At age 18, Bobby Carpenter is a target on ice skates, a marked man in the NHL. As a high school sophomore, he led St. John's Prep of Danvers, Mass. to a 21-2 record and its first state hockey title. Yes, as a sophomore. Now, three years later, he's trying to lift the hapless Washington Capitals to respectability. Consider the enormous burden on his shoulders: He's a U.S. kid in a game dominated by fiercely provincial and occasionally violent Canadian men. In a wink, these guys can make your face what is called coyote ugly.
"So far nothing has fazed him," a teammate says. Carpenter has already been clutched, grabbed and hooked, not to mention slashed, smashed and speared. That's how old NHL hands try to distract promising rookies. "I've been in hundreds of rinks and nobody has run me out of one yet," says Carpenter. To stay in, he keeps his eyes open, his mouth shut and his fists and stick ready.
Last June, Carpenter was the No. 3 pick in the NHL draft, the highest any American-born player had ever been chosen. He is the youngest player in the league and the first to go directly from a U.S. high school to the NHL. What makes the leap so memorable is that the caliber of play in the fastest of U.S. high school leagues doesn't approach that of Canadian junior hockey, the training ground of the vast majority of NHL players. Even in U.S. hockey hotbeds, high school teams play only about 20 games a season; Canadian junior teams play as many as 100. "I'd heard about some high school kid who the scouts said was good enough to play in the NHL," says Washington Coach Gary Green. "I said I'd believe it when I see it." Green has seen. Green believes.
Right off at Washington's training camp, Carpenter so impressed Green and Caps General Manager Max McNab that they assigned him to center a line with Ryan Walter and Mike Gartner, two of the team's highest-scoring forwards. In five exhibition games in Sweden and Finland, Carpenter scored a total of five goals. After his first six regular-season games, he had three goals and three assists, though over the next two weeks he had only four assists as Washington lost all six of its games.
According to McNab, all Carpenter needs is experience. In high school he owned the puck, so he never had to worry much about positioning. Now he must work on moving without the puck, as well as on the art of defense. He already shoots bullets and is tremendously quick. "He'll carry the puck through heavy traffic and yet make something happen because he has such quick hands," says McNab. "There's something magic in his wrists. All superior players have magical wrists. They can pull pucks away or fire shots that average players cannot. Bobby's wrists are as quick as I've ever seen."
Because a center is usually the quarterback of a hockey team, statistics alone often fail to reflect his worth. When evaluating a center, forget goal-scoring totals and focus on such subtleties as winning face-offs and playmaking. Carpenter excels at both. Against Buffalo in the first game of the season, he won the opening face-off. shed a defenseman to get at the puck, which was loose at mid-ice, and poked a perfect pass to Walter flying down the right side. Walter scored on the breakaway, and in just 12 seconds as a pro, Carpenter had his first assist.
Ten nights later, against Buffalo again, the Caps gave up a horrendous goal at 19:58 of the opening period to fall behind 2-0. Next period, first shift, Carpenter took the puck the length of the ice, beat two Sabres and scored. With one rush he had brought Washington back into the game. More important was the lift his goal gave the Capitals' crowd. One moment the fans were booing, the next they were cheering. "Great athletes seem to have some God-given gift by which they make their greatest plays at the most timely moments," McNab says. "I think Bobby has that gift."
Promising as he is, though, Carpenter very likely would be riding the bench were he playing for the Islanders or some other top team. But the Capitals need him. They are in their eighth season and have yet to make the playoffs. As of Sunday, their record was 1-11, the poorest in hockey.
Before a recent game against the Islanders, Green shook up his lines, dropping Carpenter to No. 3 center between Bengt Gustafsson and Roland Stoltz. Since then he has centered four other lines. The Caps' gravest shortcoming this season has been defending their net. One reason is that the centers—Carpenter especially—have failed to come back deep enough to help the defensemen. "Bobby's got to learn two-way hockey," says Green, "but he certainly has the tools to play defense."
At 6'1", 185 pounds—and still growing—Carpenter also has the tools to protect himself. In a preseason game against Pittsburgh, rookie Steve Gatzos took a run at Carpenter. Bobby dropped his gloves and pumped five right-hands into the surprised Gatzos' face.
