Langway, the Hogs and Ovechkin
Rod Langway has already been to 12 or 13 games at the Verizon Center this season, sitting in his 100-level seats, out among the people. One of those people recently asked him what this team's locker room is like before the puck drops.
"I'm old school, I try to stay away from the new group," he said. "That's their home. Some of the old players used to come into our locker room before the game and joke, and I'd get ticked off, but I wouldn't say anything. It was one of those things that was disrupting the mojo. It was one of those feelings: We don't need this. Come after the game. Let us get ready for our game. We're getting paid for it."
So Langway heads to the stands, and how does he behave? The stoic ex-athlete observing things from a reserved distance, right?
"I went nuts for Detroit," he said, describing last month's home win over the Red Wings. "I thought it was one of the better games I've seen in years. Up and down, great goal-tending. I went crazy."
This resurgence has a lot of people rocking the red, and while Langway comes to games in dark colors, he's there in spirit. "I just wish I could play here," he said, as fans streamed into the Verizon Center. I asked if he was serious.
"Oh yeah," he said. "I mean, this is night and day. I can't put down the Caps Centre, but around the league it was the worst rink in the league."
For those of you who, like me, need some major Caps history lessons, Langway was there the first time the franchise went from near-irrelevance to the top of the D.C. sports landscape. When Langway got off that plane in the summer of '82, the franchise's future was in serious doubt, and the "Save the Caps" campaign was all over the papers. The fan club, Langway joked, had about 15 members. The team skated at Fort Dupont, with city police watching their cars. If you ordered new skates or sticks, he said, they would take three months to show up.
"I would talk to [ex-teammates] when we played against Montreal," Langway recalled. "They'd ask, 'How's thing's going?' I kind of fibbed--'It's great!' and all this--but it wasn't....It was awful."
Langway, of course, helped rescue the franchise, leading the Caps to 11 straight playoff appearances. And along the way, he became one of the team's first genuine crossover stars. He would go out to bars after games, meet the fans, drink a few beers. He got hooked up with a Michelob sponsorship and started hanging out with the Hogs.
"I would have a can, they would have a pitcher," he joked. "I used to go to the Touchdown Club. They said, 'You're the first hockey player that's ever been in here?' Why? 'We didn't know any.' I said 'Wow, I guess we stepped over a boundary here,' and then all of the sudden I became friends with the Joe Jacobys and Russ Grimms."
After his run of success, Langway retired, tried coaching, bounced around the country, was elected to the Hall of Fame, and now lives in Richmond, where he works as a "black oxide man" for a metal treatment company. "Dirty work," he said with a smile, following a recent appearance in front of the Washington Capitals Fan Club.
But he's one of a number of Caps alumni with season tickets, courtesy of the club, and he's definitely caught the bug. A fan asked him about Alex Ovechkin; "I think you guys are very lucky, that's the best way I can put it," Langway said.
"I mean, when he says it, it's right from his heart," Langway continued. "There's no bull. He says it like it is, and that's how he plays. I mean, it's really special to watch a kid love the game as much as he does....It's wonderful, the whole organization. It's just a matter of time, knock on wood."
And if that time comes? If the Caps win the Cup Langway never claimed during his time in D.C.?
"Oh," he told me, "I'd go crazy."
More from his fan-club talk and our subsequent conversation.
* Langway said the franchise "has done great for us, the old-timers." These comped tickets aren't unusual in the NHL, but I asked Ted Leonsis why they court their veterans like this.
"Dick Patrick and I decided a long time ago that we owed homage to our past," Leonsis wrote me. "We wanted to build community and good will with our alums; we believe it helps set a good example with players today that we care about our players, past AND present. The alums are a great example for our players today to emulate; they help us pay it forward."
* Asked about the worst loss in his career, Langway cited the Game 7 Easter Sunday playoff game against the Islanders that lasted for four overtimes and hours and hours. "I've never seen so many people get drunk twice," he said, one of many well-delivered laugh lines.
* Langway said he likes the modern game, but wishes "it was more physical. Let big defensemen like myself or some of the others that are out there put some punishment on these faster forwards....If they're going to go to the net, pay the price."
* I hadn't known that Langway palled around with the Hogs, and I asked whether he was as famous as them around town.
"No, but they treated me like I was," he said. "They would come down to the locker room, they used to come watch our games, and it was perfect, when we were going to the playoffs, they were done. So they didn't take many vacations, they still had to do the workout program, and they'd come out and drink with us. And I knew I was gonna run into them after the season."
* Because I'm a blogger, I had to ask about his famous mustache, which the American Mustache Institute ranked the best in D.C. sports history.
"Oh jeez, I've always had it, since I was a junior in high school," he said. "Always had a mustache, ever since it started growing. I had one in college. I shaved it a couple times and people just didn't like it. I didn't like it. I just didn't look like me."
* I also asked why so many Caps fans seem to have such fond memories of his career. Langway seemed unsure what to say.
"I played hard, I guess," he said. "I don't know. They had never seen the Capitals win, I guess, and I was a part of it."
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