If the Washington Capitals can withstand for one more day the tempting talent packages dangfed in their path by NHL compatriets, they will introduce tomorrow as their No. 1 draft choice a guy with extra rations of brains and perseverance.
Center Ryan Walter of the Seattle Breakers, 6 feet and 195 pounds, beat the travel bugaboo for Western Canada Hockey League high school students by completing his final two years of schooling in one. He has already taken three college-level courses, aiming towards a business degree.
"When I was 16, I was playing Tier Two hockey in Langley (British Columbia) and I was lucky," Walter said yesterday by telephone from his Vancouver home. "They had an excellent school and I was able to finish two years in one, taking six or seven courses and skipping lunch.
"I had to do it that way, because my parents maintained that I had to finish school before going to Tier One. It always helpsto have somebody behind you pushing."
Walter was called up to the Tier One Kamloops (B.C.) Chiefs that same spring, 1975, and suffered a disabling knee unjury when he crashed into a goal post. Doctors said he might not able to skate well enough to play hockey again.
"I just couldn't accept that," Walter said, "although I tried to face the fact. I worked on that knee all summer long, going through rehabilitation exercises and going more than I was supposed to. When I went to the doctors in September, they couldn't believe the improvement. I haven't missed a game because of the knee in three years."
Walter, who totaled 310 points in three full junior seasons, has been compared to Toronto's Darryl Sittler and Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke by scouts, but he says he has not patterned his play after anyone.
"Sittler and Clarke were not in their prime yet when I started junour," Walter said. "I do respect them, though. I've tried to be a little more complete player, like them, than (Reg) Leach or somebody like that."
Coincidentally, the Capitals reportedly rejected a Philadelphia offer of Leach, a 61-goal scorer in 1975-76; Orest Kindrachuk and a minor leaguer for the first draft pick.
"I agree with the way they (the Capitals) are doing things," Walter said. "You have to stick with younger hockey players. You look at Minnesota and other teams that have gone to older players. They're good for two years and then they fall apart."
Walter was advised last year to bolt the juniors and sign a contract with the World Hockey Association. He resisted that tempting vision of instant riches, and hindsight has strengthened his feeling that delay was wise.
"I got good experience this year, particularly competing in the World Junior Championships," Walter said. "Then there was a lot of office stuff in Seattle, where the coach was the owner. I'm glad I didn't turn pro. Money isn't everything,although it helps. Growing up has a lot to do with it, too."
Adversity has been part of the growing-up process. First it was not easy making a dent in Seattle's sports scene after the club moved south of the border from Kamloops.
"We had bad dates, coming in late," Walter said. "But even though we were playing Monday and Wednesday nights, people still supported us. We averaged about 2,000, which was good considering everything. We were reserved for page six of the sports section and it was a tough rivalry year. There was pro football and then Washington's college team went to the Rose Bowl and the Sonics had a great year."
The Breakers' season concluded with a 6-2 home loss to Victoria, costing Seattle a playoff berth by one point.
"It made for a long offseason," Walter said. "Losing out by a matter of one point was heartbreaking. We had 76 points, playing in the toughest division, and Regina were in with 53 and 60 points. I learned from that, though. It's good to miss the playoffs once in a while. You know you have to work that much harder the next season."
The heartbreak was compounded because of an earlier disaster. Walter captained the favored Canadian team in the World Junior Championships in Quebec. Needing only a tie against Sweden to reach the final against the Soviet Union, Canada lost, 7-6.
"It was like somebody popped a bubble," Walter said. "We were the best in Canada and everybody told us we'd win. We expected to win and then we didn't. But it was good experience."
Now the time for experience is over. Ryan Walter is one day away from a fat contract and a spot in the big league. From all indications, he is ready.