Once Upon a Time in the West

Posted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel

At the outset of the 1974-75 season, the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts began play in the NHL, pushing the league’s rolls to 18 teams and representing a growth rate of 300 percent in less than a decade. Predictably, both of the new clubs struggled mightily out of the gates; the Caps won just 19 of the 160 games they played in their first two seasons while the Scouts won 27 contests during the same span. The ’74-75 Caps remain the worst team in NHL history. Their 8-67-5 record and 1-39 road mark are virtually certain to stand the tests of time as the most futile in league history. The Scouts were barely better, and only at the beginning. Most folks forget that Kansas City finished up the 1975-76 season with just one win (1-35-8) in its final 44 games. Naturally, that one win came at Washington’s expense. The Scouts drubbed the Caps 5-1 in K.C. on Feb. 7, 1976. The Scouts stank, and fans stayed away. Kansas City owner Ed Thompson had to take out a loan for $300,000 late in the ’75-76 season just to meet his club’s payroll and finish out the schedule. Perhaps it was punishment, and perhaps it was reward. Maybe it was a bit of both. But the Caps and the Scouts were chosen to represent the NHL in a series of exhibition games immediately upon the conclusion of the 1975-76 season, the second campaign in the league for both teams. [/caption] From April 14-18, 1976 the Capitals and the Scouts competed against one another in a four-game tournament in Tokyo and Sapporo, Japan. The winner would receive the not-so-prestigious Coca-Cola Bottlers’ Cup. (The Coca-Cola Bottlers of Japan coughed up roughly 75 percent of the tournament’s $400,000 cost.) The first two games were on back-to-back nights (April 14-15) in Sapporo – at the 5,500-seat venue constructed for the 1972 Winter Olympics – and the next two were on back-to-back nights in Tokyo (April 17-18). The pairs of games were sandwiched around an off-day. Prior to and after the conclusion of the tournament, the players and their wives were treated to an all-expenses-paid tour of Hawaii. When the players and their wives landed in Japan, they were greeted by a sign that read: “Welcome great great fighters and sweet ladies.” Hard-boiled Caps coach Tommy McVie made it clear before departure that he wasn’t treating the series like an exhibition set. “We are going to play as if they were league games,” McVie told J. Russell White in the Tuesday, March 23, 1976 edition of The Washington Star. “I’m not going to throw away everything I’ve done and begin taking a half-hearted approach to this game. “Maybe this sounds absurd. But I want – and I even expect – four victories over there.” According to The Washington Post’s John Saar (April 14, 1976), the players were treated like royalty by a group of people who expected to see “Slapshot” enacted on the ice a year before that noted hockey film’s theatrical release.

The players have cut glamorous piratical images in Japan and their dismal playing records have been lost in the fanfare. Intense newspaper and television coverage has portrayed them as a band of American gladiators and Canadian mercenaries out to shock the Japanese with the blood and carnage of their profession.
Washington took the Sapporo opener by a 5-2 count on April 14. Bob Sirois led the way for the Capitals with two goals and an assist. Tony White and Mike Marson also scored for the Caps, supporting the efforts of goaltender Bernie Wolfe. Immediately after the win in the inaugural game, each member of the winning Washington team was presented with a pearl necklace. Saar claimed that the crowd was underwhelmed by the first NHL game played in Japan.
The first game in the NHL exhibition series the two teams are playing in Japan was an unexceptional, scrambling encounter. It was played in an ice-cold arena before a less-than-capacity crowd of 4,500 that showed a lukewarm reaction. Many Japanese spectators were disappointed by the absence of blood or brawls. Players squared off on two occasions but the gloves never looked like coming off. The fans occupied themselves with sake and noodle soup while waiting for war to break out, and Caps’ coach Tom McVie, for one, found the quiet unnerving. “I miss those Washington supporters,” he said. Keisuke Atarashi, 47, was a typically disappointed fan: “I expected more fighting and blood,” he said.
There were another 4,500 Japanese spectators on hand for the second game in Sapporo, and the Caps skated off with a convincing 6-2 win in that contest. This time, the fans got what they wanted. Or did they? The Post’s headline (April 16, 1976) read, “Caps Win, 6-2, as Fists Fly.” A portion of Saar’s account of the second game read as follows:
The shouts and swinging fists of a third-period fascinated and mystified the fans. “We are not accustomed to seeing the foreigners fighting in public,” said a woman, explaining the hush that fell over the arena.
[/caption] Washington broke the game open late with two power play goals in a span of 42 seconds to improve its one-goal lead to a 5-2 cushion. Bob Sirois and Mike Lampman scored those extra-man tallies. Tony White tallied earlier in the game and Jean Lemieux scored the final Washington goal of the night to make a winner of Caps goaltender Ron Low. Down 2-0 in the tournament with two games to go, the Scouts kept a stiff upper lip. “We have 24 hours to rest our aches and pains and we haven’t started to fight yet,” said Scouts winger Gary Croteau. “We’re going to win that third game in Tokyo.” For winning the second game of the tournament, each Capitals player was awarded a cassette tape recorder. Kansas City coach Eddie Bush was pained at his team’s loss in the second game. “The only thing is though,” he began, “we did want those cassette recorders. What’s the next prize?” Poor Eddie. He finished his NHL coaching career with a 1-23-8 record. Croteau’s Joe Namath-like proclamation did not come to fruition. The Caps rolled to another 6-2 win in the first Tokyo game to clinch the Coca-Cola Bottlers’ Cup. Kansas City finale won the series finale, taking a 4-2 win. By McVie’s own reckoning, his charges had won 10 of the 12 periods in the four games and had earned the week in Hawaii that followed. Nearly 10,000 fans witnessed each of the games played at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium. That Tokyo triumph proved to be the last ever for the Scouts; it was also the last time the Kansas City jersey was worn by a team anywhere. After finishing the ’75-76 regular season on a dismal 0-21-6 skid, the Scouts won that final exhibition against Washington in Japan. Just over four months later, they were moved to Denver where they became the Colorado Rockies for the 1976-77 season.

next up:

Nineteen Years in Five Minutes

January 14, 2013

Since learning he was chosen for induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame last summer, Caps coach Adam Oates has had a lot on his mind. He was named Washington’s bench boss that very same day, and for the last few months his head has been filled with thoughts of line combinations, power play alignments

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