With the World Hockey Association spreading into markets throughout North America in the early 1970s, the National Hockey League needed to combat the rival league – even if it meant expanding at a dangerous rate and watering down the amount of talent playing at the highest pro level at the time. Enter the 1974-75 Washington Capitals – a club whose auspicious start ranks as the worst in league history.
Awarded a franchise by the NHL on July 8, 1972, the Washington Capitals would have nearly two years to get their house in order before having to select their first players during the 1974 expansion and amateur drafts. The Caps would enter the league alongside the Kansas City Scouts. Despite a strong scout in former Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers coach George “Red” Sullivan and an excellent General Manager in the form of Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt, the Capitals still faced a monumental challenge heading into their first season.
The reason for this stems from the fact that the pool of talent available to them was thin since the WHA had raided many every NHL club and lured away a strong mix of stars, role players, and young prospects. Splitting the castoffs of the established player ranks with the Scouts did not bode well for either club, but there were still some decent players that ended up playing in the Capital Center.
Limited Draft Prospects
The Washington Capitals started the expansion draft by selecting a pair of promising young goaltenders in Ron Low and Michel Belhumeur. The other 22 players included fairly young names on the edge of becoming regular NHL players. The best of the bunch were defender Yvon Labre and left winger Denis Dupere along with two-time 20-goal man Jack Egers.
When it came to the 1974 NHL Amateur Draft, it was a bit of a swing-and-a-miss for the Capitals. Even with the first overall pick, they decided to select a young defender named Greg Joly, whose esteem had recently risen thanks to a strong performance with the Regina Pats at the 1974 Memorial Cup. Even before the draft, he had not been rated so high, so the selection came as a bit of a surprise considering that other first rounders that year included Wilf Paiement, Clark Gillies, and Pierre Larouche – all of whom could have been amazing picks for Washington.
The Season From Hell Begins
Heading into their first NHL game wearing white pants that were quickly abandoned, they faced the New York Rangers on October 9, 1974 and Jim Hrycuik, who never had a hockey card, scored the team’s first goal. They lost the game and did not register a victory until defeating the Chicago Blackhawks eight days later on home ice.
The wins were truly scarce all season long and did not earn another until November 19 when the California Golden Seals paid a visit. The next two months only resulted in wins over Toronto and Detroit, but they bucked that trend in February, 1975 with triumphs over the Rangers and the Scouts – the latter being the first shutout in franchise history.
Following that win over their expansion cousins, the Washington Capitals lost 16 straight which included humiliating defeats at the hands of Chicago (10-3), the Boston Bruins (8-0 and 8-2), and Pittsburgh Penguins (12-1).
One Road Victory
Winless on the road until getting a well-fought 5-3 win over the Golden Seals on March 28, the team celebrated in a fitting fashion – by hoisting a garbage can aloft and passing it around like it was the Stanley Cup. Their last road game was a 10-2 shelling at the hands of the Canadiens, but they finished up at home by beating the Penguins. All told, their record was a dismal 8-67-5 and set a futility record for an expansion team. Former Boston Bruins player Tommy Williams led the club in scoring with a paltry 22 goals and 36 assists for 58 points.
Moving forward, the Capitals took a long time to become a contender. They had actually surrendered the first overall pick in 1975 in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers for Bill Clement, losing out on Mel Bridgman. The slow build saw the team come close to contending in the early 1980s before finally making the playoffs in 1982-83. However, they were very close to leaving Washington before that. In 1998, the team made it to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time and 20 years later, they finally got to lift that silver mug thanks to players like Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby, and Nicklas Backstrom.
Capital Cardboard Debut
Hockey card collectors on both sides of the border were able to get a look at the Capitals during their first season. The 1974-75 O-Pee-Chee and Topps sets include a Team Logo which listed the picks from the expansion draft, but the players found in both sets (cards 1-264) utilize headshots in their previous jerseys. The cards exclusive to the O-Pee-Chee set have the players in their Capitals uniforms since they were likely taken in training camp and the O-Pee-Chee set was released later than the Topps product. The team sets are relatively easy to finish as all of the cards are essentially commons and they definitely have historical value – especially for fans of the team.
Additionally, there are also 1974-75 NHL Action Stamps depicting several members of the team that were meant to be pasted inside of a special album.
Let’s take a look back at some of the original Washington Capitals – who deserve purple hearts for enduring one of the worst seasons in NHL history:
It may be possible that no skater on the original Washington Capitals suffered more than Mikkelson did in 1974-75. Having endured a rough year with the debuting New York Islanders two years earlier, he set a record for the worst plus-minus rating in NHL history with a -82 rating. However, it should be noted that he was often up against the opposing team’s top line.
