The records in futility established by the Washington Capitals in their first year in the NHL were challenged by the Ottawa Senators in their first season, 1992 /93. The "Capitals Watch" was on in Ottawa when it seemed that the Senators might not win as many as eight games. But they did, finishing the season with ten victories, nine at home and one on the road, and 397 goals against. There must be something working against new teams that set up shop in capital cities.
Bernie Wolfe arrived in Washington for the Caps' second season, and Craig Billington arrived in Ottawa for the Senators' season. Wolfe was a raw rookie when he got to Washington. When Billington arrived in Ottawa he had played 111 games for the New Jersey Devils and another 158 with various New Jersey farm teams in the American League. In his first season with the Senators the team struggled up from ten to fourteen wins in the 84-game schedule to finish dead last in the 26-team NHL. Billington played in 63 of those games. A personable young man who played his first NHL game at the age of nineteen after two years with Belleville of the OHL, Craig Billington loves to talk about hockey, and especially about goaltending.
Don't forget that we belong to the mythical "goaltenders' union." I like to say it's the oldest and, I'm convinced, the strongest anywhere in sports. You can run into a goalie anytime, anywhere, at any level, and sit down and have a conversation that last longer than one you would have with your best friend. I get excited, charged up whenever I run into someone who has played goal, regardless of age or if they're still playing or not. Right away you're talking about the latest equipment, or what's going on, or this guy or that guy and what happened to him, the old days, the new days, and what's happening. It's unique.
Another thing we love talking about is the different styles of different goalies. That's one of the great enjoyments. There's a tremendous amount of respect out there. We may not like one guy's style compared to another but we respect what he's doing. If he's doing it successfully, we admire that.
I think most goalies feel for the other goalie during a game. If he's having a bad night, letting in soft goals, we all know how that feels. I don't know if that carries with any other position. I had great support playing for Ottawa, not just from former players but from other goalies in the NHL today who have stopped and talked with me, guys I've never had a chance to talk to before. It's kind of ironic that within the industry you get that kind of support even though we're competing against each other.
I started in the NHL with New Jersey in 1985-86, and I was too young. I was with an organization that was still young. Their goalies were Ron Low and Chico Resch, and they wanted a young guy in there too. I was the guy but it wasn't my time. I needed to mature as a player and a person. I was nineteen and had only played two years as a junior. I really think it hurt me, put me back a few years because I was so inconsistent. I look back on it now and just shake my head and wonder how I even survived one year.
What happened that year was that I was up until Christmas. I had played in just three games and I was 3-0. Then they sent me to play for Canada at the World Junior Championships. The tournament was held in Hamilton that year and we won the silver medal. Then I went back to New Jersey and played in 15 more games. The next year I became eligible to play in the minors and I spent the first half of the year in Maine. That was my first experience with Tom McVie. Tommy is legendary, a true character who has spent his entire life in the game of hockey as a player and a coach. He took me aside and worked with me. At the time I probably thought he was a tyrant and he probably couldn't stand me. He was tough but as you get older you learn that the people who are the toughest on you are those you support you the most.
I know a lot of goalies say they never had the benefit of good coaching on their way to the NHL. Tom was different. he had coached players like Pete Peeters, Pelle Lindbergh, Kirk McLean, and Chris Terreri. Maine was co-owned by New Jersey and Philadelphia, and Bernie Parent would show up to work with the goalies. Tom explained to me that he spent a lot of time with Bernie and learned a lot from him. His practices were about 70 percent geared to the goalies so it was wonderful.
He can be a funny guy. When I first went to Maine I was very light, maybe 145 pounds. One day a bunch of us were in the weight room talking about the New Jersey Devils. Tommy came by and said to me, "You might as well keep talking about them because the closest you're gonna get to the Meadowlands is the racetrack next door, riding the horses, the way you look right now." He always kept you in your place.
The best thing about Tom was that he left you alone. He wouldn't get on your case. He let you play through tough time and was very supportive. He was usually tougher on you when things were going well than when things were bad. If things were bad he'd put his arm around you, give you a hug, and send you on your way. But if things were really good he'd be ranting and raving. I learned a lot about myself and about life from Tom McVie. He loves what he does for a living. Perhaps the secret in out life is to love what you do. So many people don't.
Another person who was very important to me early in my career was Chico Resch. I lived with Chico and his family my first two seasons in New Jersey. His wife, Diane, who had been with Chico all his years in the league, was very supportive. She could empathize with the situation I was in as a young goalie and it was great for me. At that stage there would have been nothing worse for me than going home after a game to an empty place with no one to talk to about it.
Starting with the 1987-88 season Craig Billington spent three years playing for Utica in the American League. During that time, two promising young goalies, Sean Burke and Chris Terreri, staked their claims in the New Jersey goal crease. Burke joined the Devils from the Canadian National Team following the 1988 Calgary Olympics and backstopped them dramatically to within one win of reaching the 1988 Stanley Cup Finals. Billington, by then twenty-four years old and obviously frustrated, looked elsewhere and found an opening in Burke's old spot with the National Team.
Dave King was running the National Team and I was fortunate he was looking for a goalie. I seemed like an insurance policy for the Devils. I talked with Devils' GM Lou Lamoriello and expressed my concern. Then Dave King came into the picture and things worked out really well.
