Alumni Q&A: Ron Lalonde
It’s kind of funny. You guys only won eight games but everyone I’ve talked to seems to remember that season fairly fondly for a team that struggled so much.
“For sure you remember it, and they’re not always the best of memories. I remember I was playing for Pittsburgh, and I got traded here on Dec. 14. And a week before I got traded I was playing for Pittsburgh against the Caps. Yvon Labre had been in the Pittsburgh organization and he was a good friend of mine. I think we won 7-1 that day, and I said, ‘Boy, I feel sorry for Yvon. What a long year that’s going to be.’ A week later I was there with him.
“As bad as that seems, there were a lot of good things that happened that year. The organization had to start somewhere. The fans were terrific and you could see that there was going to be a good franchise down the road once they started winning. Unfortunately I wasn’t there when that happened, but I have a lot of good memories of my years in Washington.”
Did you play in Hershey when you were still in the Pittsburgh system or during your days with the Caps?
“I played in Hershey on the way up and I played in Hershey on the way down.”
As far as the American League goes, it’s a pretty unique and interesting place to play.
“It was the best place to play in the minor leagues. There was a beautiful old arena. The franchise was solid and the fans supported it. A lot of good hockey players went through Hershey.
“My last year, Washington sent a lot of the older players down to Hershey. We ended up winning the Calder Cup that year with a makeshift team of misfits and put-togethers and it really turned out to be a successful year. Last summer, we had the 25th reunion of that Calder Cup team. We had the pleasure of touring the old building. I don’t think they keep it in as good repair as they did when the Bears played there. It was a beautiful town to play hockey in, and I have fond memories of being there."
Was that the team that Doug Gibson coached?
“Yes. He was the player-coach. Gary Green started the year and then he went up to Washington. It was a unique year, it was a lot of fun.”
Talk a little bit about your days in Pittsburgh a little bit. If I remember right, you won the Michele Briere Award there.
“Yeah, it was the rookie of the year award there. They’d only been around a few years then. I enjoyed my time in Pittsburgh, but unfortunately we never made the playoffs when I was there. The year they traded me they went into the playoffs and that was the year that they were up 3-0 on the Islanders and the Islanders came back and beat them. I keep telling them that if they hadn’t traded me that year [the Islanders] would have won none of those four games and who knows how far they would have gone.”
You never did get into an NHL playoff game.
“That’s one of the trivia questions that I am an answer to. The top three players who played the most NHL games and never played in a playoff game.”
“Guy Charron is No. 1. Doug Hicks, who played in Washington for a while [is No. 2], and I’m third."
You played in Hershey in the playoffs your first year and then like you said you won the Calder Cup.
“We had a good young team in Pittsburgh and we were coming on. We had a number of young players like Wayne Bianchin and Blaine Stoughton. I was considered a veteran although I was the same age as those guys. They made me the assistant captain to try and represent the young players on the team, which was a real honor at that time, being that you and being an assistant captain.”
The other distinction that you had here in Washington was that by the end of the fourth season here, you had more games played in a Caps uniform than anybody else. Given the number of players that were coming and going during those years, that had to say something.
“That and the fact that I was fortunate enough not to get injured like a lot of my teammates. The first year I was here in Washington we had more players on the injured list than we did in the dressing room. We went through a lot of players that year, and fortunately for me, I avoided any major injuries that kept me out of the lineup."
A lot of players, and a few coaches as well. What was that like? If I remember right, Red Sullivan couldn’t take it any more, and he resigned. And then Milt Schmidt took over from him.
“Red reluctantly took over coaching. He was a scout, and he did it as a favor for his friend, Milt Schmidt. We went through three coaches that year, and he was a lot of fun to play for. He had a lot of experience in coaching [Sullivan had coached both the Rangers and the Penguins for a season]. I remember one game in Pittsburgh we played really well, but we ended up losing. I think it was a 4-3 game. Red came into the dressing room after the game and he looked like he was really upset. In his unique voice – he had a real deep, unique voice – he said he wanted to see everybody in his room at 11 o’clock. That gave us about a half an hour to get showered and dressed and get across the street to the hotel.
"So we all go over and we’re waiting for him. At 11 o’clock he shows up, and there is a knock on the door. It’s somebody from downstairs and they wheeled a tray in. He just wanted to have a little team party. We all thought we were going to get reamed out for the mistakes we made and instead he had a different approach. That really brought the players together for the last part of that year. It was kind of a new agenda.”
