Guy Charron is celebrating his 30th birthday today, but friends and well-wishers are asked to skip the presents. The only thing Charron really wants is unavailable at least until April -- a chance to participate in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Now in his 10th NHL season, the Washington Capitals' team captain, iron man, all-time high scorer and most valuable player has amassed 193 goals and 261 assists. All of his 621 NHL games, however, have embraced the regular season.
A few weeks ago, Charron's chances of altering that situation seemed infinitesimal, as the Capitals had won only two of their first 14 home games and managed to alienate both their fans and each other. Now the Washington roller coaster is moving uphill.
In their last 11 games, the Capitals have posted a 6-4-1 record and Charron's performance over that stretch has been remarkable. He has collected six goals and 10 assists while achieveing a plus-10 rating. His biggest achievement, however, is probably the bringing together of his teammates. It was not accomplished without paying a price.
During the dog days of October and November, the Capitals were not a happy group. Certain players were fingered for putting self-interest over team play. On road trips, some players couldn't get away from teammates fast enough. Charron tries to downgrade his role in changing the situation, but the way his own play suffered is testimony to the effort he expended.
"Maybe I put a little pressure on myself," Charron said. "The team wasn't playing well, I could see things weren't rolling well and I felt it was my job to turn it around. When you think about things other than hockey, your play has to suffer a bit.
"I felt like talking to the guys and we had a couple of meetings. We talked about having to do it together, changing things around. Maybe early, guys were more concerned with nagging than encouraging.
"Once we talked about having a special meeting to go over our problems, to sit down and if somebody didn't like somebody to say so and see if we could straighten things out. That meeting was never held, though, because it was never needed.
"I think maybe the big thing in the turnaround was the support I got from Yvon (Labre), the past captain. I was named by management when Yvon was hurt and at the point when Yvon was coming back, I called a meeting to see if the guys supported me as captain, or if they wanted a change.
"That meeting changed a few things The players supported the move and gave me support. I got support from everybody and it helped things turn around.
"Now the captain of the Washington Capitals does nothing. I don't have to worry about anything. It's done. Now our main concern is not problems about each other, but just winning hockey games."
Winning games, of course, was made easier by the arrival of goalie Gary Inness, whose brilliant play has given his teammates the confidence to forecheck deeper and take chances offensively, knowing Inness will bail them out if the gamble backfires. Additionally, the Capitals' defensemen need no longer play in fear that the slightest error will result in a red light and the fans' jeers.
"The acquisition of Inness was a big factor in the turnaround," Charron acknowledged. "It's tough to take when you lose games because a couple of goals go in that shouldn't. When the goaltender makes a couple of key saves, it builds up the willpower of the forwards.
"Robert (Picard) has played up to his potential and Rick (Green) you can expect the best at all times. Gordie Lane has been a big asset. He's both a policeman and a good hockey player. Gordie Smith always puts out, does his best whether he's playing full duty or just part-time.
"Everybody is contributing. A lot of guys have a chance to go over 20 goals. There are 19 guys who participate. Bernie Wolfe doesn't play much, but he encourages the other guys from the bench. Everybody encourages each other.
"Everybody's happy and kidding around. It's like a snowball. It builds up. You don't even have to prepare as much, because you have confidence in winning hockey games.
"Everybody is optimistic that we can beat any team. We do need to win against some of the tougher teams. More than ever, I'm optimistic that we can beat Montreal this year or any other club that comes in our building.
"Beating a team once is all we need to change our attitude. We could have done it to Philly here; we get all those shots, 43-22, and lose, 5-2. That hurts your morale. What we need is to hold them even, then get a lucky break and score late to win. Then the problem is gone."
The Capitals' early-season problems were compounded by the sudden firing of Coach Tom McVie two days before the season started. It took many players, Charron included, considerable time to adapt to Danny Belisle's requirements. In Charron's case, less ice time was a disquieting factor, and he struggled with only four goals in the first 22 games.
"It was kind of a fighting period for me," Charron said. "I had played well for a man I had respect for and for a period of time I felt that unless I was able to contribute the way I had for Tom McVie, then I wasn't playing up to my potential.
"I didn't feel I was contributing. Now I feel I am. I'm more than happy to play with Ryan (Walter) and Blair (Stewart). We seem to make a good line and the team is winning and things are fine. When you think you're not playing well and the team isn't doing well, you put extra pressure on yourself."
In addition to the pressure induced by the coaching change and the burden of being captain of a team divided, Charron has been playing with torn catrilage in his left knee.
The knee collapsed under Charron in the first period Saturday night at Pittsburgh, but he remained in the game and scored two goals. Although he was still in pain yesterday, it is almost certain that he will be in uniform tonight, when the Capitals entertain the New York Rangers at 7:30.
Charron has played in 236 straight NHL games. He has performed in at least 75 games for the last six seasons, since a cheekbone fractured by Guy Lafleur's stick brought an abrupt end to his 1972 campaign, in Detroit.
For the last two years, Charron has represented his native Canada in the World Ice Hockey Championships, an experience he treasures because "it has the same pressure as in the playoffs. Every game is like a playoff game. Those two years are highlights of my career as far as participating in pressure games."
Other highlights were playing alongside Jean Beliveau in Montreal and Gordie Howe and Alex Devechio in Detroit. Now Charron Thinks that at age 30 it is time he got his feet wet in the Stanley Cup.
"The playoffs are my main goal right now," Charron said. "There are things in life you like to prove to yourself. I've been able to prove some of it on an individual basis, but this is a team goal that overrides anything else.
"The spirit of this hockey club is great and everybody feels we have a chance for the playoffs. Every game is a goal for us now. We've been able to find a certain togetherness, a unity of 20 guys. But we can't just talk about it. We have to go out and do it."
Tonight marks the first Capital Centre visit of Swedish millionaires Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, who have helped the Rangers become contenders. Nilsson has 24 goals, Hedberg 19.