On Your Marc 6/19: Lefty, the Caps & Stanley

T he call came, as important ones concerning sports usually do, from Ralph Morrow, the former sports editor of the Dayton Daily News. He wondered, in the wake of Washington’s recent Stanley Cup championship, if I was thinking about Lefty McFadden, the late founder and general manager of the old Dayton Gems hockey team.

Dayton sports great McFadden helped launch the Caps

By Marc Katz

The call came, as important ones concerning sports usually do, from Ralph Morrow, the former sports editor of the Dayton Daily News.

He wondered, in the wake of Washington’s recent Stanley Cup championship, if I was thinking about Lefty McFadden, the late founder and general manager of the old Dayton Gems hockey team.

I was not, I told him with some embarrassment. I had completely forgotten McFadden’s role as assistant to the Capitals’ president during the mid-1970s, when they first entered the NHL.

Later, McFadden would take a vice president’s role with the World Hockey Association Cincinnati Stingers and round out his multi-faceted career fundraising for both the University of Dayton and Wright State.

As usual, I was focused on the way NHL teams celebrate championships—the hoisting of the Cup by each player, the lineup to shake hands, the joyful on-ice team photo. No sport, pro or amateur, does it better.

Watching this, I completely forgot about McFadden, as well as the other Dayton connections to the Caps’ eventual success.

McFadden undertook numerous jobs in Dayton, all of them successfully, but mention his name today and the conversation moves to hockey.

The more I thought about it, if McFadden had been named Capitals general manager instead of hockey Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt, maybe the Caps would have won sooner.

Instead, during their first season in 1974-75, they compiled the worst record ever—8-67-5. Even as an expansion team, that was bad.

Midway through the next season, after disposing of former Gems coach Jimmy Anderson and having Schmidt step down following a short discouraging coaching run, the franchise poached Tom McVie from the Gems to coach.

I knew the Capitals weren’t going to get much better when I went to Washington to do a story on McVie, and saw his working roster.

On the afternoon of a game, he exercised the Capitals’ No.1 draft choice (and No. 1 pick overall), Greg Joly, following a light team practice. As Joly labored to skate end-to-ends, McVie, some 20 years older, skated circles around the player the Caps hoped would become a star.

Joly did last nine years in the NHL, but only two with Washington. He was never a star.

I like to think Joly was not McFadden’s fault.

Here was a guy who grew up a left-handed pitcher in nearby Lee’s Creek and, after army service, became a sports writer, businessman and hockey entrepreneur. For a while, he ruled area auto racing, becoming involved in hockey when Hara Arena was built in 1964.

Within five years, the Dayton Gems won the IHL’s Turner Cup, repeating a year later, in 1969-70.  McFadden assembled those teams, spotting talent where more experienced hockey executives couldn’t.

He struck up a minor league arrangement with the Boston Bruins, combining it later with another with the Capitals.

He had a rare dual ability to assess talent and market the team. Within five years of birthing the Gems, McFadden was named Minor League Hockey Executive of the Year.

The Gems usually won, and McFadden fought for every bit of publicity he could muster. Once, in 1968, he offered the great Bobby Hull a contract with the Gems while Hull sat out a contract dispute with the Chicago Black Hawks.

Hull never signed with the Gems, of course, but his mini-strike helped lead to the World Hockey Association formation, which Dayton was a part of for a blink.

We became friendly later, but early in my career, Lefty and I weren’t the best of pals.

When I took over the beat in 1970, he objected since I was a rookie and the Journal Herald had veteran writer Bucky Albers covering the team. I was blamed for every perceived slight McFadden could find, including the size of the headlines if he didn’t think they were big enough. One day he had me in tears, wondering if I had chosen the right profession.

At the first fall practice I attended inside Winterland (an adjacent building to Hara), I was dressed in a light corduroy sport coat on a 60-ish degree day.

Immediately upon entering Winterland, I knew I was in trouble, because it couldn’t have been more than 40 degrees in there to keep the ice frozen.

McFadden was dressed with an overcoat, gloves and a hat, and he jabbered on for the better part of an hour telling me about the team.

I could barely grip my pen when I was done.

We laughed about that in later years.

His connection to the Bruins and Capitals led to many Gems players playing in the NHL, including Gordie Lane, Tony White, Michel Dumas, Dave Forbes, Bill Riley, Stan Jonathan, Jim Pettie and others.

Yeah, I know the situations in the minors and majors are different, but I’d like to believe putting McFadden in charge would have improved Washington’s chances of early success.

As it was, at least he helped lay a foundation. If that’s not worth a handshake, at least it’s worth a tip of the hat.

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Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at KatzCopsNSports.com. Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at MarcKatz@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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