While some may joke about this dubious standard he set, Mikkelson remains positive 45 years later and is proud of his NHL experience. His son, Brendan, played in the NHL and his daughter, Meaghan, twice won gold with Canada at the Winter Olympics.
As a rookie with Maple Leafs in 1972-73, Low fell under the tutelage of Jacques Plante, but he was sent to the minors the next year. The Capitals got their hands on him in the expansion draft and he appeared in 60 percent of the team’s games in 1974-75. He was in net for all eight victories, but had the most losses (36) and goals against (235) in the league.
Low remained with the Capitals for a total of three seasons. He later played with Detroit, Quebec, Edmonton, and New Jersey before moving into coaching.
A second round pick in 1971, Kryskow cracked the lineup for a Chicago Blackhawks club that went to the Stanley Cup Final in 1973. He spent most of the following campaign in the Windy City and recorded 19 points, prompting the Capitals to make him the first skater they selected in the expansion draft.
Kryskow did not last a full season in Washington, however, as he was traded to Detroit for Jack Lynch on February 8, 1975. The deal did not do much to help the Capitals, though, as Lynch went a mind-boggling -54 over just 20 games – a per-game rate that was much worse than that of Mikkelson.
Egers is best-remembered for his two strong seasons with St. Louis, but he was traded back to the Rangers during the 1973-74 campaign. Going back to the Big Apple was not a positive move due to a knee injury and he became expendable heading into the 1974 NHL Expansion Draft.
With a relatively decent start in Washington, things were starting to look up for Egers with three goals in his first 14 games – including back-to-back goals against Montreal and the Atlanta Flames. However, that momentum came to an abrupt end on November 13, 1974 as he sustained a back injury while facing Atlanta that effectively ended his career. His tried to make a comeback in 1975-76, but it was short-lived.
A nice surprise early on for the Capitals, Dupere was a young talent on the rise for the Maple Leafs in the early 1970s. After missing over half of the 1973-74 season, he suddenly became expendable and was scooped up by Washington. Over the first 50 or so games, he had hit the 20-goal mark for the first time and also served as the team’s lone representative at the 1975 NHL All-Star Game.
With opportunity to pick up Stan Gilbertson and Garnet “Ace” Bailey from the St. Louis Blues, the Capitals traded Dupere away on February 10, 1975.
The first coach for the Washington Capitals, Anderson was a minor league standout in the 1960s, but only played a handful of games for the first-year Los Angeles Kings in 1967-68. He got his first coaching experience with the AHL’s Springfield Kings and found himself in the unenviable role of piloting the Capitals during their first season. He lasted just 54 games, going 4-45-4 before being let go. He was replaced by scout Red Sullivan – who did not fare much better by winning twice in 18 games. The last eight contests saw Schmidt take over and the end result was a 2-6-0 run to bring a merciful end to the season.
Morrison was never a big point producer, but he did prove to be a steady NHL performer for much of the 1970s. He had debuted as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers, but did not last with the team into the Broad Street Bullies era. An original member of the Atlanta Flames, he was drafted by the Capitals and only managed to get into 18 games and chipped in four assists before being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Ron Lalonde on December 14, 1974.
Lalonde fared better than most during Washington’s expansion year with 26 points over 50 games and remained on the roster until playing his final NHL game in 1978-79.
Belhumeur had arguably one of the most frustrating seasons ever for a goalie in 1974-75. After a respectable rookie season with Philadelphia two years earlier, he was sent to the minors for 1973-74 after the return of Bernie Parent from the WHA.
Getting a chance at a regular NHL job with the first-year Caps, he did not earn a single win and went 0-24-3 over 35 appearances. His goals-against average was a shocking 5.37. Granted, he did not have a lot of support in front of him. He went winless during seven games the next season and was back in the minors again. The Atlanta Flames signed him as a free agent in October, 1976 – but he was never to appear in another big league contest.
Laframboise had a great freshman season with the California Golden Seals in 1972-73, but his production dropped from 41 points as a rookie to just 14 as a sophomore. Expendable heading into the expansion draft, the Washington Capitals took a chance in the hope that he would bounce back.
The bounce was more of a quick hop as his production saw a slight up-tick in the nation’s capital. He delivered 15 points over 45 contests, but he was part of another trade with Pittsburgh on January 21, 1975 for Ron Jones. He spent 1975-76 with Washington’s farm team, the Hershey Bears before moving over to the WHA.
