A lot of us have summers in which we grow like an extending telescope, section by overlapping section, our lives all at once snapping into focus, enlarged and clear. The summer of 1984 was like that for Bobby Carpenter, the erstwhile Can't-Miss Kid who's a kid no more in this, his fourth NHL season. He has arrived, and none too soon for the Washington Capitals—the hottest team in the league for the past month (12-2-2), and second to Edmonton in the overall standings—who had gone far with their superb defense but needed a goal scorer to become a Stanley Cup contender.
No longer is Carpenter the moody former high school star from Peabody, Mass. who would play 20 games brilliantly, then 20 more like Tweedledum. He has matured, and it shows: He has been putting the puck in the net with such consistency—his 28 goals are sixth best in the league—that, barring injury, he should become the first U.S.-born player to score 50 goals in an NHL season. More important, he's fast becoming to the Caps what Bryan Trottier has been to the New York Islanders for so many years: a tough, two-way center who can dominate the offensive and defensive ends of the ice, and around whom Stanley Cups are won. Time will tell. Carpenter is just 21 and should only get better.
You wouldn't want to follow his path to stardom, however. Three and a half years ago Carpenter became the first player to jump directly from a U.S. high school, St. John's Prep in Danvers, Mass., into the NHL. He scored an assist on his first NHL shift and a goal in his first NHL game. But that was the end of the fairy tale. The 1981-82 Capitals lost 14 of their first 15 games. Washington canned Carpenter's first pro coach, Gary Green, and brought in fiery, defensive-minded Bryan Murray, who still holds the job. "That first year Bobby and I didn't see eye to eye," Murray says. "When I came in he was doing all the things that a star would do—centering the top line, playing the power play, killing penalties. But he wasn't a star. He was a kid. So the first thing I did was take him off the big line and off the power play and make his defensive responsibilities easier by putting him on the wing."
Carpenter, who as a high school offensive star had never had to learn to check, wasn't wild about the demotions and didn't mind saying so. He complained to the press and groused to his teammates that he was a center, not a wing. But he got little sympathy. His teammates' attitude was: You're lucky to be here at all, hot shot.
The 1981-82 Capitals improved under Murray, and so did Carpenter, who finished the season with 32 goals and 67 points, fourth best on the team. "I was all mixed up," Carpenter recalls. "Here I'd made the team and played 80 games in the NHL, which I never thought I'd do, and I was supposed to look sad because we missed the playoffs?"
Not exactly the attitude for winning friends and influencing coaches. Carpenter was still playing for himself, you see, trying to prove that he belonged. He wasn't a Washington Capital; he was Bobby Carpenter, the first American to jump from high school to the pros. That meant a lot to him. In Carpenter's second year his point production (32 goals, 37 assists) varied little from that of his rookie season, and in 1983-84, when he was hampered by a bad shoulder for the first 30 games, his output declined slightly, to 28 goals and 40 assists. This failure to improve was frustrating for Carpenter and disconcerting to Caps general manager David Poile, who knew Carpenter had the talent to be one of the best players in the game. Carpenter had shown that he was durable—he has not missed a single game since entering the league—but hadn't shown much else. At least not offensively. "Carpenter was a streak player his first three years," says Poile. "He kept saying he needed more playing time, but that's a two-way street. He hadn't really shown us we should give it to him."
Carpenter didn't feel that either Poile or Murray believed in him. For his part, he was immature enough to sulk instead of working his problems out during his first three years. What was perhaps worse in Carpenter's eyes was that "they didn't know what kind of person I was. They were just guessing."
In fact, Carpenter still seethes about something that happened during his second season. Poile was concerned that some of the younger Capitals, particularly the bachelors, weren't eating properly, and he tried to get them all to take cooking lessons. His heart was in the right place—many NHL rookies live on junk food—but it so happened that Carpenter was already an able cook. "I eat great at home," Carpenter says. "I make meat loaf, lasagna, spaghetti, pot roast. My girl friend brings down lobsters from New England in the summer. But they tried to make me take cooking classes, lumping me in with other guys my age when they didn't even know me. That's what really hurt me. I burned about that for weeks."
Poile laughs when told this story. He had no idea. But it's just the sort of incident that would bother a headstrong youth in search of his own identity and affect his play and his relations with his teammates. "Bobby didn't know who he wanted to be when he grew up, or who he wanted to be with," says Poile. "I don't think I knew him as well as I should have. So I tried to find out. This summer I met [Providence College athletic director] Lou Lamoriello, and we used him as sort of an intermediary."