One of the things about that first season, as tough as it was, that will stand forever in Caps lore is winning that [lone] road game in Oakland against the California Golden Seals. And then taking the [locker room] trash can and parading it around as if you’d won the Stanley Cup.
“I’ve told that story so many times. People don’t believe that. What people don’t understand is that game in Oakland, they weren’t getting big audiences in those days. There were only maybe 4,000 people at the game, so they were quickly out of the arena. When we went back out on the ice carrying the garbage can, there was nobody around except for the people who were sweeping up. We all signed that can and as for as long as I was playing in Oakland and in the league, our names were still on that garbage can. It was a unique time.”
A few days after that, you did something that will keep your name in the Caps’ media guide forever. You got the team’s first ever hat trick.
“That’s a record that can’t be broken. It was kind of an odd game. Things happened so quickly; I think I scored two of them on one shift. I’m very proud of that. I’m glad to be part of something record-wise in Washington.
“I scored three goals against Detroit, and the next weekend – which was the last weekend of the season – Stan Gilbertson scored four against Pittsburgh.”
Tell me about the year you spent in Austria. You spent a year playing over there, and that had to be a unique experience.
“It was unique because it more than convinced me that it was time to retire and move on to something else. There were eight teams in the league, and each team had one top-notch line, one that you’d put out occasionally and one that you couldn’t put on the ice. It was all outdoor rinks and a short schedule of 24 games. I got a three-game suspension for fighting which was interesting because in all my years in the NHL I only got into two fights.
“My first game with Washington I got into a fight with the Leafs’ George Ferguson and later another one against the Rangers’ Don Maloney. I think the fans in Washington thought they were getting a tough guy, my first game played with the Caps I got into a fight. We won that game, 3-1. That was a nice rarity, being from Toronto.
“But Austria was outdoor rinks and a short schedule. We went from first to fifth because I got suspended and another import got hurt and tore up his knee. So we dropped from first to fifth. In the playoffs, the top four teams play for the championship and the bottom four play to see who goes to the second division. So it kind of ended on a sour note.”
Give me your best memory on the ice and off the ice from your years in Washington.
“I guess my fondest memory was New Year’s night  in a game in Toronto. I had quite a number of family and friends there. My job when we played Toronto was to cover Darryl Sittler and make sure he didn’t score. I enjoyed that role; that’s what my forte was. I ended up being one of the stars in Toronto that night, and that was my fondest memory on the ice.
“Off the ice, I really enjoyed playing for Tom McVie. A player can only hope that he plays for a coach that recognizes your unique talents and utilizes them on the ice. He did that for me. I won an award called the ‘coach’s player award.’ It’s something people recognized you for the small things that happen during the game that don’t turn up on the scoresheet, but being recognized just the same. That was an honor.”
From everything I’ve heard, McVie was a bit of a taskmaster. He would have you guys practice as soon as you arrived in a city sometimes. When we were in Edmonton last year, there was a great story making the rounds about the time that Ace Bailey called the bus company, pretended to be McVie and cancelled the bus that was supposed to take you guys to practice at real early one morning.
“It was in Vancouver. Tommy McVie had booked ice time at 4 a.m. We were up waiting in the lobby for the bus. What we didn’t know was that Ace had called the bus company and cancelled the bus. It didn’t show up and we went back to bed. We were pretty happy about that.”
Was Ace sleeping or down in the lobby with you guys?
“He was with us. He had to make it look good.
"One other time when I was in Pittsburgh, Bugsy [Watson] was playing in Pittsburgh. We went to L.A. and we stayed at the Marriott right out by the airport. They had a little jitney bus for the players would get on. Unfortunately, someone didn’t realize that it was a team bus. They got on and sat down in the front seat. Then all the players piled on. Our equipment was taken care of; the trainers looked after that.
“[Penguins coach] Red Kelly was standing outside waiting for all the players to get on the bus. Bryan [Bugsy] jumped into the driver’s seat, closed the door and started driving away. He drove us all to the hotel, which was only about a mile away. He left Red Kelly. And this poor guy, who was the only one not a player on the team, he didn’t know what was happening. He thought the bus was being hijacked. Bryan just drove us to the front door of the hotel, and left the jitney bus there. He had to answer for that the next day.”