Picture this, hockey fans: it is six months from now and post time for Washington's first-ever appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Inside the enemy arena they're playing The Star-Spangled Banner, while outside a youth wearing a tie and bearing a note from his mother attempts to convince security guards he is really the Capitals' coach, not some tardy program vendor. Finally, reluctantly, 27-year-old Gary Green is waved inside, where he finds the Caps have another crisis: no goalie. Seems that Mike Palmateer, who is scheduled to start that night, has been delayed because he is checking out a solar-powered popcorn cooker. At night? Naturally, Palmateer, otherwise known as the Popcorn King, just has to sample the product before the puck drops. So, do the Caps go on to snap and crackle without him? Or will Sunkist popcorn replace "fam-i-lee" as a team inspiration?
Hold the melted butter a minute; Palmateer wants to set something straight. Despite the bushels of popcorn stories about him, the number of popcorn machines he possesses and endless requests to pose for pictures with a box/wheelbarrow/Toyota full of the yellow stuff, he is not a popcorn freak. "While I was in Toronto, I noticed that if I happened to have some in my locker I'd generally have a good game," he says. "But it was more habit than superstition. Then somebody wrote about it."
And before you could say Orville Redenbacher, Palmateer became the Popcorn Kid. "But that's all history," he says. "I want people to think of me as a serious hockey player, a thinking goalie. I'd like to kill the guy that wrote the popcorn thing, because that's the first thing anyone associates with me."
Fear not, Mike. The Popcorn Age ended for the four-year NHL veteran in the Caps' season opener a fortnight ago as Palmateer beat Winnipeg 4-1 in his Capital Centre debut. Few of the 12,984 watching the man in the Confederate-flag mask hurl himself into orbit to halt flying pucks could possibly have regarded him as anything less than a "thinking goalie." And Washington's powers-that-be—namely. Green and G.M. Max McNab—were all the more certain that they had not acquired a mere cruncher of popcorn.
"How could any team not like Palmateer?" says Green, whose young, injury-ridden Caps missed last season's playoffs by just three points. "We knew we needed consistent goaltending to take us the extra distance, and with Palmateer available, we went after him."
In this day of alternating goalies, Palmateer takes turns in the net with Wayne Stephenson, the Caps' No. 1 goalie last year. In his most recent game, Palmateer scrambled to a respectable 3-3 tie in the Centre last week with Montreal, a team Washington had beaten but once in its history.
Palmateer became a free agent on June 1 after an unhappy and unproductive season in Toronto, and signed with the Caps 10 days later; in return, the Caps sent Defenseman Robert Picard, Forward Tim Coulis and a second-round draft pick to the Leafs.
"It wasn't just a trade," says Palmateer. "I had the option of where I wanted to go. And I did want to come to Washington. When we played the Caps last season, I could see the desire and drive in their faces. That's important to me, to be with a team that has heart and the desire to be winners."
The Caps have been looking to be winners since the end of the 1974-75 season, their first in the NHL, when an 8-67-5 record gave them a no-down-payment mortgage on the adjective "hapless." Last year's late-season drive almost shook the hapless image, but as Green says, "We started too late. If we'd pointed toward the playoffs in November instead of January, we'd have done it."
But even breathing the word "playoffs" in Washington was a novelty, and Green was primarily responsible. A mere child by stodgy NHL standards, he took over the Capitals in November, when he was just 26. Up to that point his pro coaching career had consisted of 14 games with Hershey of the American Hockey League. Before that, he had coached junior hockey in Peterborough, Ontario. "I had never coached pro hockey; I never even played pro hockey," he says. "But I've always been in a big hurry." Indeed, Green earned a degree in psychology from Ontario's Guelph University in only 2½ years, became president of a hockey school at age 21 and then knocked on every door in hockey to establish himself. He organized international seminars and wrote three weighty books on the psychology of the game. His industry paid off when the Caps promoted him a month into last season.
