WASHINGTON — He's back. Collaborating, reassuring, cajoling, leading, Rod Langway is back on the ice. Even with an ailing lower back, he has new life and so do the Washington Capitals.
"He mentally prepares the team to play the game," wing Craig Laughlin said of the team's captain. "He gets excited in the dressing room. We don't have a lot of guys who really get pumped up in the dressing room. He's the type of guy who can pump up the guys. By yelling, screaming, by doing whatever you want.
"On the ice, it's his presence out there--everybody feels comfortable when he's on the ice. Everybody knows he's going to make some big plays for us--he's going to block a shot, he's going to be a big part of our penalty-killing, he's going to do something."
So it was last week in Toronto. Accelerating into the offense, Langway passed to Mike Gartner outside the blue line, crossed the line and skated free. Taking a return pass, and shrewdly taking advantage of a screen by Kelly Miller, Langway "picked the corner (of the net) and I hit it." Langway had hit the game-tying goal. He was back, all right.
Crucial to the Capitals' goal of winning the Stanley Cup, Langway is the player who "represents everything we are as a team," as General Manager David Poile has put it. Langway works at the game, and will demand effort from non-performers. The cornerstone and soul of the Capitals, Langway, at 30, remains a coach's ideal--respected and entrenched, he will still sacrifice his body in games and practice as if he were about to be shipped out to Binghamton. Back after suffering a ruptured disk in his spine Nov. 25, Langway sets the tone for the now hot Capitals.
After a week in the hospital and 14 missed games, more than he missed in his five previous seasons in Washington, the tall defenseman returned Dec. 26 against Philadelphia. With his defense and an assist and a goal two nights later, he was almost looking like the Langway of old instead of an old Langway.
"Before, I couldn't move quick, I couldn't twist around, I couldn't bend down, I couldn't stand straight," Langway said the other day. "I felt like I had 35 pounds of sand on my shoulders all the time. I was hunched over like an old man."
Now, his problem is not so much the pain as the uncertainty.
"It's not a case of sharp pain like I had before. It's a case of stiffness and being inactive so long. Right now, after games and after practices, it gets stiff and it's sore. It's not painful, it's not like it was.
"I can move and I can twist and I can shoot the puck as well as I have. But still, at certain times, like after practice and after games, I know it's there.
"If I sit for a half-hour, reading the paper or listening to music, it'll get stiff.
"The doctors say they don't know. They said you could be just in your car. Or I could pick up my kid. I could do it in practice or a game--it could go again."
Langway's season could come to an end faster than he changes direction on the ice. Or, another chunk of his season could be eaten away. Or, just maybe, he may not miss more time.
How does he cope?
"I just block it out."
He said this while perspiring heavily in the locker room at Mount Vernon after a practice--a short but hard practice. Langway is not coming back gingerly; after the hour workout, he stayed on the ice as he usually does when he is feeling 100%. He stayed an extra 15 minutes, inclined to slide out the rink door only after a resurfacing machine started up with a blast.
"If there's ice, it should be used," Langway likes to say.
"He wants to play all the time," said Laughlin, already showered and dressed. "He wants to win badly. And it's contagious, I guess, the way he plays."
"I think Rod leads through example on the ice, through his hard work," said Gartner, also dressed. "That's the dimension that he adds to our team since he's come back, the hard work that he portrays out there."
Langway hates to miss games. "It's very uncomfortable for me," he said, bending over successfully to unlace his skates. "It's not my nature just to sit and watch guys play, especially since I've been playing so long. I don't enjoy sitting out."
Said Gartner: "I think most hockey players believe that you have to play hurt. A lot of our players have played hurt over the years. That's just a given when you come to hockey players."
Langway once described himself as an "animal on ice." While he skates with grace, make no mistake: he is 6 feet 3 inches, 215 pounds, and tough. He could have waited longer to come back from his injury; no one would have questioned him. But he wanted to play Dec. 26 against the division opponent Philadelphia Flyers. He was thinking ahead, too, trying to get ready for last weekend's back-to-back games, the first time he played on consecutive days in six weeks.