Ron Low, the first Capitals' goalie and original Mr. Expansion, puts Vegas' challenge in perspective

Ron Low expected a telephone call on June 12, 1974, but the goaltender thought it would be from the Kansas City Scouts. The call came instead from the othernew NHL expansion team, the Washington Capitals, who informed him that they had taken him with their first pick in a 48-player expansion draft.

"Perfect scenario for me," Low said Wednesday from his home in Edmonton.

By that, Low meant that he would get steady NHL playing time with Washington. He had been the property of the Toronto Maple Leafs, playing in 42 of 78 games in the 1972-73 season because the starting goaltender, 44-year-old Jacques Plante, was injured. But Low spent the 1973-74 season with the Tulsa Oilers of the Central Hockey League. Washington certainly beat Tulsa.

As Low recalled, the 1972-73 Maple Leafs might as well have been an expansion team because the fledgling World Hockey Association "basically came in and took half our players." But that Toronto team still won 27 games. The 1974-75 Washington Capitals won eight games, lost 67 and tied in five -- a record of futility for an expansion team that probably will last forever.

Low, who later coached the Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers, is now 66, and he keeps up with hockey when he is not going to the chiropractor or playing golf. He predicts that there is virtually no way that the Vegas Golden Knights, who will join the NHL this season as its 31st team, will be anywhere near as bad as that first Capitals team, which was outscored 446-181.

"They're drafting from the best talent pool in history," Low said of the Golden Knights.

The Capitals and Scouts -- who finished 15-54-11, with 41 points, compared to the Caps' 21 -- did not have that luxury. The WHA was still very much in business, expanding to 14 teams from 12 in 1974, and the NHL had expanded to 18 teams from 16. As such, there were actually more major league hockey teams 43 years ago than there are today. The WHA also offered fat contracts.

"It's not fair," Milt Schmidt, the Capitals' first general manager, told The New York Times the day before the expansion draft in 1974. "We paid $6 million to join the league, and look how little other teams have left us."

Kansas City got the first pick and chose goaltender Michel Plasse, a backup in Montreal. Washington picked Low, then another goaltender, Michel Belhumeur, from Philadelphia. Belhumeur was 0-24-3 in 1974-75, still a record for most games played without a victory. A third goaltender, John Adams, was 0-7-0. That meant Low, at 8-36-2, won all of his team's games.

"In the end, it was a long season," Low said. "Losing does that to you, I think. Well, I'm pretty sure it does."

Jimmy Anderson, the Caps' first coach, was fired after his team won four of 54 games. At one point, he told reporters, "I'd rather find out my wife was cheating on me than keep losing like this. At least I could tell my wife to cut it out."

After losing their first 37 road games, the Caps beat the California Seals 5-3 in Oakland on March 28, 1975, and forward Garnet "Ace" Bailey (who died on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew the United Airlines plane on which he was a passenger into the World Trade Center) had the team hoist and carry a metal trash can around the ice as if it were the Stanley Cup.

The Caps lost games by 10-4, 11-1, 12-1, 10-0, 10-3, 12-1 and 10-2. A defenseman, Bill Mikkelson, was an incomprehensible minus-82 -- still an NHL record -- in 59 games. The team had two defensemen who played in the NHL for a while, Yvon Labre and rookie Greg Joly, but not much firepower. The second coach, Red Sullivan, lasted only 18 games, winning two. Schmidt finished up.

"In Washington, we had no chance if it was a high-scoring game," Low said. "None."

In 2013, Labre told The Globe and Mail, "Losing is hard, but it does help you. In business, you get turned down nine out of 10 times, then all of a sudden it works. That's what I learned."

At least Abe Pollin, who brought in the Capitals to play with the NBA's Washington Bullets at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, was an attentive owner, and the Capitals averaged a then-respectable 10,004 fans per game.

"The fans we had were super-loyal," Low said. "They would have had to be, or they would have all left."

Low played for the Caps for three years, as Washington rose from 21 to 32 to 62 points, and he is happy to see that the Caps have become one of the NHL's premier teams. But he was not finished with expansion teams. He was traded to theDetroit Red Wingsin 1977 and played one full season for their farm team in Kansas City after the Scouts moved to Colorado.

Then the phone rang again. He had been selected in the 1979 NHL expansion draft by the Quebec Nordiques, who were one of four former WHA teams joining the NHL. The Nordiques finished 25-44-11 and did not make the playoffs in their first NHL season, but they were nothing like the first Caps team.

"It was a decent hockey club," Low said. "Had a lot of pretty decent players. Might have been a little short of talent on defense, but we could win high-scoring games."

Low played 15 games for the Nordiques before he was traded to another former WHA team, the Oilers, for whom he played until 1982. Then he was traded again to the New Jersey Devils, who had just moved from Colorado. The franchise moved to Denver in 1976 from, yes, Kansas City, where it started as the Scouts.

Low had a 16-43-9 record with a 4.15 goals-against average in New Jersey, but he could see an upside to the Devils, with a core of veterans and a promising group of young players such as Pat Verbeek and John MacLean. Low played in 382 career NHL regular-season games, but he appeared in only seven Stanley Cup playoff games, winning his debut.

In essence, Low played for four teams while they were in their first NHL seasons and another expansion team that had moved twice. He played in a minor league town that had lost an expansion team, and he played for a team in Toronto that he thinks might as well have been an expansion team. But he played regularly in the NHL, starting at age 24, and he really did work his way up.

"It was tough sledding," he said of playing that first season in Washington. "It might not have been a great team. But it was still the NHL."
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