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Washington, D.C. Turns From Afterthought to Hockey Hotbed

Aug 18, 2010 – 12:27 PM
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Adam Gretz

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In this five-part series, Adam Gretz looks at the growth of USA Hockey and the number of "non-traditional" cities and regions that are now producing players in the wake of NHL expansion. This week, we'll run a new installment every day.

Craig Laughlin has been a member of the Washington Capitals organization for 25 years, both as a player and in his current role as analyst for the team's television broadcasts. During his playing days, he was acquired by the Caps just before the 1982 season in a blockbuster trade that also brought the team defensive stalwart Rod Langway, along with Doug Jarvis and Brian Engblom, all in exchange for former No. 1 overall pick Rick Green and former No. 2 overall pick Ryan Walter.

When the group arrived in D.C., the Capitals were a floundering franchise that had failed to qualify for the playoffs in each of its first eight years of existence. The team was buried in anonymity, due not only to its own struggles, but also because of the success of the other sports teams in the region. They were even in danger of bolting from the nation's capital. Fortunately, though, the team soon found success on the ice, and during the 1982-83 season the Capitals made their first appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, starting a run of 15 consecutive trips to the postseason. Since 1982, the Capitals have failed to qualify for the playoffs just six times. Only three teams that were in existence then have failed to qualify fewer times (Boston, Detroit and St. Louis).

Part 1: California | Part 2: Pittsburgh | Part 3: Washington, D.C.
Part 4: Dallas | Part 5: Florida

"When I played here I was at the 'Save the Caps' campaign back in the early 80s when I got traded from Montreal," said Laughlin. "And it was like, 'Who are the Caps? What are they?' We were like the second sister with the Redskins winning the Super Bowl and the Orioles winning the pennant."

Today, the Capitals are one of the top teams in the NHL and clearly the most successful team in the D.C sports market.

"Sports are finicky," said Laughlin. "Fans flock to great teams and great players, and right now we're on the cusp of something special here in Washington. The Caps are probably the most visible team right now. Of course, a lot of people will still say it's Redskins, Redskins, Redskins, and probably in the media that's true because it's America's game. But, when you have arguably one of the top players in the world in Alex Ovechkin, and you have Nick (Backstrom), and you have Mike Green, and you go through the list this Caps team has built, and that they're fan-friendly makes it conducive to enticing young kids to play, and we've seen a huge, huge upswing in the amount of kids that are playing this game now in our area."

Laughlin, of course, knows all about the upswing, as he is one of the most active members in the Washington hockey community. Along with being an instructor at the Capitals youth hockey camps, he's also the president of Network Hockey, a developmental program in the Washington area for players wishing to play the game at a higher level.

The unique program was started about 10 years ago, and as Laughlin explained, it's different from most hockey schools where players go for only a short period of time. This program lasts for the entire summer and is aimed at preparing kids for college, while also teaching them puck skills, skating skills, nutrition, sports psychology and, of course, education (Laughlin stressed the "student" part of student-athlete always comes first).

Jarred Tinordi, son of former NHL defenseman Mark Tinordi, was a long-time participant in Laughlin's program, and was recently selected in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft by the Montreal Canadiens (22nd overall). He was probably one of the most highly-touted kids to come out of the area and will be playing for the London Knights of the OHL this upcoming season.

"A lot of other camps, most of the instructors are volunteers," Laughlin said. "And they don't have the opportunity to focus on each kid's strengths and weaknesses. We have daily reports on each kid's performance in practice."

He continued: "My motto is performance over politics. We want performance, and we want performance off the ice, that the kid is great in school, we want performance on the ice. We started Jarred Tinordi as an 11- or 12-year-old. Did he have other coaches that helped him? Absolutely he did. And his teams, and his coaches in this area, all the programs he played in, including obviously the U.S. National Program, have all helped him along the way. But we've been an integral part in the summers, in May through August, tutoring Jarred and making sure kids like him are getting the opportunity, and that they're doing all of the little things to prepare them for college. Now, Jarred is in London, but he was originally going to Notre Dame, and our focus is on developing kids to be great kids. Hockey can only last so long, whether it's an NHL career, which is about five years in this day and age, or not, you have to live a life after, and we're big on developing a complete person, and we've had tremendous success doing that."

Laughlin also understands the barriers that many kids deal with when it comes to playing hockey, including the cost -- which we've talked about previously in California and Pittsburgh -- and explained how his program is willing to work around that.

"When you look at the numbers it might look insurmountable, but overall, we're getting better, and better, and better, and we're sort of an area here that is untapped."
-- Craig Laughlin
"We've got a lot of kids in my program that are scholarship kids," he said. "If I see a kid is a terrific hockey player and can't afford it, or is just a good person, and it could be any one of those things, we would definitely be willing take them as a scholarship kid. I think there are more and more programs that are approaching the same type of thing that we do and giving kids the opportunity to play hockey. In the long run, if you have a good kid that can't afford it, I personally don't think you should keep him off the ice and should do everything possible in your life to make it affordable for that family."

As of today, Jeff Halpern is the only NHL player to have grown up in the D.C. area, spending the first six years of his career with the Capitals. There have been a few other players, like Kevyn Adams, for example, that were born in the area, but developed their skills in other parts of the country. While the Washington area is still waiting to see more players make the NHL, there's definitely been progress in recent years as the sport has grown in popularity (the Capitals list 34 ice rinks in their area rink partnership), particularly at the NCAA level. Washington also hosted the 2009 Frozen Four.

"How many kids are really going to play Division I hockey when you look at the numbers?" said Laughlin. "It's staggering how many kids, for example, are from our area right now, I think there are four or five kids from our area out of all the kids playing in NCAA Division I. When you look at the numbers it might look insurmountable, but overall, we're getting better, and better, and better, and we're sort of an area here that is untapped. We've got a lot of excellent hockey players around here, and schools more and more are coming down to watch our kids, and to give them the opportunity, and that's a good sign here for the Washington area."

Also a good sign for the Washington area is the fact the Capitals have become a Stanley Cup contender with world-class talent. Late in his career, Laughlin spent a brief time with the Los Angeles Kings in the pre-Gretzky area, and talked about the importance of not only having an NHL team to help grow the sport, but also a successful team.

"I played for Los Angeles and I remember the teams and the players and the youth hockey that we had at our old rink that we used to practice at," he said. "I was astounded by the lack of kids involved with the game. Now you go to Los Angeles and we practice at the arena, and the Caps come in, there's a lineup of kids waiting for the Caps to come in to practice. There's a line around the rink. To me this is unheard of. I think we might have had one rink when I was in Los Angeles, and now there's a ton more. I think there's a great correlation between Gretzky and what he did there, and now Alex, and Mario (Lemieux in Pittsburgh), you go down the list of teams in the United States that have had success, it's always been the NHL teams that have a tremendous impact on the community, and more and more kids play because of that success."
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