The Washington Capitals have had a total of 14 captains in their 46-year history in the NHL, with notable names such as Yvon Labre, Rod Langway, Dale Hunter, and Alex Ovechkin among them. While he may not have been as big a name as the ones listed before, Ryan Walter was vital in the change of fortunes of the Capitals. In this latest Capitals Alumni Profile, NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle takes a look back at the Capitals career of the Caps’ fifth captain. (You can check out all of our alumni profiles on our “History” page.
Early Life and Career
Ryan Walter was born on April 23, 1958, in New Westminster, British Columbia, but grew up in Burnaby, British Columbia. As a 13-year old, he played in the 1971 Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament with a minor ice hockey team from Burnaby. In 1973-74 and 1974-75, he played primarily with the Langley Lords of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League (BCJHL) and was a prolific goal scorer with them, also playing in a few games with the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL). In his brief time with the Blazers at the end of the 1974-75 season, he scored eight goals and recorded four assists in just nine games. He also played in two playoff games, with one goal and one assist.
In 1975-76 and 1976-77, he played with the Kamloops Blazers full-time and was an extremely prolific scorer, scoring 35 goals with 49 assists in 1975-76, and 41 goals and 58 assists in 1976-77; additionally, he was a prolific producer for them in the playoffs. The Kamloops Blazers moved to Seattle before the 1977-77 season and became the Seattle Breakers. Walter had an even better season for the Breakers, as he scored 54 goals and had 71 assists in 62 games. Unfortunately, the Breakers missed the playoffs entirely, however Walter did earn first All-Star team honors and also represented Canada in the International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championships during the 1977-78 season, serving as the Captain for Team Canada. He played six games in that tournament, scoring five goals with three assists as he helped Team Canada win the Bronze Medal. The Breakerss traded him to the Calgary Wranglers before the 1978-79 season, with whom he appeared in just two games.
In 1978, he was drafted by the Washington Capitals with the second overall pick and started his professional playing career that fall. The Capitals’ chief scout, Red Sullivan, raved about him, calling him “the type of hockey player with the leadership qualities [the Capitals] were looking for”.
Washington Capitals Career
Like Rick Green, the defenseman the Caps picked first overall in the 1977 draft, Walter signed a multi-year contract with the Capitals soon after being drafted. Due to a knee injury and the necessary rehabilitation time, he did not make his debut with the team until October 25, in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago. Despite his late start, he became a fan favorite almost immediately. In his first season with the Capitals, Walter scored 28 goals and had 27 assists for 55 points in 69 games, which ranked fifth in team scoring. He was named the Capitals’ Rookie of the Year for 1978-79 and was second in the voting for the Calder Trophy, given to the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.
His first season with the Caps impressed team management so much that he was appointed the team’s Captain prior to his second season with the team. At the time he was appointed Captain at age 21, he was the youngest team Captain in NHL history. In 1979-80, he scored 24 goals with 42 assists for 66 points; becoming the team’s top goal scorer for the first half of the season and ultimately second on the team in points, just two behind Mike Gartner. In 1980-81, he had a similar season in which he scored 24 goals and had 45 assists for 69 points, and was third on the team in goals and points, after Dennis Maruk and Gartner.
Walter’s play was soon recognized around the league. Bobby Clarke of the Philadelphia Flyers, who later became the team’s General Manager, said, “When you play against Ryan Walter, you know you’re in for a night’s work.”
Walter had his best year with the Capitals in 1981-82 when he scored 38 goals and had 49 assists for 87 points. That season he finished second in goals, behind Maruk, who had 60, in a year in which four Capitals players topped 30 goals (Walter, Gartner, Bobby Carpenter, and Chris Valentine). Despite all the firepower in the lineup, the Capitals still finished in last place in the Patrick Division with a 26-41-13 record and 66 points, the sixth time they had finished in last place in the Patrick Division in their eight years of existence. With the team having poor attendance and financial losses mounting, then-Owner Abe Pollin considered the possibility of either moving the team elsewhere or folding it.
