A year ago, Robert Picard came to Washington wondering about the nature of his reception from hockey fans and Washington Capitals teammates. Learning that his salary with the Capitals was below that of lower draft selections, he had signed a second contract with the Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey Association, vowing that "I would rather sell pizzas in Quebec than play in Washington."
The WHA would not process the Nordiques' contract, the Capitals produced more money and Picard donned a Washington uniform. Quebec fans threw pizzas at the youngster during an exhibition game, but in Washington the longsuffering folks at Capital Centre saw all that talent and oozed forgiveness. Teammates, pleased to see Picard's fists coming to their rescue, bore little resentment of his fat contract.
That first National Hockey League season had its pitfalls, including a back injury and a broken right hand, but by its conclusion in April Picard had reached a high level of excellence for a first-year man, moving the puck adroftly and with confidence.
Today, Picard returns to Washington recognized as one of the sport's future stars. He played capably for team Canada in the world championships. He is one of three Capitals listed on the NHL/Wilkinson computerized all-star ballot. He will soon be featured in a Sports Illustrated display on second-year defensemen. And asked for his thoughts on the commencement of a second Washington season, be exhibited a new level of maturity.
"I hope the fans will be with us," Picard said. "If the people help us a little, come to the games, give us a hand - I don't mean play for us - they can really help the guys.
"My goal this year is to make the playoffs. For us it would be great. If we make the playoffs, we could surprise a lot of teams. There would be no pressure on us; it would all be on them."
Asked about personal goals this season, Picard said, "I'd rather just talk about the team."
Picard has one long-range personal goal, however, to be the best defenseman in hockey. He has worked hard to develop his abilities in that direction.
"I've made many sacrifices to get here," Picard said. "When I was 15 or 16, my friends would be having fun.I would be on the ice. I put my mind completely into hockey and it has paid off. From talking with my friends this summer, I think now they wish they had made the sacrifices."
The all-star ballot, on which he is listed with 17 other defensemen, and the Sports Illustrated attention have shoved Picard ahead of schedule on that long road to No. U.
"I feel great about being on that ballot," Picard said. "For myself it's a good thing and I'm going to work to play in it (the Soviet series). Even if I don't, just to be considered with so many great players make me proud."
Picard stayed on the ice for an hour after the Capital's recent exhibition in London, Ontario, while a Sports Illustrated photographer maneuvered for the desired pose.
The next morning, early-rising teammates considered the idea of phoning Picard, to tell that the photographer needed some immediate retakes.
"He'd go over there, too," assured his nominal defensive partner, Bryan Watson.
Picard indicated that Watson was right on target.
"It's something a little extra, a really good thing for me," Picard said. "I never thought I'd be in Sports Illustrated that early in my career. Maybe a few years from now, but now this soon."
There have been disappointments for Picard from a publicity standpoint, too. A native of Montreal, where hockey is king, he finds it hard to accept the Washington media's preoccupation with the Redskins and Bullets.
"Last winter, a friend called to tell me there was a big story about me in the paper," Picard said. "It was in a corner of the first page. In Montreal, a big story would be two full pages."
While Picard was entangled with Quebec, his predictment warranted front-page copy in the French newspapers in Montreal, day after day. But in sports, conflicts rarely maintain their intensity. Last week, the Capitals played another exhibition in Quebec, and there was little adverse reaction.
"There was nothing," Picard said. "I was just a player from another team. When I was named a star, they booed me, but I didn't mind then."
Picard still makes mistakes, but now he is able to accept criticism. There are no signs of the tantrums that marred his first half season, when he broke his stick over the glass and stormed off the ice after an unkind word from Coach Tom McVie.
"According to the way he finished last season, Robert is not playing up to his capabilities," McVie said yesterday. "He's still doing things wrong, like trying to carry the puck down the middle instead of along the boards. But it's training camp. That's why we have it. He'll be there when the season starts."
"I knew I was running around a little," Picard said. "It takes a few games to settle down. I've been playing with Pete (Scammurra) instead of Bugsy (Watson) and I wasn't sure for a game or two what he'd be doing.
"With some guys, I don't know how they play. If I'm out with Guy (Charron) or Bobby Sirois, I know what they're going to do. But other forwards, it can be hard. If I rush and they don't cover up, we'll get burned."
Picard is still wearing a protector on his right hand, broken a second time during the world championships. He plans to discard it when the season starts.
"It kept me from lifting weights all summer." Picard said. "I plan to start when we get to Washington. I lost muscle this summer. I got hit badly in one game and I could tell the muscle on my right side was gone. It's coming along great now. I've been leaving the muscles relax, because they were tense after not doing anything for so long.
"Right now, I just want to get through training camp without getting hurt, work hard and get ready for Oct. 11 (opening night). I' in good shape. I want go get off to a good start, have a good year and good career."