It was funny. Last June 7, when Rod Langway went to Montreal's Place des Arts theater to accept the Norris Trophy as the NHL's outstanding defenseman, he wanted to say something nice. After all, he was about to take his place alongside some of the greatest players in history—Bobby Orr, Doug Harvey, Red Kelly. Furthermore, Langway, 26, would become the first American player to receive one of the NHL's postseason awards in 41 years, or since Goalie Frank Brimsek of the Boston Bruins earned the Vezina Trophy in 1942. Langway had risen to award-winning status in just one stunning season. On Sept. 10, 1982 Langway, Defenseman Brian Engblom and forwards Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin had been traded from the Montreal Canadiens to the Washington Capitals. In Montreal, Langway had been merely "promising"; in Washington he delivered. The occasion of the NHL Awards banquet called for him to say something, well, reflective. "I said that I wanted to thank David Poile [the Capitals' general manager] for wanting us all," Langway recalls. "And that I'd like to thank Mr. Grundman [Irving, Montreal's general manager] for accepting the trade. I meant it sincerely. You don't joke around when you're up there. But everybody started laughing, so I laughed too. The newspapers had a ball with that."
From the outset the trade seemed more like a penalty to the Canadiens than a shrewd deal; "accepting" it eventually cost Grundman his job. On the brighter side, though, it may have saved the Washington franchise from folding. Once Langway and his confreres came aboard, the Capitals became the NHL's most improved team, boosting their record from 26-41-13 in 1981-82 to 39-25-16 last season. Furthermore, Washington became the fifth-best defensive team in the league, allowing 55 fewer goals than it had the previous season, and made the playoffs for the first time in its nine-year history. With Langway aboard, and playing leader to young defensemen Scott Stevens, 19, who arguably contributed more to his team than any other NHL rookie a year ago, and Peter Andersson, 21, a Swedish import, who unfortunately will miss the first eight to 10 weeks of his rookie season because of a torn ligament in his left knee suffered in a preseason game, the Caps have laid the foundation for a legitimate, if uphill, run at the Stanley Cup.
"The bonus in that Montreal trade was an intangible," says Poile, at 34 the youngest G.M. in the NHL. "Langway became our leader on and off the ice. I don't know if he was a leader in Montreal, playing in the shadow of Larry Robinson and Guy Lafleur and the rest, but when he got here he saw the opportunity to put Rod Langway on the map. It was a critical year for us. Either we made the playoffs or, in all probability, the team would have gone sayonara."
During the summer of '82 the Washington franchise was in such disarray that a Save the Caps campaign was organized by fans in response to owner Abe Pollin's threat to shut it down. To keep the team alive, Pollin demanded: 1) a tax break from Prince Georges (Md.) County in which the Capital Centre, where the Caps play, is situated; 2) decreased rent; 3) season-ticket sales of at least 7,000, 3,000 more than in 1981-82; 4) sellouts for the first 10 games of the regular season. By and large, Pollin's demands were met. The final—unspoken—requirement was that the team qualify for one of the 16 playoff spots.
On Aug. 30 Poile was brought in from Calgary to replace Roger Crozier, the acting G.M., and 11 days later The Trade was made. To get the Montreal Four, the Capitals gave up their captain, Forward Ryan Walter, and Defenseman Rick Green, who had been with them six seasons. As training camp opened, the Caps were more of a caboodle than a club.
"We were a glorified expansion team," says Poile. "The coach [Bryan Murray] was in his first full season, the G.M. in his first 11 days. We had a dozen new players—from Europe, from Chicago, from Calgary, from Montreal. Everyone was nervous and unknowing. Then we won only two of our first nine games, and the fans started to murmur, 'Same old Caps.' But it was the Montreal influence that ultimately pulled us through."
Langway became team captain as the season opened, but all four erstwhile Canadiens contributed leadership. Murray remembers going into the dressing room after one early loss to find the ordinarily quiet Jarvis standing at his locker screaming to his teammates about the value of team play. Says Langway, "We'd lose 4-1, and the guy who scored the goal would be happy. Those of us who had come down from Montreal had never seen that before and it ticked us off. You play not to be scored on. It took a while to turn that attitude around."
But turn around it did, and quickly. Between Nov. 23 and Dec. 26, the Capitals went 14 games without a loss, bettering the old team record by seven. They passed the Islanders and Rangers in the Patrick Division standings, and just before Christmas they beat the Penguins, Flyers and Islanders, division rivals all, in three consecutive road games, allowing a total of three goals. They were doing it with defense, and they were doing it on the road, night in and night out, a sure sign of team character.