Five days later, when Philadelphia's Ken Linseman slashed him, Carpenter slashed him back and cross-checked him hard to the ice. He then dived on Linseman and began throwing haymakers. "I know some guys will try to intimidate me," says Carpenter, "and I know none of them can."
To the Hartford Whalers, it was a sucker punch that sent Carpenter to Washington in the first place. On the morning of the draft, everyone knew the scenario. Hartford, picking fourth, had a lock on Carpenter. The first three selectors—Winnipeg, Los Angeles and Colorado—were set on Canadian juniors. Washington wanted Carpenter but had the No. 5 pick. Bob Carpenter Sr. sat at a table with the Hartford contingent. He was excited because it looked as if his son would be playing close to home. The Whalers had even talked to Bob Sr., a sergeant on the Peabody (Mass.) police force, about making him a team scout. (He's now doing some scouting for the Caps in New England.)
But 15 minutes before the draft began, McNab and Colorado General Manager Billy MacMillan quietly struck a deal. The Rockies, who didn't have a second-round pick, gave Washington their first-and third-round choices in exchange for the Caps' first-and second-round picks. Winnipeg and L.A. selected. Then—bang!—Colorado announced the switch and McNab had Carpenter.
The Hartford people were stunned. Bob Sr. stormed off, brushing aside a Washington reporter by saying he wanted nothing to do with anybody from that city. "He was just shocked for the moment," says Bobby. "All of his plans fell apart so fast. As for me, I didn't care. I was happy. I thought that if the Capitals wanted me that badly, they must want me to play right away."
Too true, but few knew just how badly Washington wanted to land him. All last season Capital scouts bird-dogged Carpenter. Because they were aware of Hartford's interest in him and eager to disguise their own, they adopted a low-key approach. They showed up at nearly all of Carpenter's games but seldom let school officials know of their presence. The Caps quietly scouted Carpenter during the World Junior Championships in Munich last winter as well. There he outplayed Canada's top junior player, Dale Hawerchuk of the Quebec League Cornwall Royals.
Despite his evident skills, shortly after the draft several Washington reporters suggested to McNab that he had selected Carpenter largely for his potential box-office appeal. McNab countered by producing Washington's official scouting evaluation sheet, dated Nov. 18, long before the draft. Cap scouts had rated Hawerchuk and Carpenter No. 1 and No. 1A, respectively, a breath apart. Hawerchuk was the first pick in the draft, going to Winnipeg. That left Carpenter. All that concerned McNab was whether he could sign him. McNab continued the low-key approach and didn't pressure him. Still, for Carpenter the next 2½ months were, in his word, "brutal." He had to decide whether to honor a letter of intent he'd signed to attend Providence College or to turn pro. Bobby Orr, a sort of volunteer hockey adviser to the Carpenter family, pushed college. So did Carpenter's parents. His father, in particular, worried that Bobby might not make the big club right away. He was adamant that Bobby stay out of the minors. According to Bob Sr., the minors have too many no-talent but big, overly aggressive, attention-hungry goons, the kind of players who maim you and then go out for a pizza.
Today Carpenter scoffs at the notion that his father had reason to be concerned. Carpenter maintains that he never gave the minors a serious thought. "The only question was what I wanted to do," he says, "never what could I do. If I wanted to play in the NHL, I would. My whole life, anything I ever really wanted to do, I did. Anything! Anything!"
Carpenter has always had a mind of his own. When he was 15, for instance, his coach at St. John's, Joe Yannetti, offered him a job stocking shelves at his paint factory in nearby Lynn, Mass. Bobby wanted to earn some money. Bob Sr. said no: School, hockey and work might be too much to handle. Bobby took the job anyway. By his senior year, Bobby not only was something special in hockey, but also had improved his class rank from 125th to 26th. Most fulfilling of all, at the moment at least, he had earned a promotion to second-in-command at the factory, a position whose responsibilities included actually making the paint. "Anything I ever tried hard to do, I did," he says once again.
By late August both Providence and Washington were itchy for Carpenter's decision. The Capitals had offered him a three-year contract worth a reported $600,000. On the 24th, he sat down with his parents and Orr. "It's Washington," he announced. He now admits that it was Washington all along. "I'd prepared myself for the NHL since the first day I ever put on skates," he says. "It was like searching for years for a buried treasure. When you find it, you don't say, 'Well, maybe I'll dig it up next week.' "
For their part, the Capitals have a most visible treasure. Now all they need to go with it is a team.