- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 16, 2002

It started out as nothing more than a Washington Capitals players-only team dinner, the annual rookies' dinner at a steakhouse in Denver. Once the roasting and toasting was done, the conversation turned to hockey, as it usually does.

There was no chairman for the night, no agenda but the topic dictated by the standings in the morning paper. The Caps one of the most talented and expensive teams in the league, one that had been tabbed by many to compete for the Stanley Cup had a record of 27-31-10-1. It was March 17, and the season was slipping away.

"There was a lot of frustration from everybody," a player acknowledged yesterday. "We knew we were better than this, but the only thing we could do on a consistent basis was not win. We couldn't beat Atlanta night-to-night. We were losing, but there were no changes [from above]. We decided there that we would do something about it ourselves."

Before the dessert dishes were picked up that long night, there was a new game plan in operation, one in which the players decided to play the rest of the season for themselves to try to rescue a campaign that seemed headed for disaster.

They came awfully close. The Caps missed postseason by two points one win or two ties or a tie and an overtime loss, anything. They played .750 hockey down their self-imposed stretch going 8-2-1-1 and picking up 18 of 24 points.

A dozen Caps confirmed the basis of this article yesterday. All were guaranteed anonymity; 11 provided details, and a 12th refused.

Two key questions emerged. One, why wasn't a desperate situation recognized for what it was far earlier than March 17? And two, how much of a factor was trading Adam Oates, which took place two days later?

Most of those players agreed the former was a good question but offered no informative answer. Was it, perhaps, the subliminal belief that there was plenty of time to bail themselves out of an embarrassing situation? No one disputed that.

"I tried to get a meeting about that before New Year's," one player said. "You could see trouble ahead, but some of the guys said that was too early. I couldn't get anybody to agree. The question I wanted to ask was why it took us three months every year to figure out something was wrong? By the time we had the rookie thing it was six months. If we had done it earlier, who knows? A lot of guys expected to make [the playoffs] no matter what, we had such a good team."

Said another: "We had plenty of meetings this season; it was a tough year. The rookie dinner started out as just that, nothing more. But guys get together, and what else were we going to talk about? We had already been playing well for a while, from the All-Star break at least [16-7-3-1 after Jan. 30], and we were a different team. We had started to jell. Jaromir Jagr was a part of us now, not an outsider. Still, a lot of guys were looking to him to bail us out, and that's what we wanted to stop. We needed everybody working, not just one line."

Oates, the 39-year-old center who is bound for the Hall of Fame, was at the meeting. Some chemistry had finally developed between him and Jagr.

"But Adam didn't treat Jags right when he got here," one player said, a statement others agreed with. "He didn't make Jagr feel welcome, feel comfortable. There was an uneasy feeling. I think [Oates] was afraid somebody would take his place with Jagr, and let's be honest, Oates is a very selfish guy. He wants his points."

That latter remark was not universally agreed on, which may illustrate the way the team was divided over its former captain.

"Oatsie took tremendous pride in playing defense; he hated to be scored on," one said. "He's not the reason we didn't make the playoffs. If he's so selfish, how did he get all those assists? You get assists for helping other players."

Said another: "When Oatsie got traded it was a turning point but in a different way. He was getting 23 minutes [of ice time] a game, and a lot of guys got a piece of that. That meant more guys contributed, more guys pitched in. But we had picked up our game before he was traded."

"But," countered a player, "did you see the way Jags' play picked up after Oatsie was traded? And he wasn't alone."

The bottom line is this: 36-33-11-2, 85 points, two less than needed.

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