The last month or so things have been going just great," Jim Bedard said the other night. He was being interviewed after another Washington Capitals victory, those items that were becoming as rare as a Tom McVie smile until Bedard was called up from Hershey, not coincidentally, about a month ago.
In 33 days, Bedard has become the darling of Capital Centre fans, made Ron Low a dim memory, overshadowed some fine play by Bernie Wolfe and completely transformed the nature of the Washington defense.
Defensemen who once streamed back toward their goal in disarray can now stand up at the blue line, confident that if someone slips past, Bedard is capable of making the big save. He made a lot of them Wednesday night while stopping 34 Los Angeles shots for his first shutout as a professional.
Even more important than his quick reflexes, the Capitals feel, are his ability to move the puck, to help the defense clear the zone quickly, and his penchant for charging out to challenge the shooter. But the biggest thing in his favor is a willingness to learn, a characteristic amplified by the presence of Bedard's boyhood hero, Roger Crozier.
Bedard, who turned 21 in November, recalled his childhood in Niagara Falls, Ontario, when, "I watched the NHL goalies on television and paterned myself after Roger Crozier. He was my idol when I was growing up. Our styles are similar. He deflects a lot of shots with his stick and moves down and up quickly."
While Bedard was familiar with Crozier, the veteran goalie had never seen Bedard until last winter, when he was sent to Dayton to work with Bedard and Dale Rideout, two youngsters who had impressed the Capitals' scouting staff with their maneuverability on the ice.
What Crozier found were two players somewhat discouraged at being in the International League, somewhat doubtful of the future.He quickly remedied the situation.
"Please mention Roger Crozier," Bedard volunteered after his shutout Wednesday. "Last year, I was a little disappointed to be sent to Dayton and I wasn't concentrating, or working as hard as I should. I was picking up a lot of bad habits. Roger came down and gave me a big psychological lift. He pointed out that Dale Rideout and I were the only goalies in the system and the opportunity was there."
Crozier pointed out other things, too, but he was reluctant yesterday to pat himself on the back.
"If Jimmy says we've helped him," I'm delighted," Crozier said. "We just hope we've helped all out goaltenders, with the school we had before training camp and at other times. I've had good rapport with Jimmy and if he needs advice I try to help him. But the single most important thing is that he has the talent. This guy is really talented. he's done a lot of it on his own. He's a good thinker about what he's doing on the ice.
"He challenges shooters well, he has quick reflexes, he recovers quickly, he has good hockey sense for sizing up things, he handles the puck extremely well and he helps his defense."
In addition, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Bedard is confident of his ability. He's not exactly cocky, but he knows he can do the job. It's an attitude he has managed to convey to his teammates and it has evolved through a long period of necessary self-reliance.
At 16, Bedard left Niagara Falls as a midget draftee to play for Sudbury, a dreary mining town in remote northern Ontario.
"I had to go," Bedard recalled. "That first year, I was really homesick. At 16, I didn't feel I should have been away. I was really struggling and I wasn't ready for junior, but I got a lot of valuable experience practicing with those guys and I played about 32 games."
In his final junior season, Bedard played 55 1/2 games, recorded a 3.15 goals-against average and was the all-star goalie. He attracted the notice of the Capitals, who picked him in the fifth round of the amateur draft.
Bedard appeared in three exhibitions for the Capitals and played well enough to expect assisgnment to Springfield, in the American League. Instead, he was sent to Dayton, in what was a calculated move by the Capitals to give both him and Rideout the same opportunity.
After Crozier rescued him from the doldrums, Bedard clearly outclassed Rideout. In Dayton, his average was better, 3.74 to 4.12, and in both the goalie school at Fort Dupont and training camp at Hershey, Bedard was a standout. It was not until his third exhibition game last fall that he yielded a goal, permitting the Capitals some face-saving reason to ship him to Hershey.
This time, keeping Crozier's word in mind, Bedard was not upset at the assignment.
"A lot of guys I played with in junior were lost in the shuffle," Bedard said the day he was sent down. "Here I know I'll get a good look and an honest chance. It's kind of staring me in the face. I've got to be ready when my number's called."
As the Capitals flirted with total collapse, that number was called sooner than anyone expected. McVie simply couldn't think of anything else to do to stem the losing tide, until Crozier, in one of the team's innumerable conferences, talked about Bedard.
"I saw him play several times in the American League and every time he played a very strong game," Crozier said. "He was playing as well as anybody in that league."
So Bedard was promoted and Wolfe was demoted, in a secretive manner that heaped even more pressure on the rookie. But where Capital Centre fans chanted "Ber-nie, Ber-nie" in anger at Gary Smith, they never had the opportunity to get down on Bedard. He played brilliantly in virtually every start and the downtrodden Capitals were able to regroup.
Despite increasing injuries, Washington has posted a 4-1-3 record in its last eight games and, while Wolfe has contributed three excellent performance in goal, it is Bedard who rates principal credit for the turnabout.
"He's played 10 games with us now and I've watched the films of every one, every goal scored against him, and there hasn't been a bad one yet," McVie said in slight exaggeration.
Bedard has yielded 30 goals in 10 games and no netminder will ever admit there was a shot he couldn't have stopped. Bedard specifically can recall a couple of Boston goals that upset his metabolism.
It can be affirmed, however, that no Washington goaltender, Low and Wolfe included, has displayed the overall mastery of the position exhibited by Bedard in his 10 games here. No team can be a winner without top-flight goaltending and, conversely, a great goalie can overcome a lot of defects. Bedard is only 21 and, if he can maintain his efficiency over the long haul, the Capitals will, at last, be moving up.