"Roddy felt his way through training camp," says Right Wing Bob Gould, who had played with Langway at the University of New Hampshire. "And I remember everybody kind of waiting for him to take charge."
Langway is not a flashy talent. He doesn't anchor Washington's power play or make electrifying end-to-end rushes in the manner of most recent Norris Trophy winners like Chicago's Doug Wilson, Robinson, the Islander's Denis Potvin or, of course, Orr. Rather, Langway is a fundamentally superb defenseman who expends nearly all his energy stopping the other team from scoring. The 32 points he tallied last season for the Capitals represented the lowest total for a Norris winner since Montreal's Jacques Laperriere, another tall, rangy, stylish defenseman, scored but 31 in 1965-66. Langway is a throwback to that pre-Orr era.
"He recognizes what he does best," says Murray. "He doesn't gamble. He plays very safe. He'll go back and make the pass to the same winger time after time if the guy's open, and he's so strong that even when he's being leaned on he can get the puck to his man. He never gets in trouble in his own end."
Eventually the Capitals were edged out of second place by the resurgent Islanders, who then eliminated the Caps three games to one in the opening round of the playoffs. Langway and Engblom played heroically on defense—riddled by injuries, the Capitals had to rely on just three blueliners in the series—but the Isles' depth and the impotence of the Capitals' power play (1 for 23) ultimately settled the matter. Still, it had been a remarkable year for hockey in Washington. "Basically, we had been hoping we could edge out Pittsburgh for a playoff spot," admits Murray, whose team ended up 49 points ahead of the Penguins. "I just didn't anticipate getting the quality of play and leadership that Langway gave us all season."
Says Poile: "It wasn't the Montreal 'tradition' at work. It was Rod Langway. How can you not win when your best players are also your hardest workers? The other guys see that and wonder, 'How can we not try?' "
If Rod Langway were from, say, Petrolia, Ontario, his story would be less interesting than it is. In fact, he's from Randolph, Mass., a community some ten miles south of Boston. Today, Langway and Cap teammate Bobby Carpenter, the 20-year-old forward from Beverly, Mass., 18 miles north of Boston, who has scored 64 goals in his two NHL seasons—are at the forefront of the first wave of U.S. players making an impact on the NHL
What is particularly impressive about Langway is that he didn't even learn to skate until he was 12. "I always thought I was going to play football," he says. Then, in 1970, the Boston Bruins, with Orr setting new standards for defensemen, won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 29 years.
"When you watched TV, it was Bobby this and Bobby that," says Langway. At home my parents were talking about it. My older brother would brag about sneaking into games. So I started to play on the tennis courts at the junior high school near our home, which they flooded to make ice. I'd stay out all day, come home for dinner, then go back again until nine o'clock."
Langway is the third of seven children. His father was a Navy man—Rod was born in Taiwan—who served 21 years before settling in Randolph when Rod was five years old. No one else in the Langway family had ever played hockey, so Rod learned about the mysteries of offsides and icing by watching Peter Puck on NBC's Sunday afternoon Game of the Week, EMMY-WINNING PETER PUCK, CARTOON CHARACTER, TEACHES GAME TO FUTURE NORRIS WINNER! It's a fairly radical departure in a sport in which the traditional heroes started skating just about the time they made their first burp.
At Randolph High, Langway captained both the hockey and football teams as a junior and added the captaincy of the baseball team—he was a .400-hitting catcher-pitcher—his senior year. Randolph's hockey team went 72-7-1 during the Langway years, but colleges were more interested in him for football. "He threw 22 touchdown passes his senior year in high school," says Dave O'Connor, an assistant coach for both football and hockey at New Hampshire. "Then on defense they'd throw him in as middle linebacker." Langway's size—he's 6'3", 215 pounds—attracted recruiters from Michigan State and Iowa State, but he finally decided on New Hampshire, where he would also be allowed to play hockey.
As a sophomore at UNH, Langway started at outside linebacker, and the team made it to the NCAA Division II playoffs, where it lost to Montana State. Three days later, Langway skated a regular shift in a hockey victory over Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "It wasn't much of a transition for him," says teammate Gould. "We'd been practicing three weeks, and after two days he'd caught up to the rest of us."
The 1976-77 UNH hockey team was ranked in the top five in the nation most of the season, and six of its players eventually made it to the NHL (Bob Miller, Dave Lumley, Bruce Crowder, Gary Burns, Langway and Gould). But in the Eastern NCAA semifinals at Boston Garden, the Wildcats fell behind Cornell 9-7. "There we were in the Garden, allowing nine goals in front of all these scouts and the people from my hometown," Langway says. "I don't remember what I said or did, but I more or less snapped."
