymmetrical tops and breezy skirts, cartoon works of art emblazoned on dress wear, plaid prints on coats and blazers.

As you awaken after a long sleep, perhaps the best way to describe what you will see can be summarized by Charley Dickens in his Tale of Two Cities (not Las Vegas or Washington, DC):

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…

Of course, we hockey fans, especially of the Washington Capitals sort, might wish to describe our team is a slightly different manner.

Dateline: The Washington Capitals, June, 2018

As you open your eyes, a brand new world awaits. The curse is finished. The hockey gods are smiling. The long wait in hockey purgatory has mercifully ended.

Again, in 2017-18 the Caps find themselves in the Eastern Division of the Metropolitan Division. With the Caps are the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes, and New York Rangers. [Capitals finished first]

After a long delay we find ourselves at the gates of Nirvana—possibly the only place on earth where the Stanley Cup will not visit.Consider the following: overall record 49-26-7; home record 28-11-2; road record 21-15-5; Goals For 259 (9th of 31), and Goals Against 239 (15th of 31).

Ted Leonsis and his Monumental Sports and Entertainment owns the capitals. From about 2010 to present, much of what he has touched has indeed turned to gold. Look no further than Alex Ovechkin (87 points on the year), Evgeny Kutznetsov (83), Nicklas Backstrom (71), John Carlson (68); and T.J. Oshie (47)—not counting theirplayoff magnificence. Don’t forget Braden “the Save” Holtby while you’re at it.

And finally, despite most odds, perhaps not all odds, the Caps managed to bring back the overwhelming majority of the nucleus from the Stanley Cup winning team. This position them well to be highly competitive next season.

You woke up just in time.

For those who might be interested, below is a table comparing June 1974 to June 2018 for the Caps and the world. Enjoy it. Any mistakes are totally mine…unless I can find someone else to blame, of course. [click to enlarge]

By Jim McCarthy

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About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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