It was the early 1970s. Bobby Orr had transformed the game. The best hockey player in the world was a defenseman and every team wanted the next Bobby Orr.
The Washington Capitals, with their very first draft pick in franchise history, thought they had landed him with the 1st overall pick in the 1974 NHL Amateur draft. They were so sure they even went "off the board" to get him.
Greg Joly was a standout with the Regina Caps in the early 1970s, earning Memorial Cup MVP honours in the spring of 1974. He was so good that 25 years later when Regina's all century team was named Joly was named as one of the defensemen.
Despite the strong finish to the season, Joly was not a clear cut top choice by any means. The Hockey News had him rated #7. History would prove this draft to be weak in terms of top end talent. Clark Gillies, Doug Risebrough, Pierre Larouche, Mario Tremblay and Lee Fogolin would be judged best of the 1st round years later, although later rounds unearthed legendary names like Bryan Trottier, Mark Howe and Dave "Tiger" Williams.
So you can hardly blame the eager young Caps for taking the defenseman Joly. But rushing a young defenseman in under the most ideal conditions is rarely successful, let alone the blunderous conditions the Capitals franchise would endure. The pressure and the follies along with Joly's own immaturity probably contributed to his failing. Joly was rushed in to become the face of a new franchise, a franchise that for years would be a laughing stock. There is no rookie in history that would not have wilted under those circumstances.
Let's be fair. He did play in 365 NHL games over 10 different seasons. He was not a complete bust. But after just two years with the Caps, where he posted ridiculous +/- totals of -68 (in just 44 games!) and -46, he was on the move to Detroit. The next Bobby Orr he was not. Instead, he goes down in history as arguably the worst 1st overall draft selection in draft history.
The Caps did not do enough to help out Joly. Instead of landing him a veteran defenseman or two to guide them, the pretty much threw Joly to the wolves and hoped he'd come out smelling like roses. When he struggled early (thanks in part to hamstring and knee injuries), they did nothing positive for his confidence by taking him off his familiar blue line and playing him as a left winger and as a center for stretches of time. Ironically, the veteran leadership he needed came in the form of Bugsy Watson - the wily veteran for whom Joly was traded to Detroit for.
In Detroit he spent three full seasons with the Red Wings before becoming a regular on the shuttle to and from the minor leagues. Injuries really hampered his development. Knees, shoulder, ankle and an especially bad wrist injury really held him back.
It's too bad. Joly appeared to be a good kid who deserved better. I especially like how every summer he would return home to work on the family farm near Calgary.
His best seasons as a professional came in Glens Falls, NY with the Adirondack Wings of the AHL. He twice was part of Calder Cup championship teams and twice was named as a league all-star. I'm guessing here, but I think Joly re-found his joy for the game in Adirondack. By that stage he did not care if it was the minor leagues nor if the pay was not very good. He prolonged his career to enjoy the game again.
Joly did retire in 1986. Nowadays he works in the insurance business in Glens Falls.
It is unfortunate but the name Greg Joly will always be equated with those horrible 1970s Washington Capitals teams and with draft infamy. To this day people wonder what would have happened had the Caps drafted Regina teammate Clark Gillies over Joly and Bryan Trottier over Mike Marson in round two.