"There was some concern among hockey higher-ups as to whether I could do the job, maybe because I don't have any gray hair," Green says. "Well, you don't see the gray hairs because I pull them out every morning." And while hard-liners wondered out loud if the baby-faced Green could tie his own shoes, he led the Capitals to their best record (27-40-13).
"It's definite we will make the playoffs this year," says Palmateer. He has the air of one who's been over this ground before. "The addition of a few veterans like Bob Kelly and Jean Pronovost gives us some balance." But the key to Washington's balance will be Palmateer himself.
Once the darling of Maple Leaf Gardens, Palmateer ran into contract problems a year ago, then suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for six weeks. The Toronto brass thought he was faking it and said so, which only added to his displeasure with the team.
In Washington, Palmateer, a bachelor, claims to relish the fact that he can wander around without being pestered for autographs. With his riot of buff ringlets, his patched jeans and a snazzy Mazda, the 5'9", 170-pound Palmateer could pass for a college kid cutting classes. "Mike will enjoy the privacy for a while," McNab predicts. "A player has to make his own fans, in his own good time."
If any man was ever destined to make instant fans, though, Palmateer might be the one. His goaltending style, which Green calls "different" and McNab terms "heart-stopping," is bound to keep habituès of the Centre watching to see what he does next. "You look at him out there, flipping and flopping and doing those rollovers and crazy things, and you say, 'How can he do that? He'll hurt himself,' " says Center and Team Captain Ryan Walter. "But he's quick, so quick that if you blink, you miss a few saves."
Unlike most goaltenders, whose repertoire of moves is limited to kick-save, drop down, come out to cut down the angle, Palmateer's would fill three legal pads. If his saves had names, they'd be called Outfielder, Student Body Right, Sky Diver, Nadia and Niatross. Seeing Palmateer weather a flurry of shots is a regular sideshow attraction. "He wriggles and he writhes, he twists and springs!" Against Winnipeg, Palmateer lost his stick after a foray to the blue line, and seconds later he made a bare-glove save. Hardly your everyday hockey move.
In fact, Palmateer often tosses his stick aside in practice, fending off pucks with only hands and legs. "Partly, I do that stuff to stay loose," he says. "O.K., I admit it. I don't kill myself in practice. To me a practice is maybe four or six ouches. Over a season, those ouches add up. Games are another story. That's real hockey."
Palmateer's philosophy of goaltending is that the whole process is mental. "When I'm making the unbelievable saves, or when I'm getting bombed by pucks and stopping them, that keeps my mind in position," he says. "It's a high. But if I play 50 games this season, the odds are I'll have half a dozen off-nights. Then someone will say, 'Oh, you can't win them all.' I'd like to know why not. I've got to constantly tell myself that no matter how many pucks got by me, no more will."
Palmateer's freewheeling style, in and out of the net, stems from his early hockey experience. Until he was 17 he played goalie in one league and forward in another, which afforded him an unusual view of the game. "I can see plays unfolding," he says. "And I try to quarterback, too." He also tries to be Wayne Gretzky in slo-mo during pregame skates, stickhandling and shooting as he swaggers around the ice. And with his shooter's background, Palmateer finds himself involved with the flow of play instead of just backstopping it. "I like to think opposing players don't quite know how to deal with me," he says.
Palmateer missed a shutout in his debut when a low, hard shot beat him with 2:12 left in the game. But afterward, Mr. Popcorn wasn't sweating over it. "Yeah, it was a fast one. I clocked it at 119 mph," he said. "But I didn't watch the replay. Why depress myself?" Palmateer paused, then added, "No goalie ever played a perfect game. It's too easy to make little mistakes. You can try to play the game to perfection, but too many times what you've really got to do is learn to save yourself." Meaning, of course, to establish a pace that leaves a store of energy for the tougher obstacles down the road. Like postseason play.
"Only 79 games to go," Green said after the Winnipeg win. Palmateer corrected him. "You better add another 20 or 25. The playoffs, you know," he said. Just don't anybody bring any of that, you know, P-O-P-C-O-R-N.