Alumni Spotlight: Craig Laughlin
[WashingtonCaps.com continues the seiries "Alumni Spotlight," where WashingtonCaps.com interviews former Washington Capitals players, coaches and personalities. Previous Alumni Spotlights include Ron Weber, Alan May, Joe Juneau, Ken Sabourin, Michal Pivonka, Kevin Kaminski, Dennis Maruk, Scott Walker, Brian Pothier, Chris Clark, Ken Klee, Matt Pettinger, Ben Clymer, Bryan Muir, Jamie Heward, Brendan Witt and Anson Carter.]
WashingtonCaps.com (WC.com): You were a part of blockbuster trade that many view as a turning point in Caps history. What was going through your mind when you first heard about that trade?
Craig Laughlin (CL): Well it was an interesting time in Montreal. I think at the time the big reason, and I’m going to tie it into another Cap, there’s a big reason why the trade was made, first and foremost. At that time, during the season, we were one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the National Hockey League, along with the Edmonton Oilers. But when we went to playoffs we were predicted to win the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately being predicted doesn’t lead to winning; you have to win on the ice. We played a three out of five series against our archrivals, the Quebec Nordiques, and there was one fella that Caps fans probably know. He wore number “32” in Quebec, and his name was Dale Hunter. Dale Hunter scored on a wrap-around in overtime in Game 5 at the Montreal Forum. We knew right then and there, losing, being the top-seeded team, losing to the archrival Quebec Nordiques, very hated in Montreal, that there could be an inkling to make some changes. During the course of the summer nothing was made and so we thought going into training camp and walking to the Forum that next September that we all expected to just be in training camp, and that Irving Grundman, who was the general manager at the time, was not going to pull a deal. Well hours before our training camp was about to start, about a day before, he pulled the trade. We were surprised; I was sort of probably a young player at the time. I was getting used to playing games in the NHL, having just played 40 or so for Montreal. I love Montreal. What’s actually a great story is that my last game, regular season, for the Montreal Canadiens was at the Cap Centre, and we played the Caps in front of about 8,000 people in a very dark arena at the time. We were walking out of the dressing room, and the fans were on the ice shaking hands with the players. All things that you would normally not see in the 80’s that are now part of the marketing campaigns for teams to get the fans really close to the teams, to make them fan friendly and get the players faces out there. At the time, that was not the case. I remember walking to the bus, we lost that game to the Washington Capitals, that I was intrigued by the rink, by the uniforms with all the stars; it was pretty cool because it was the first time I had played them. And then to be traded, remembering that rink, remembering that the fan foundation at the time really wasn’t that great, that it was a new start for me and I felt that I was this young guy being picked up. I mean look at the players that went in that trade ahead of me. You had [Rod]Langway, [Brian] Engblom, [Doug] Jarvis; all big time players for the Montreal Canadiens who had all won Cups, that were awesome players in their own right and I was put in that package. To me personally it was probably more so an opportunity because there was such a pipeline of good players in Montreal. So my first thought was, here’s your opportunity, you’re going to have to play, you’re going to have to play well and make your mark on the NHL.
WC.com: What was the team’s atmosphere like when you came in after that trade?
CL: The atmosphere was interesting because at the time we arrived in Washington, we flew in, I was with Langway, I think Jarvy and Engblom took a later flight, but we got in and the first order of business was to meet David Poile and Bryan Murray. Both are very astute hockey people and they had vision. They had a vision for the team that, at the time, was probably not of the norm for the Caps. They wanted to change the culture. They wanted to change the dynamics. We had a very invigorating training camp up in Hershey. At the time it was also the introduction of Scott Stevens. He was a first-round pick we had that year. They had brought in an eclectic group of people to Hershey and the camp. I think the camp, the way it was run, the way David dealt with players, the way Bryan dealt with players, he was a straight shooter. It created a culture, but more importantly, it created confidence among the players. We were a tight band of players and it all started in Hershey in 1982. I think that led to the success that the Caps have had through the years.
WC.com: You were on the team for their first playoff appearance. What was the run leading up to that berth like for you and the team?
CL: It was a build up because I think all year there was a sort of crescendo. We wanted to be in the playoffs. A lot of us had been there before; I was there before with Montreal so I knew what that was like. NHL playoff hockey, for a college kid just coming out when I first went was kind of surreal. These are things that Toronto boys like myself dream about, and now we have the opportunity to win games, which we’d done throughout the season. I remember we had a good season. We rang off some good winning streaks my first year here. We did, throughout the 80’s, have some good streaks of games that would propel us into the playoffs. We just didn’t win the last couple games to get in. We were pretty much secure by the latter part of the season since we’d had such a good run, and we had load of confidence. I think our first series was against the Islanders, and you know, they were Stanley Cup winners. They were a team that had so many star players, but what we really relished was that for Washington, as a city, and the Capital Centre, who at the time had put up a banner for the Bullets a few years prior to that, had the Bullets as the incumbent tenants of the rink that would sell out. They had Wes Unseld and all those guys. We were sort of the sister team and we wanted to take that next step. I think my fondest memory was with my family coming down from Toronto with this raucous crowd, that the rink was packed when we came out for warm-ups. Everyone was wearing white. Everyone was wearing the white towels. 18,130, and I remember that number to this day, were standing in unison waiving their towels. And in 18,130, there weren’t any Islanders’ fans. It was packed. It was 18,130, and I’m pretty sure a lot of them had never seen a hockey game before but it didn’t matter. This was our chance to be on the map here in Washington with all the other sports teams. I think it was the start of a long run of like 14 straight seasons or so making the Stanley Cup playoffs, and to me it all started on that day. That started, I think, the culture number one of how the team was going to play, and we were going to play hard. That we were going to be a big part of the culture and community of this region: Virginia, Maryland and Washington. We wanted to be those guys. We brought hockey, at its best, on its biggest platform, the Stanley Cup playoffs, to people that maybe had never seen it and they got hooked on hockey. We hoped that would continue for many years to come and it has.
