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It was funny. Last June 7, when Rod Langway went to Montreal's Place des Arts theater to accept the Norris Trophy as the NHL's outstanding defenseman, he wanted to say something nice. After all, he was about to take his place alongside some of the greatest players in history—Bobby Orr, Doug Harvey, Red Kelly. Furthermore, Langway, 26, would become the first American player to receive one of the NHL's postseason awards in 41 years, or since Goalie Frank Brimsek of the Boston Bruins earned the Vezina Trophy in 1942. Langway had risen to award-winning status in just one stunning season. On Sept. 10, 1982 Langway, Defenseman Brian Engblom and forwards Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin had been traded from the Montreal Canadiens to the Washington Capitals. In Montreal, Langway had been merely "promising"; in Washington he delivered. The occasion of the NHL Awards banquet called for him to say something, well, reflective. "I said that I wanted to thank David Poile [the Capitals' general manager] for wanting us all," Langway recalls. "And that I'd like to thank Mr. Grundman [Irving, Montreal's general manager] for accepting the trade. I meant it sincerely. You don't joke around when you're up there. But everybody started laughing, so I laughed too. The newspapers had a ball with that."
From the outset the trade seemed more like a penalty to the Canadiens than a shrewd deal; "accepting" it eventually cost Grundman his job. On the brighter side, though, it may have saved the Washington franchise from folding. Once Langway and his confreres came aboard, the Capitals became the NHL's most improved team, boosting their record from 26-41-13 in 1981-82 to 39-25-16 last season. Furthermore, Washington became the fifth-best defensive team in the league, allowing 55 fewer goals than it had the previous season, and made the playoffs for the first time in its nine-year history. With Langway aboard, and playing leader to young defensemen Scott Stevens, 19, who arguably contributed more to his team than any other NHL rookie a year ago, and Peter Andersson, 21, a Swedish import, who unfortunately will miss the first eight to 10 weeks of his rookie season because of a torn ligament in his left knee suffered in a preseason game, the Caps have laid the foundation for a legitimate, if uphill, run at the Stanley Cup.
"The bonus in that Montreal trade was an intangible," says Poile, at 34 the youngest G.M. in the NHL. "Langway became our leader on and off the ice. I don't know if he was a leader in Montreal, playing in the shadow of Larry Robinson and Guy Lafleur and the rest, but when he got here he saw the opportunity to put Rod Langway on the map. It was a critical year for us. Either we made the playoffs or, in all probability, the team would have gone sayonara."
During the summer of '82 the Washington franchise was in such disarray that a Save the Caps campaign was organized by fans in response to owner Abe Pollin's threat to shut it down. To keep the team alive, Pollin demanded: 1) a tax break from Prince Georges (Md.) County in which the Capital Centre, where the Caps play, is situated; 2) decreased rent; 3) season-ticket sales of at least 7,000, 3,000 more than in 1981-82; 4) sellouts for the first 10 games of the regular season. By and large, Pollin's demands were met. The final—unspoken—requirement was that the team qualify for one of the 16 playoff spots.
On Aug. 30 Poile was brought in from Calgary to replace Roger Crozier, the acting G.M., and 11 days later The Trade was made. To get the Montreal Four, the Capitals gave up their captain, Forward Ryan Walter, and Defenseman Rick Green, who had been with them six seasons. As training camp opened, the Caps were more of a caboodle than a club.
"We were a glorified expansion team," says Poile. "The coach [Bryan Murray] was in his first full season, the G.M. in his first 11 days. We had a dozen new players—from Europe, from Chicago, from Calgary, from Montreal. Everyone was nervous and unknowing. Then we won only two of our first nine games, and the fans started to murmur, 'Same old Caps.' But it was the Montreal influence that ultimately pulled us through."
Langway became team captain as the season opened, but all four erstwhile Canadiens contributed leadership. Murray remembers going into the dressing room after one early loss to find the ordinarily quiet Jarvis standing at his locker screaming to his teammates about the value of team play. Says Langway, "We'd lose 4-1, and the guy who scored the goal would be happy. Those of us who had come down from Montreal had never seen that before and it ticked us off. You play not to be scored on. It took a while to turn that attitude around."
But turn around it did, and quickly. Between Nov. 23 and Dec. 26, the Capitals went 14 games without a loss, bettering the old team record by seven. They passed the Islanders and Rangers in the Patrick Division standings, and just before Christmas they beat the Penguins, Flyers and Islanders, division rivals all, in three consecutive road games, allowing a total of three goals. They were doing it with defense, and they were doing it on the road, night in and night out, a sure sign of team character.
"Roddy felt his way through training camp," says Right Wing Bob Gould, who had played with Langway at the University of New Hampshire. "And I remember everybody kind of waiting for him to take charge."
Langway is not a flashy talent. He doesn't anchor Washington's power play or make electrifying end-to-end rushes in the manner of most recent Norris Trophy winners like Chicago's Doug Wilson, Robinson, the Islander's Denis Potvin or, of course, Orr. Rather, Langway is a fundamentally superb defenseman who expends nearly all his energy stopping the other team from scoring. The 32 points he tallied last season for the Capitals represented the lowest total for a Norris winner since Montreal's Jacques Laperriere, another tall, rangy, stylish defenseman, scored but 31 in 1965-66. Langway is a throwback to that pre-Orr era.