On Sept. 10, two days before the NHL training camps opened, All-Star Defenseman Brian Engblom got word that the Montreal Canadiens had traded him to the Washington Gaping-holes (a.k.a. the Capitals), a financially troubled team that in its eight-year history had never made the playoffs, a feat as mathematically improbable as Halley's Comet landing in league President John Ziegler's bathtub. "I was shocked," says Engblom, 27, who was coming off his best season, during which he had led NHL defensemen in plus-minus ratings (+78). "I wasn't even one of those complaining to get out of Montreal."
Included in the deal were Engblom's defense partner, Rod Langway, 25, who had said he wouldn't play another season in Montreal because the Canadian and Quebec tax laws and the country's depressed dollar were making mincemeat of his take-home pay; Doug Jarvis, a peerless defensive center; and Wing Craig Laughlin. Langway was second to Engblom in the plus-minus statistics for defensemen (+66) in 1981-82, and the two of them were acclaimed as the best defensive pair in the NHL. Washington had acquired Instant D.
In return, the Canadiens got Ryan Walter, 24, a hard-nosed left wing who was the Caps' second-leading scorer (38 goals, 49 assists) last year and the Washington fans' most popular player to boot. Montreal hoped that Walter would rejuvenate a fading Guy Lafleur. The Canadiens also received 6'3", 207-pound Defenseman Rick Green, the first pick in the 1976 draft, who had labored in anonymity in Washington. Still, the feeling around the league was that Montreal's managing director, Irving Grundman, had had his pocket picked.
"Langway wanted out and the Canadiens were deep at center, so I sensed that my time was running out," says Jarvis, who had played 560 consecutive games for the Canadiens and had been on four Stanley Cup-winning Montreal clubs. "But I couldn't believe Brian was included in the deal. He'd been the team's steadiest defenseman the past couple of years."
The outcry from certain members of the Montreal press corps over Engblom's departure was so strong that Engblom recently said, "They're talking more about me now than when I played there. It's like when a great painter dies—suddenly his works are worth a whole lot more."
Thus there was more than the usual amount of interest last week when the Canadiens and the Capitals—no longer the Gapingholes—played to a 3-3 tie in their opening meeting of the season, at the Capital Centre. It wasn't exactly the seventh game of the World Series, but the game did have its moments, especially for those players performing against their former teammates. Walter scored for the Canadiens, to the delight of his still-loyal fans, while Langway and Laughlin each had a goal for the Capitals. Green, who holds the record for most games played in a Capitals' uniform (377), stepped into the wrong penalty box when he was called for interference in the second period. As for Engblom, he seemed relieved to have survived the game without handing the puck to one of the Canadiens. "I had a sick feeling in my stomach all day that I'd pass to a familiar face out there," he said.
There wasn't much chance Walter or Green would make that mistake because the Capitals have mostly new faces. Of the players who began last season with Washington, only forwards Dennis Maruk, Bobby Carpenter, Mike Gartner and Bengt Gustafsson remain. Among the newcomers is Milan Novy, 31, one of the most renowned names in Czechoslovakian hockey. It will be some time before Novy, a center, is comfortable with the North American game and life-style—he speaks virtually no English—though he has already shown flashes of brilliance both on the ice and off. Asked by a TV newsman for an interview, Novy replied, "No speakay Washington."
"All I'm trying to do now is buy time," says Caps General Manager David Poile, a new face himself and the man who put together the trade with Montreal. At 33, Poile is the youngest G.M. in NHL history. "But we've got so many new people, we're not playing as a team."
To give Washington improved defense on two of its three shifts, Poile and Coach Bryan Murray have split up Lang-way and Engblom, a move that—temporarily anyway—seems to have reduced the effectiveness of each. "It takes half a second longer to adjust to a new partner," says Langway, who has played much of the season with 22-year-old Darren Veitch. "Sometimes you make a play that, if Brian were there, would be the right one, but instead you look bad. They want us to help out with the younger players."
Engblom usually has been paired with Scott Stevens, 18, the youngest player in the league. But the biggest change for the new arrivals from the Canadiens may be adjusting to a city in which hockey ranks somewhere between marbles and the milk lobby in local interest. Says Jarvis, "In Montreal all you heard about was hockey. Whether I was burned by the money issue or not, I always figured it was a privilege to play there. In Washington, where hockey's not Number One, motivation can be a problem."