There are many differences between playing professionally and playing internationally. Number one is that you're playing for your country and everyone is backing you. Secondly, there is no real issue of money, the business end of it. Everything is geared toward developing players and the experience of playing for your country. I felt that the players I was with that year got along better than any bunch of guys I've ever played with and yet none of us was making much money.
They taught us a lot in one year. They taught us about nutrition, visualization, and the psych part of hockey. We had to take a coaching clinic and had classroom discussions. They hammered home a lot of points, but it was an environment where they could do that. I look at it as being a sabbatical year for me. It allowed me to step away from the pro scene, work at my game, become stronger mentally, and then come back to it. As it turned out it was the best thing I ever did.
After my one year there, ironically, Sean Burke and I switched places. He left the Devils because he wasn't happy and joined the National Team for the 1992 Olympics in Albertville. I went back to the Devils. I had spent the month of August in Germany with the Olympic program and then got a call from the Devils. They were saying, "Hey, Sean's not coming back so we need you here." They had the right to do that. When I got there I knew I was gonna make it. I had that feeling, which I had never had before. On the other hand, it was tough because for the first time in my career I had really wanted to play in the Olympics. I had been geared and programmed for a whole year for those '92 Games. So just when it was all in place I went back to New Jersey and the NHL.
Tom McVie was coaching the Devils then. At the start of the season Chris Terreri was playing in almost all the games. I only played twice in the first two months so it was similar to my start as a 19-year old. But I played more and more toward the end of the season. I played 42 games the following season and went to the All-Star Game. So my career really took a turn after the time I spent with the national program. It proved to me you have to believe in yourself even when you're in the minors and you're twenty-four years old and people are telling you you're finished.
I had grown up with the New Jersey organization. I had spent eight years with them. I was a baby when I went there so everybody knew my story, knew what I was all about. I felt I was finally contributing. I had just had the best year of my career and played in the All-Star Game. Then just before the expansion draft in 1993, because they could only protect one goalie, they traded me to Ottawa. They decided to go with Chris, and because I wasn't making much money, I was attractive to other teams. The Devils didn't want to lose me in the expansion draft and get nothing in return, so they made the deal.
When you get traded to a team that had won just ten games the year before you're always being asked, "How did it feel?" Well, to be honest, it was really tough, tougher than I thought it would be. I thought, okay, Craig, you dealt with being on a poor team when you were nineteen but now you're a better goaltender, better-prepared mentally, so it shouldn't be as tough. But it was tougher. The expectation level for my performance was probably higher than it had been in my whole career. I had come off a year when I had played in the All-Star game and they were desperate in Ottawa for a turnaround. It was extremely frustrating, even though I know I played some of the best hockey of my career that year. [Billington's record was 11 wins, 41 losses, 4 ties.]
A situation like that becomes one of survival. When you are in the second half of the season you are so beat up, and it's not just in the papers. It's everything, the kids you run into. The people in Ottawa were extremely supportive of me and I love playing in a Canadian city. I've been in the goalie school business for the past twelve summers so I deal a lot with kids and, let's face it, kids like to attach themselves to winning teams. That part frustrates me.
People don't follow teams that don't win very much, and when you're on a losing team that works on you. And there's obviously the direct impact in the dressing room of not winning. You know that old saying about professional sports, winning is everything. That's what it's all about and when you're not winning it's not a lot of fun.
The mental anguish the players go through is phenomenal. We're not bad guys. We try our best, but the constant losing really grates on you. You have to go out and do your best regardless of the outcome, because if you focus on the outcome all the time and what your stats are - I've got news for you - you won't be going to a game tomorrow. Instead you'll be spending time in a psychiatric ward. That's how crazy it gets. About halfway though the year Brad Shaw comes up to me and he goes, "Hey, you're gonna have to relax. This is just the way it is. You're doing everything you can, so relax, because otherwise you're gonna get yourself sick. You're gonna self-destruct." That had a good effect on me and I think I played some of my best games in the last part of the season.
It definitely affected my personal life and I blame a lot of that on myself because I'm such a competitor. You can't be all that upbeat in that environment ever though people tell you, "It's just a game." Well, it's my life. I've spent my whole life doing this and I care about it. My wife, Susan, was great, but she got as frustrated as I did. There were nights we'd come home after a game and just sit there looking at each other and it was kind of like, what do you do? People say you should leave it at the rink. Well, c'mon. If you can, God Bless you. But I can't just leave it at the rink. The families have to take it too. They're not excluded from this because ultimately the husband and father comes home. And what about the kids at school? They hear it, all about how their dad plays and how his team is no good. It's true.
I remember one time, in Pittsburgh, they were all over us. It had to be 6-1 or 7-1, something like that. It was late in the game - I'm talking the last minute of play - and I freeze the puck at the side of the net and here are Stevens and Jagr poking away at it like crazy. I calmly look up at them and I saw, "Do you guys really need any more? Because if you do I'll save you a lot of trouble and put it in myself." They started laughing and the ref started laughing. I just remember their expressions because they were so intense. We just wanted the game to end and they were so determined to score another goal.
It's one thing to play 63 games in a winning environment and it's another to play that many when you're losing almost all of the time. I don't think anyone - coaches, general managers, or players - really understands unless they've been in that position. I don't think they understand at all.
Back to the Billington Articles page.
Back to the Billington Tribute Page.