- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

Truth be known, Yvon Labre looked better last night than he did the night he retired from the Washington Capitals 22 seasons ago. That’s not meant to be mean spirited, it just illustrates that life away from the rink when you’re not facing 45 or 50 shots a night can have a definite calming effect.

The Caps celebrated the start of their 30th season last night, something of a miracle in itself because a betting man 15 or so years ago would have listed long odds against Washington lasting twice that long in the NHL.

Labre could only nod in agreement. He was there at the start in the gone but not forgotten Capital Centre in Landover, where the Caps played before a few thousand faithful and where the team won only eight games in its first season and only one of those came on the road.

It was not a sellout last night at MCI Center as Washington launched its new season, something majority owner Ted Leonsis probably anticipated while hoping for something else. The Caps’ last three games of last season, all in the playoffs, also drew considerably less than capacity.

“In terms of how the team performs, I think there will be a direct correlation between how we do attendance-wise with how the team does,” Leonsis said. “The better the team does, the higher the ticket sales will be.”

The problem 29 years ago was that the team never did well, and as a result attendance was never as high as it could have been. That changed when general manager David Poile made his franchise-saving trade with Montreal in 1982, obtaining defenseman Rod Langway. Defense — a word Caps teams had refused to acknowledge for the previous eight seasons — suddenly became the way to play the game.

Langway also was there last night, signifying the contributions he made as the Caps evolved. The Hall of Famer toughened the defensive posture as a whole, and then Poile brought in center Dale Hunter to tighten other aspects of the Washington game. Hunter was the third retired player to be introduced, followed by defenseman Calle Johansson, who retired after last season.

Together, the four represent high points in the Capitals’ existence, each in his own way. Labre was the first player to have his number retired, recognizing his dogged determination to compete every night no matter how badly he hurt. Langway’s selection for the Hockey Hall of Fame speaks for itself. Hunter, tough as a corn cob, a man who could not accept losing, probably will join Langway in the Hall of Fame for his contributions to all aspects of the game. Johansson was the best all-around defenseman ever to play for the Caps.

“I’m guardedly optimistic,” Leonsis said of the young team he put on the ice last night. “We still got the same guys as last year, the kids are going to make their mistakes, but from just walking through the dressing room, the tone is a little different, there’s more energy. Sooner or later you got to make the investment and bring these young kids up and I think this is the team.”

What last night’s pregame ceremony didn’t have was a retrospective look at the Caps celebrating around a Stanley Cup. They got to the finals in 1998 only to be swept aside. That also was the last year the club won a playoff series.

“I said we wanted to be able to compete for the Cup and sell out,” Leonsis said when asked about the five-year plan he advertised when he bought the team from Abe Pollin four years ago. “We’re about 20 to 25 percent away from selling out, and that’s been disappointing.”

The lack of a certain tall piece of pewter sitting in the team’s lobby is also a disappointment, Leonsis indicated, one he hopes he won’t have to wait 30 years to rectify.

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