Walter McKechnie can still smile, but it takes considerable effort by buddies Dave Forbes and Ace Bailey to induce such a reaction. For McKechnie really doesn't have much reason to smile.
So far this year, the 30-year-old center has suffered with a Detroit team that won only three games after Jan. 1, been chastised for his demeanor in the World Ice Hockey Championships in Vienna, passed off to the Washington Capitals as compensation for Ron Low and fingered as a principal reason for the Capitals' current slide toward oblivion.
Yesterday, McKechnie admitted to being "paranoid" about press interviews. he has asked Canadian writers to forget him name, following a series of highly critical articles. Tonight, when the Toronto writer who christened him "Sludge" for seemingly uninspired play during an exhibition game in London, Ontario.
Perhaps worst of all, mcKechnie knows he is playing poorly. But he doesn't have th antidote, nor does anyone else. In three of the Capitals' last four games, he has not had a shot on goal. In the fourth, Saturday night against Philadelphia, he played fairly well, following an invitation to a closed-door session with general manager Max McNab.
"We know he can play," McNab said. "What we don't know is how much he was affected by the trouble in Vienna and being offered as compensation by Detroit, after being their leading scorer."
One thing I don't want to do is make excuses," McKechnie said. "When things aren't going well, it's very easy to make excuses. But I'm not going to blame anybody. It's my own problem and I've got to find my own way out of it.
"Maybe I should be working harder, I don't know. I'm probably in the best shape I've every been in, but I must not be in the best shape mentally. I don't know why that is."
McKechnie understands why some people have picked him as the scape-goat for the Capitals' present circumstances.
"It's pretty well the same team as last year," he said, "and things aren't going the way they should. I'm not playing well and others aren't exactly burning up the ice. I don't know if I'm a jinx or what it is."
Perhaps McKechnie just can't arouse the emotion needed to spur the Capitals. He left a lot of himself in Vienna, where he refused to stand at attention for the Soviet anthem and declined to congratulate the victorious Soviet players.
"If I had that to do over, I wouldn't go," McKechnie said. "Over there, the people loved me. The European press couldn't believe the way the Canadian press were treating the Canadian team. They did a job on me. As soon as I got home, I was a bum.
"My mother received obscene phone calls, and threats. It was just ridiculous. I just got too emotional over there."
Capital Centre fans have been understanding thus far, and Wednesday night McKechnie discovered that maybe serving as compensation wasn't such a bad fate. While former Red Wings Bryan Watson and Bailey were warmly greeted by Olympia fans, McKechnie received a round of boos when he was introduced prior to the 1-1 tie.
"You can see how those fans are," McKechnie said. "They had us pinned in our end for 30 minutes, and when we turned it around for a while, they were booing the Red Wings. They booed us right out of the building last year. But the way we played, we deserved to be booed, I guess."
Deserving it and suffering through it are two different things. Although his present paly doesn't rate any applause, it mihgt help McKechnie to hear some - if for nothing else than for his refusal to hide behind excuses.
"I'm miserable," McKechnie admitted. "But we'll turn it around. Things will get turned around."