Lamoriello, 42, formerly the Providence hockey coach, had recruited Carpenter, who would have gone to Providence had he not decided to turn pro. He and Lamoriello have maintained a close relationship ever since, and Carpenter coaches at Lamoriello's hockey camp in the summer. "There was a communication breakdown between Bobby and the Capitals," says Lamoriello, "and David Poile took the initiative and approached me. I told him that Bobby was always coming from the same direction. You have to deal with him directly. You can't beat around the bush. The Capitals felt Bobby should prove he deserved the opportunity to be one of their team's stars. Bobby wanted the Capitals to show they believed he was for real. He has very strong convictions, but they are not selfishly motivated."
Partly as a result of that conversation, partly out of desperation for scoring punch, the Caps decided to give Carpenter exactly what he'd been asking for in terms of ice time: He'd be on the first power play, he'd kill penalties, he'd play 22 to 23 minutes a game. "The bottom line for me," says Poile, "is that this is the first year that the Washington Capitals are giving Bobby Carpenter the opportunity to be the best player he can be. It's not a matter of him waking up one day and being mature. It's a lot of things: I talked to him, Lou Lamoriello did, his father did, Bryan Trot-tier did, And of course there was the Canada Cup, which gave him so much confidence."
In September Carpenter was the surprise player for the surprisingly strong U.S. team in the Canada Cup tournament. Team USA was overloaded at center—Trottier, Pat LaFontaine, Brian Lawton, Mark Johnson, Neal Broten, Dave Christian—and Carpenter was worried he might not even make the squad. U.S. coach Bob Johnson, knowing that Carpenter had some experience at wing, asked him if he'd mind playing the right side. A different Carpenter from the one who had resisted that same change three years before now leaped at the chance.
During his six weeks with Team USA, Carpenter spent a lot of time with Trottier, whose practice habits, leadership and sense of perspective make him an ideal role model. "He's a great man," says Carpenter. "I learned so much from him about defensive play, about keeping a sense of humor, about—I don't know—human nature. My locker was right next to his, and I used to hang around just to listen to him answer reporters' questions."
Carpenter had one goal and four assists in the U.S. team's six games, helped the U.S. kill 91% of its penalties and generally astounded observers with the fundamental soundness of his game. "I didn't realize he was that good," says Johnson. "Overall he might have been our best player. He really blossomed out there. He left the Canada Cup saying to himself, 'I can play with the best players in the world; now I'm going to wreak havoc on this league.' And that's what he's done."
When the NHL season began, the Capitals paired Carpenter with right wing Mike Gartner, who has averaged 39 goals a year since entering the league in 1979. They gelled instantly. "We'd played off and on together for the last three seasons," says Gartner, 25, "but this is the first year we've really clicked. He's playing with so much more confidence, shooting more, going to the net more. He's so aggressive. He's just maturing—physically, as a player and as a person."
Carpenter, who finished last season weighing 176 pounds, is playing this year at 192. He hasn't lifted weights or gone on a special diet—he has just grown. He can use the weight because his goals tend to come within spitting distance of the crease, an area you must pay your dues to enter. A strong yet graceful skater, he crashes through the slot picking up rebounds, tipping shots, taking passes and firing them quickly on net. He does not blast the puck, and his goals aren't often pretty. In a recent home-and-home series against the Rangers, Carpenter scored one goal from the corner, another from the crease, snapped in a third from the slot and, finally, booted one in and was promptly cross-checked in the neck from behind, thus getting a thankless lump: The goal was called back because of Carpenter's fancy footwork. And this season, Carpenter is playing that way night in and night out. He has scored a point in all but five games this year; last year he was pointless in 32 games. "He's got a nice feeling about him every night," says Caps captain Rod Langway. "You can sense that in a teammate."
One of Carpenter's favorite memories from the Canada Cup is of a lunch he had with Trottier and LaFontaine. They were in a restaurant in Minneapolis when a patron saw their USA jackets and asked them to identify themselves. Trottier, ever the leader, did the talking. He introduced the talented LaFontaine by saying, "He's the next coming." Then, feeling older than his 28 years, Trottier pointed to himself: "I'm the next going." Finally, he introduced Carpenter: "And he's the now."