(Ed. Note: Welcome to the Puck Daddy 2013 summer project, the National Hockey League of Nations. We’ve recruited 30 writers/blogs to identify the best player in their favorite team’s history for each major nationality that creates the fabric of our beloved NHL: Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Finland and The Rest of The World. It’s their criteria, as long as they can justify it. Read, debate and enjoy! If you want to do so on Twitter, it's #NHLoN.)
“I remember when I first came to Washington. For the first six months you wonder how the hell you ever got here. For the next six months you wonder how the hell the rest of them ever got here.”
One of our country’s greatest presidents, Harry S. Truman, said that while reflecting upon his time in the capital of this greatest of nations. And while this may be the closest Give ‘Em Hell Harry ever got to a hockey rink, it’s not hard to imagine that same sentiment having crossed the mind of any number of temporary Washingtonians, including those paid to play pucks.
Indeed, they’ve come from far and wide to lace ‘em up for the red, white and blue (and black and bronze), to be Capitals in the “capital of the world” and add to the rich international framework of both the city and the sport.
But who in D.C. has best represented each of the powerhouse hockey nations? Who have been the premier on-ice ambassadors in a town full of embassies and diplomats?
Let’s take a look...
A tough one right off the bat (especially since we put Dale Hunter on Mt. Capsmore), but we’ll go with Stevens, the team’s first pick (fifth overall) in 1982. The Kitchener, Ontario native only played eight seasons of his Hall of Fame career in Washington, but made quite the impact during that time... both figuratively and literally. In those eight campaigns (which, not at all coincidentally, also happened to be the first eight playoff appearances in franchise history), Stevens tallied 40 points seven times, topped 60 four times, racked up 200 or more penalty minutes four times and dropped the gloves for the good guys 79 times.
In 1984-85, he had 21 goals (16 on the power play), 65 points and 221 PIMs, the only time a blueliner has ever put up 20 goals, 50 points and 200 PIMs in a season. That's a hell of a year, and it was a hell of a career for a guy whose legacy in D.C. is still being felt today... and whose career in the capital was way too short for Caps fans' liking.
Yeah, we’re going to go ahead and boycott this one for two reasons. First, the choices are incredibly limited. Second, and more importantly, this actually happened, and a Finn did it. Never forget. (Sorry, Timo Blomqvist, you’re getting screwed.)
Born at a U.S. Armed Forces Hospital in Taiwan, Langway saved the Caps franchise, won two Norris Trophies (when the trophy still could be won by a defenseman who essentially just defended), captained the team to playoff appearances in all 11 years he was in D.C., rocked an amazing ‘stache, played sans bucket and wound up in the Hall of Fame. If only Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had been as effective in their stints as “Secretary of Defense”…
Someday, Nicklas Backstrom might be the top Swede in Caps’ history, but for now it’s Calle Johansson (edging out Bengt Gustafsson). Johansson is more than just a placeholder, however, as the current Caps assistant coach has played the most games in franchise history (983 during the regular season), and is fifth all-time in assists and eighth in points, racking up 474 over 15 seasons in D.C. spent patrolling the blueline in any and all situations. Johansson was the prototypical Swedish player - smart, swift, and strong at both ends of the ice.
Alexander Semin. With the team’s top on-ice shooting percentage in the five-year span from 2007-08 through 2011-12, Semin… just kidding. It’s Ovi. Three Harts, three Pearsons, three Richards... hey, that’s an Ovechtrick. By the time he’s done in the District, Alex Ovechkin will own just about every team scoring record, and hopefully have a notable team achievement or two as well. Because as nice as the Calder, Ross and those other trophies are, the Conn Smythe is the nicest.
Bonzai was born in the Ukraine, but moved to what is now Slovakia (for whom he has competed internationally) during his youth. An eighth-round pick back in 1990, he’s the team’s all-time leader in goals (472), points (825) and All-Star appearances (five), and twice led the League in goals (tied with Teemu Selanne in one of those seasons). Bondra was as exciting a pure scorer as you’ll ever see, and a natural thespian to boot.
The story of Pivonka’s defection from what was then Czechoslovakia reads like a big-screen thriller, and once he was safely on this side of the Atlantic, Pivonka proved to be worth the risk. Over the course of his 13-year career (all spent playing for Washington), Pivonka racked up the most assists in franchise history (418), a mark that still stands. He’s also in the Caps’ top-10 in games played (5th), goals (10th) and points (4th), despite a tenure that certainly had its share of ups and downs on and off the ice. No, he wasn’t the second-coming of Peter Stastny, but Pivonka was the first in-his-prime Eastern European in team history, and he paved the way for a lot of those who followed.
Olie Kolzig (South Africa)
Olie Kolzig. About as “rest of the world” as they come, Kolzig was born in South Africa to German parents and grew up in Canada. He’s the Caps’ all-time leader in wins (301) and games played by a goalie (711), led the team to its only Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1998, won the Vezina Trophy two years later, and was a pillar of the community for more than a decade. Also… the hot dog card. And to think, he was nearly a Bruin.
And there you have it – D.C.’s hockey best from around the globe.
Of course, none of these stand-out individual performers has yet delivered the sport’s ultimate prize to the City of Magnificent Intentions, but perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, as Simon Hoggart once quipped, “In Washington, success is just a training course for failure.”
And though the Caps have been light on the success, at least they’ve done it with the sort of international flair befitting of the city they represent, which is... something.
Now, if the Russian captain, his Swedish linemates, their American Hero blueliner, Canadian netminder and rest of their “It’s a Small World” cast members can somehow win the NHL season’s last game?
Now that would truly be, well, everything.
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