A veteran of 21 NHL seasons when the Capitals purchased him from the Atlanta Flames, Mohns gave Washington some much-needed leadership in their first year. A great performer up front or on the blue line, he was named team captain during the 1974-75 campaign following a players-only meeting.
While he put up his best totals since 1971-72, opposing forwards tore past him and his teammates enough for him to finish the year with a -54 rating. This season proved to be his last in the NHL, but he did often provide help to Greg Joly as he adjusted to pro hockey. In retirement, he was active with charities and passed away in 2014.
Atkinson was a role player for the Buffalo Sabres over their first four seasons in the NHL and hit double-digits in goals for the third, and final, time of his career in 1974-75. He did sustain a strange injury in training camp, though, as he choked on a piece of steak and missed a game. Luckily, he was back in the lineup soon after! He tied for the team lead with two shorthanded goals alongside Tommy Williams and Bill Lesuk.
Not wanting to repeat another crazy year in Washington, he jumped to the WHA’s Toronto Toros and closed out his hockey career at the senior level with the Brantford Alexanders.
A Newfoundland native, Lundrigan saw action with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1972-73, but was not in their lineup the next year. Picked up in the expansion draft, his card in the 1974-75 O-Pee-Chee set was the first chronologically to show a Capitals player in uniform.
By the time this card was being pulled from packs, Lundrigan was down in the AHL. He lasted just three games with Washington. The first was the season opener against the Rangers and he skated in battles with Minnesota on October 12 and the Islanders on October 20. These were the last outings of his NHL career.
As mentioned above, Joly was the top pick in the 1974 NHL Amateur Draft. While the selection has often been criticized, it should be stated that he was brought in to a tough situation. Injuries shortened his first pro season to just 44 games and while he scored a power play goal and chipped in seven assists, his plus-minus was a dismal -69.
Joly lasted just two seasons with the Capitals before he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings. He struggled to find stability there as well, only coming close to playing a full season once and never scoring more than 20 points. The Capitals did get some toughness for him, though, in the form of Bryan Watson.
Other picks by Washington in their first amateur draft included 24 other names. Only five of those players made it to the NHL, including future big league coach John Paddock and Mike Marson, who was the first African-Canadian player to be drafted by an NHL team. He cracked the Capitals lineup in their first season and made his cardboard debut in the 1975-76 O-Pee-Chee and Topps sets. The Capitals also drafted Johnny Bower, Jr. that year, but he never played an NHL game.
Not to be confused with the other two players with the same name to skate in the NHL or WHA, Anderson was plucked off the roster of the Boston Bruins during the 1974 NHL Expansion Draft. His time with the Washington Capitals was brief, but he did manage to get on a hockey card.
His totals were quite decent in 1974-75 with nine goals and seven assists over 28 games. He had been puzzlingly sent down to the minors in mid-November and returned to the lineup in late February. He closed the season with a five-game point streak, but that was his last NHL action. He missed the majority of the next year with a knee injury and never made it back.
Labre shuffled between the Penguins and the minors over his first few pro seasons and his career was given new life when the Capitals chose him in the expansion draft. This was his second hockey card as he had previously appeared in the 1973-74 O-Pee-Chee collection.
He gave the team some much needed offense from the back end and an element of toughness that was in even more demand. He remained with the Capitals for seven seasons and spent time as their captain. His number, 7, was the first to be retired in franchise history.
A former first round choice by Boston, Bloom was unable to earn a spot with the Bruins in the early 1970s. After a strong season with the WHL’s San Diego Gulls in 1973-74, the Capitals got him in the expansion draft and hoped that he might turn into a solid NHL talent. The folks at O-Pee-Chee agreed and put him in their massive 396-card set – a record size for a hockey card collection at that time.
Those hopes were given up on rather quickly as he only racked up 26 points over 67 games before he was traded away to Detroit for Blair Stewart. His time with the Red Wings was brief, and his last NHL appearance came in 1976-77.
Even before playing in a regular season game, Cowick got his name carved into the Stanley Cup as he skated in eight games with the Philadelphia Flyers during their successful playoff run in 1974. The Capitals figured that they might as well bring in someone who had some experience playing in big games and snagged Cowick in the expansion draft.
In 65 games with Washington, he proved that he was certainly worthy of being part of the 1974-75 O-Pee-Chee set – even with just 11 points to his credit. His time with the team was ultimately brief, though, as the St. Louis Blues claimed him off waivers once the season ended.
You can see O-Pee-Chee and Topps Capitals cards from 1974-75 on eBay by clicking here.