New Hampshire scored twice in the closing minutes and won the game in double overtime 10-9, gaining a berth among the final four in Detroit. There UNH lost to the eventual champion, Wisconsin, 4-3 in overtime, but Langway impressed the scouts as the best defenseman in the tournament. In June, Langway became the first U.S. player taken in the NHL draft when Montreal grabbed him as the final pick of the second round.
The Birmingham Bulls of the World Hockey Association had drafted Langway in the first round, however, and they offered him so much money that he decided to leave school and sign. Langway was married—to the former Linda Marzinzik, his high school sweetheart—and figured that if he didn't like pro hockey he could always return to UNH to play football. But, he says, "I learned more about professional hockey that season in Birmingham than I did in any other. We were animals. But it was fun."
Most of what Langway learned that year centered on self-defense and fighting. The 1977-78 Bulls may have been the most belligerent team in hockey history. Steve Durbano, Dave Hanson (who later appeared as a hockey brawler in the movie Slap Shot) and Ken Linseman were among a host of ruffians and agitators at the command of Coach Glen Sonmor, but the team also had finesse players like Frank Mahovlich, Paul Henderson and Mark Napier. Langway proved not only that he could play with the pros, but also that he could tough it out—an oft-heard criticism of the U.S. college player at that time: Sure he can skate, shoot and pass, but the egghead can't handle the rough stuff.
The next season Langway came to terms with the Canadiens. He spent 18 games at the start of the year with Nova Scotia, Montreal's top farm team, then moved up to the defending Stanley Cup champions. He had been playing hockey all of nine years and was suddenly a member of the same defense corps as Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe—merely the best unit in the history of the game.
"Seeing those guys play day in and day out, you couldn't help but be influenced," says Langway. "They always made the easy play, did the little things to get themselves out of trouble. On a two-on-one, they'd take away the pass, saying, in effect, if you want to try to beat [Montreal Goalie] Kenny Dryden, go right ahead. They kept everything out of the middle, because that's where the other team's best player, the center, would be. They had earned so much respect that guys wouldn't even try to beat them one-on-one. I'd sit on the bench and think, 'Is it really that easy to play this game?' "
Langway credits Claude Ruel, an assistant coach for the Canadiens that year, for making him the player he is today. Ruel would stay after practice, firing passes to Langway, contriving imaginary situations to keep his interest. "He'd say things to you in broken English that would make you laugh—and that made it fun," Langway says.
In his four seasons with the Canadiens, Langway built a reputation as one of the steadiest defensemen in the game. His days in Montreal became numbered, however, when the Canadian government changed its tax laws in 1981, severely limiting a foreign athlete's ability to shelter his income. Langway still lived in New Hampshire in the off-season. Thus, by the time both the U.S. and Canadian governments were through with him he was taking home something like 30% of his income—in Canadian dollars, then worth 80% of U.S. dollars. He had several talks with Grundman to try to find a solution, but Grundman explained that it would disrupt the Canadiens' salary structure if they were to renegotiate in light of the new laws. So Langway asked to be traded to an American city.
He threatened to retire if Grundman didn't oblige and had already sold his Montreal home when he reported for training camp in 1982. "I thought they were going to call my bluff and make me sit," says Langway. "I never thought they'd trade me." But of course they did. At Washington Languay's new contract had bonus clauses throughout. In fact, the bonus value of his Norris Trophy was $175,000.
It was in his last year in Montreal that Langway stopped wearing a helmet. It wasn't a choice dictated by machismo, Langway insists, because he is no fighter. Rather, he simply forgot his headgear during a playoff road trip and decided he felt more comfortable playing without it. Still, it may or may not be a coincidence that the Canadiens' Robinson, Lang-way's idol, doesn't wear a helmet either.
When the Capitals opened their training camp last month in Hershey, Pa. with an intrasquad scrimmage, Poile was watching from the stands. Referees were on hand; score was being kept. It was good competition. Langway had already slid out to the point to block a slap shot and was now on the bench following the play. He could be heard exhorting his side on as if he were still in college. "Get back! Get back!" he yelled to a teammate who was not back-checking at full speed. He wanted to win the scrimmage, wanted it enough to holler about it.
"We need some glue to keep this franchise going," Poile said, looking on. "We need an identity. Up until last year, Rod was struggling to find an identity, too. Larry Robinson was who he wanted to be. He looks like him, carries himself like him. But now he knows who he is. He's Rod Langway. Maybe we'll be fortunate and end up with an identity like his."
A deal like that would be easy for the Capitals to accept.