It's hard to imagine a rookie hockey player under more pressure than Ryan Walter, the year's first draft choice by the lackluster Washington Capitals. Talk about Herculean tasks: Walter's makes sweeping out the Augean stables seem like a picnic.
In their five years of "competition" the Caps have compiled purely and simply the most abysmal record in the history of the game. Their record for consecutive defeats (17) still stands. Until a year ago they also held the record for games played without a win (25). they have consistently placed among the last five teams in the National Hockey League, sometimes dead last, sometimes next to last, occasionally rising a slot or two only to fall back. At first the fans were patient. There was something of an underdog spirit. The Caps might be hockey's answer to the New York Mets. But as the years wore on, the writing on the wall appeared plainer: this team had to be the turkey of all time.
Ryan Walter is supposed to change all that. Just lke Greg Joly was supposed to change it when they drafted him in 1974. Everybody was saying Joly was another Bobby Orr. They signed him to a whopping $800,000 five-year contract. . . and after two years he cracked under the strain and was demoted to the minors. Now they're calling Ryan Walter (the number two draft choice in the country) another Bobby Clark. His five-year contract is for $700,000.
However, one gets the feeling that if anybody can handle it, Walter can. The guy has poise. Caps general manager Max McNab put it as well as anybody: "The kid is 20 years old, he looks 15, he plays like a 25-year-old veteran." And, he might have added, Walter talks like a 30-year-old executive. Suddenly a rich man after five years in farm teams, all he's bought is a '73 Thunderbird.
"i don't think I feel the pressure as much as if I was playing tennis or golf," He says in his direct way. "As it is, I'm part of a team. I'm here to learn, and I just go out there and do it."
A torn cartilage in his knee got Walter off to a slow start. Then the Caps went into a seven-game losing streak. Nevertheless, after 25 games (he missed three because of the knee) Walter stood third in goals, seventh in overall points, and was centering the starting line. "I think he's a dandy," said Boston Bruins coach Don Cherry.
Walter also ranks high in the team for fights and penalties. His style is hard and busy-"If you're playing with him, he's always there when you need him," says his former teammate in the minors, Wayne Babych of the St. Louis Blues. "If you're against him, he's always there when you don't."
"Most of the time it's these other people trying to find out how far I can be pushed," Walter says. "If you don't react, they really start to get on your back. So I try to be as aggressive as I can, going to the body so they haven't got a chance to deck me, or make a fool of me. I can't back down, see. Not in my position. I can't afford to back down at all." CAPTION: Picture 1, This 19-year old sophomore is the most physically intimidating center in women's college basketball. She's just one of the Front Page People you should be watching in 1979. The cover photograph of Kris Kirchner is by Bill Snead.