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"He recognizes what he does best," says Murray. "He doesn't gamble. He plays very safe. He'll go back and make the pass to the same winger time after time if the guy's open, and he's so strong that even when he's being leaned on he can get the puck to his man. He never gets in trouble in his own end."
Eventually the Capitals were edged out of second place by the resurgent Islanders, who then eliminated the Caps three games to one in the opening round of the playoffs. Langway and Engblom played heroically on defense—riddled by injuries, the Capitals had to rely on just three blueliners in the series—but the Isles' depth and the impotence of the Capitals' power play (1 for 23) ultimately settled the matter. Still, it had been a remarkable year for hockey in Washington. "Basically, we had been hoping we could edge out Pittsburgh for a playoff spot," admits Murray, whose team ended up 49 points ahead of the Penguins. "I just didn't anticipate getting the quality of play and leadership that Langway gave us all season."
Says Poile: "It wasn't the Montreal 'tradition' at work. It was Rod Langway. How can you not win when your best players are also your hardest workers? The other guys see that and wonder, 'How can we not try?' "
If Rod Langway were from, say, Petrolia, Ontario, his story would be less interesting than it is. In fact, he's from Randolph, Mass., a community some ten miles south of Boston. Today, Langway and Cap teammate Bobby Carpenter, the 20-year-old forward from Beverly, Mass., 18 miles north of Boston, who has scored 64 goals in his two NHL seasons—are at the forefront of the first wave of U.S. players making an impact on the NHL
What is particularly impressive about Langway is that he didn't even learn to skate until he was 12. "I always thought I was going to play football," he says. Then, in 1970, the Boston Bruins, with Orr setting new standards for defensemen, won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 29 years.
"When you watched TV, it was Bobby this and Bobby that," says Langway. At home my parents were talking about it. My older brother would brag about sneaking into games. So I started to play on the tennis courts at the junior high school near our home, which they flooded to make ice. I'd stay out all day, come home for dinner, then go back again until nine o'clock."
Langway is the third of seven children. His father was a Navy man—Rod was born in Taiwan—who served 21 years before settling in Randolph when Rod was five years old. No one else in the Langway family had ever played hockey, so Rod learned about the mysteries of offsides and icing by watching Peter Puck on NBC's Sunday afternoon Game of the Week, EMMY-WINNING PETER PUCK, CARTOON CHARACTER, TEACHES GAME TO FUTURE NORRIS WINNER! It's a fairly radical departure in a sport in which the traditional heroes started skating just about the time they made their first burp.
At Randolph High, Langway captained both the hockey and football teams as a junior and added the captaincy of the baseball team—he was a .400-hitting catcher-pitcher—his senior year. Randolph's hockey team went 72-7-1 during the Langway years, but colleges were more interested in him for football. "He threw 22 touchdown passes his senior year in high school," says Dave O'Connor, an assistant coach for both football and hockey at New Hampshire. "Then on defense they'd throw him in as middle linebacker." Langway's size—he's 6'3", 215 pounds—attracted recruiters from Michigan State and Iowa State, but he finally decided on New Hampshire, where he would also be allowed to play hockey.
As a sophomore at UNH, Langway started at outside linebacker, and the team made it to the NCAA Division II playoffs, where it lost to Montana State. Three days later, Langway skated a regular shift in a hockey victory over Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "It wasn't much of a transition for him," says teammate Gould. "We'd been practicing three weeks, and after two days he'd caught up to the rest of us."
The 1976-77 UNH hockey team was ranked in the top five in the nation most of the season, and six of its players eventually made it to the NHL (Bob Miller, Dave Lumley, Bruce Crowder, Gary Burns, Langway and Gould). But in the Eastern NCAA semifinals at Boston Garden, the Wildcats fell behind Cornell 9-7. "There we were in the Garden, allowing nine goals in front of all these scouts and the people from my hometown," Langway says. "I don't remember what I said or did, but I more or less snapped."