WC.com: Do you still keep in touch with any of your former teammates?
CL: A lot of them. It’s not as easy anymore with everyone having families. Our line still talks. Greg Adams too, who’s out in Vancouver. I see a lot of Rod Langway, as do a lot of fans here. He’s still part of the culture here. Mike Gartner, every time we’re in the city, we see him in Toronto. He always pops in. Brian Engblom, who’s an analyst, I see him. He was a big part of the team. Doug Jarvis, who’s now a coach. You go through the people that had played for this franchise, that were teammates of mine, and they’re scattered throughout the world. You know I see Bengt Gustafsson every year. He comes back to town. Things like that are pretty cool and now it’s just a matter of staying in touch. Life being so hectic, it’s very rare that we get a chance to sit down a be like, “how are you doing? What are you doing?” Definitely if we run into each other it’s a big hug because we had a very tight-knit team that was very much for the one process and the only process we worried about was trying to win the Stanley Cup. Each of us worked hard, it didn’t happen, but I think the effort was there from all of us and I think we can take pride in the fact that those years were very good years here in Washington.
WC.com: You’re currently an analyst for CSN Washington covering the Capitals. What has that experience been like for you?
CL: That’s a big question. I think you look back over your career and you say what could be the next best step for your life. At the time, when I got a call to come back here to be part of the broadcast team in times when teams were trying to bring in former players from that had played for their teams to be part of their telecast. At the time I actually had a three-year contract in Germany to go back and play. I was in my mid-thirties, early thirties, and I was like do I want to go back? I had young kids at the time. It was a big change for me to jump here at the time to Home Team Sports, which was one of the first in the United States to be a home-based cable company that provided local sports and it was a new concept. I went through the gambit from working on air on WB50 to Home Team Sports to transitioning to Comcast SportsNet and along the way a lot of different play-by-play guys, from Al Koken to Kenny Albert to Joe Beninati to Jeff Rimmer. So I’ve had a real neat experience. When I look back, it’s been about 32 years I’ve been with the franchise when you add my playing time with my 20 of TV time. It’s been a great transition for any player to be able to analyze a game and talk about your favorite team and a team you are forever a part of, that you have been a part of. You get the opportunity to analyze and critique the new athletes that are coming along and every day is a new day in our business; every game is a new game. It’s not like a nine-to-five job that’s consistent; everything’s cool, everything changes. The images change. The way we’re going to telecast changes, the HD, everything changes and we’ve got to move along. I think for me it’s a lifelong, I wouldn’t say it was a dream of mine when it started, but now it’s a lifelong passion. I want to talk Caps hockey. Caps hockey is dear to my heart and a big part my family. It’s a big part of me living here for over 30 years and I hope it never ends. Hopefully I can look in the mirror 15 years from now and still look the same. Wouldn’t that be great?
WC.com: Can you tell me about anything else you’ve been up to on or off the ice?
CL: If you look back over the records, since ’82, I was actually the only player that spent any time here that actually spent all their summers here. Even in ’82 when all the players would take off to their hometowns, which was generally the norm back when in played in 80’s, as soon as the season was over everyone would take off. Well I planted roots. I’ve lived here since the day I played here in ’82 and I haven’t changed that. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in youth hockey; both my kids came up through youth hockey here. I’ve coached just about every youth hockey kid. One time I ran camps, clinics and an East Coast Hockey League team. I’ve sort of dabbled in everything to do with ice. Now in the off-season it’s all about my summer program, Network Hockey Academy, where we put through 100 kids, elite kids that want to play college and maybe some will move on to pro in the future. It’s all about developing young men, young women and young athletes because I do think there’s a role for us and we’ve had great success and that’s sort of my passion. Now helping junior teams in the area, helping build hockey has been a passion of mine. Whether in be my camps and clinics for elite kids, whether it be doing the Washington Capitals camps, which I did for years, including here at Kettler. It’s always been a part of what I want to do. I want to be in hockey. It’s the love of my life. Why would I want to leave it when I love doing everything like going to the rink, talking to young hockey players, talking to pros, talking to everyone? I think my whole life revolves around hockey. My daughter is a college coach at Potsdam State. My son plays minor pro hockey in the Central Division in the East Coast League and to me, I’m able to be a fan too when they’re playing. I’m able to watch my daughter, which is cool too, seeing how her team does. It’s cool watching my son play in the minor leagues. We’re a hockey family, always will be. Hopefully we’ll have a long continued tenure here in Washington.