On September 11, 1982, the Caps traded Walter and defenseman Rick Green to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for defensemen Rod Langway and Brian Engblom, center Doug Jarvis and forward Craig Laughlin. Both Langway and Engblom were defensive All-Stars.
Then-Capitals General Manager David Poile said afterwards at a news conference, “This trade makes the Capitals competitive. We’ve added four quality players. For the first time in Capitals history, we have a defense.” He also admitted, “…we’ll be missing some goals, but we have added defensive specialists, and the Caps can be a defensive club.”
Walter closed out his tenure with the Capitals having played 307 games, scored 114 goals, recorded 163 assists, and 277 points overall, and 468 penalty minutes. At the time of writing, he ranks 24th in career goals, 30th in career assists, and 28th in points on the Capitals’ All-Time lists. The trade ultimately proved to be the most important in the team’s history.
Post-Capitals Playing Career
Walter’s first season with the Montreal Canadiens in 1982-83 was another excellent season in which he scored 28 goals with 27 assists for 75 points. He experienced the playoffs for the first time in his career with the Canadiens, although the Habs were eliminated in three games in the first round. Ironically enough, his old team, the Capitals made the playoffs for the first time in their existence that same season. However, he did not reach the same heights in goal scoring in the subsequent season. He topped 20 goals only two more times, once in 1983-84 (in which he scored 20) and in 1986-87 (during which he had 23). He topped 30 assists once more, when he recorded 34 assists in 1985-86. The Canadiens consistently made the playoffs during his nine-year tenure with the team.
Walter had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup for the 1986 Stanley Cup champion Canadiens, who won the Stanley Cup despite an injury to Walter that kept him out of much of the playoff run. However, he scored the game-winning goal during the second overtime period to give Montreal a 2-1 win against the Calgary Flames in a series that resulted in the Flames winning the Cup. The 1990-91 season was his last with Montreal, and one in which he played only 25 games. After that, he signed with the Vancouver Canucks as a free agent. In 604 games played with Montreal, Walter scored 141 goals, recorded 208 assists, and a total of 349 points. Additionally, he played in 100 playoff games, scoring 16 goals and recording 32 assists for 48 points.
Walter eventually played in 67 games with Vancouver in 1991-92 and scored six goals and 11 assists, with 13 playoff games. That season, he also won the Budweiser NHL Man of the Year Award and served as Vice President of the NHL Players’ Association. He played in just 25 games for the Canucks in 1992-93, scoring three goals with no assists, a season that marked the end of his playing career. For his NHL career, he played in 1,003 games, scoring 264 goals, recording 381 assists, and 645 points; additionally, he recorded 916 Penalty Minutes.
Upon retiring from the NHL, Walter became the secondary hockey color commentator for The Sporting News (TSN). In that role, he worked on NHL, Canadian Hockey League, and IIHF broadcasts, which included working five Memorial Cups, one World Junior Hockey Championship, and four World Hockey Championships; he served in this role from 1993-94 through 1997-98. From 1996-97 through 2001-02, he was the color analyst for Vancouver Canucks television broadcasts on BCTV, Rogers Sportsnet and VTV.
Walter was appointed an Assistant Coach for the Canucks under Alain Vigneault on June 17, 2008 but was relieved of his duties after the 2009-10 season. On September 21, 2010, Walter was named Head Coach of Canada’s Women’s hockey team which won the gold medal at the 2010 Four Nations Cup. From 2011-2014, he served as President of the Abbotsford Heat, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Calgary Flames.
He has also been a motivational speaker and author, using his experiences in hockey to relate to business and success. He made a cameo appearance in the movie “Miracle on Ice” playing the part of a referee in the game between the USA and Russia. In fact, Disney had hired him as the hockey expert for that movie. He was also a hockey expert for the Nike commercial “Making the Cut” for both seasons. His website for leadership can be found here.
He and his wife had three sons, all who played hockey. His eldest son, Ben, was drafted by the Boston Bruins and played in 24 NHL games. His son, Joey, played with the Langley Chiefs of the BCHL. His other son, Ryan Jr. played with the TWU Titans for two years and club hockey for Liberty University.
By Diane Doyle
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