|So Long, Calle by: Matt Witting 10 August, 2003|
The Calle Johansson era ended with a whimper, not a bang. Johansson decided to forgoe unrestricted free agency and retire after 17 NHL seasons.
The Capitals all-time leader in seasons and games played deeply resented being benched late in the first round playoff series against Tampa Bay, a series the Capitals ended up losing despite an initial 2-0 lead. His clash with Head Coach Bruce Cassidy has been covered ad nauseum by the media, his disgust with the situation apparent in the weeks after the season was ended in double overtime on Easter Sunday.
Fortunately for the Capitals organization and Capitals fans, Johansson and the franchise have mended some of their fences at least. Calle has decided to stay a Capital by taking the position of head European scout and will remain involved with the team for the foreseeable future. Though most fans would rather have him on the ice, it is hard to think of a better place for a player known as a mentor throughout most of his career.
Johansson was selected in the first round, 16th overall, by Buffalo in 1985 after two years with Vastra Frolunda, a professional Swedish squad. He played two more years in Sweden with Bjorkloven before joining Buffalo at age 20. In his first year with Buffalo he more than lived up to expectations by tallying 42 points and being named to the All-Rookie Squad. After one and a half seasons with the Sabres the Capitals made their move and acquired the young Johansson and Buffalo's 2nd round pick for Clint Malarchuk, Grant Ledyard and a sixth round pick to shore up their blue line to join such notables as Scott Stevens, Kevin Hatcher, Larry Murphy and Rod Langway. He helped them to the playoffs for the seventh straight season, scoring 3 points in 6 games as the Caps lost to Philadelphia in the first round.
Over the next 15 seasons Johansson proved himself one of the most consistent performers in the league. Only once did he play in fewer than 65 games in a full season (2000-01 when he missed all but 11 games). He was not a top offensive performer, though he retired the Caps all-time point scoring leader and second in goals, among defensemen. Calle's strengths lay in his instincts, his ability to read and anticipate plays on both ends of the ice. Other than Rod Langway, the Caps have had no more reliable defenseman than #6.
Johansson has never gotten the respect he has deserved from the fans and media around the league. Playing in Washington, he was never in the spotlight and never won a Cup. He has always been overshadowed, even in DC. His career in DC has overlapped with other big-name blueliners who always seemed to attract the spotlight: Rod Langway won the trophies, Al Iafrate won the hardest shot competition and was a cult favorite for his rebellious ways, Scott Stevens could check an opponent into next week, Sergei Gonchar is the most gifted offensive defenseman in the league today. Even Calle's loyalty to the Caps and longevity didn't attract notice in a franchise known for holding on to gifted players for their whole careers once they were acquired (Bondra, Kolzig, Hunter, for example). In his later years with Washington he contributed both on the ice and in mentoring such Caps mainstays as Sergei Gonchar, Brendan Witt and the departing Ken Klee.
No player has given more to the franchise to date. Johansson is one of the few remaining players from the "old-school" Caps, the ones opponents dreaded playing from the mid-80's through mid-90's. Peter Bondra is the only remaining Capital to have played a full season with Rod Langway (though Steve Konowalchuk and Olie Kolzig did make appearances while Langway still skated). In addition to Bondra, only Konowalchuk, Kolzig, Gonchar, Witt and Klee (if he stays) have played with Dale Hunter, and none were a part of the Langway/Hunter Caps like Johansson was.
One of the hardest parts of sports is seeing the great players, the ones who have come to be a part of your life for so very long, finally hang them up and retire. Seeing Sylvain Cote and Joe Reekie retire was cause for reminiscing, but not like Langway's last game, the day Hunter was traded, or Opening Day of 2003-04 when, if there is any justice, the #6 Calle Johansson banner is lifted to the rafters at the MCI Center to hang next to the other Capitals immortals. No matter what differences cropped up between the coach and Johansson in the playoffs, Johansson has been a Capitals for 16 years. His passion, his skill, his leadership, and his loyalty deserve nothing less than a lasting tribute from the organization no less than that which will be due Peter Bondra or Olie Kolzig when they finally say "that's enough".