When Robert Picard was a teenaged defenseman in Montreal, he haunted the Forum to study the great defenders of the Canadiens -- Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe. He dreamed of the day he could play in the National Hockey League and perhaps prove that he was All-Star caliber, too.
Next week Picard, age 21, will wear the same uniform as Robinson and Savard, joining the NHL All-Stars for the momentous Challenge Cup series against the Soviet Union in New York. Lapointe will not be there, however. He, Toronto's Ian Turnbull and Minnesota's Gary Sargent -- standouts all -- have failed to survive the fianl cuts.
"I never thought it would happen thie early in my career," Picard said yesterday, regenerating his battered bones in the Capital Centre whirlpool. "It's something very big. There are over 100 defensemen in the league and I get picked as one of the seven best ones.
"At the start of the year, I never thought I'd be going to that thing. They have guys with lots more experience. It just proves that anything can happen. It's really something to think of playing with those guys -- (Guy) Lafleur, (Bryan) Trottier, (Clark) Gillies. Even if they tell me to sit out, just being part of those 25 guys is a great thing for me."
Six weeks ago, Picard appeared to have little chance of being an NHL All-Star. The Capitals were playing disorganized hockey and Picard, trying too hard to correct the situation, instead was helping to make it worse.
At Christmas, several Capitals used the two-day hiatus to return to their homes in Montreal. Picard remained here, counting on a longer stay at home during next week's break. Now he will not get there at all, but he is too happy to be concerned -- happy not only about his All-Star status, but also that he found his path out of the doldrums.
"It's hard for me to figure out what happened early this year," Picard said. "Last year I had a great ending and this summer I told myself I was just going to go out there and play hockey. But you can't just play hockey. I wasn't working. I have to hit, take the man, land extra hits. If you have to fight, you fight. I realized it by myself and one night (Dec. 14 in Boston) I threw all kinds of checks and nobody challenged me. I had confidence and everything started to go right."
In the last 21 games, beginning Dec. 17 with a home contest against Toronto, Picard has recorded 12 goals and 19 assists while posting a plusnine rating. For the season, his 15 goals, 28 assists and 43 points all have set Capital records for a defenseman. His plus-minus rating is even and he has fired shots on goal in 30 straight games, with at least four shots in each of the last eight.
A key factor in the offensive production has been his willingness to gamble, to complete a play offensively rather than to hustle back on defense with the puck still in the opponent's end.
"I have more confidence in the wingers," Picard said. "Last year if I got caught the other team would get a two on one or a three on one. Last night (in the 5-3 victory over Los Angeles) I got caught twice and the winger was back both times to fill the hole. With the wingers coming back, it's easier for us to chip in and gamble. Before, we couldn't."
Early in the season, Picard's shots were sailing in all directions, scattergun fashion. Now, unless he is trying to avoid a defender, his shots usually are on the net.
"In practice before I used to try to pick up the corners," Picard said. "Now I make sure I hit the middle of the net in the beginning. When I have the shooting right, then I pick up the corners. And at the beginning of the year, I wasn't shooting enough."
On the power play, it is customary for the point men to stay at the blue line, ready to scoop up clearing passes by opposition penalty killers. Picard has been cheating on the left side and his forays have stirred things up, helping to produce Washington power-play goals in nine of the last 10 games.
"The way we're doing it, it's opening up the play," Picard said."Before we'd be at the blue line waiting for a pass and take it from there. This way a lot of things can happen. I can get the puck to (Bobby) Sirois when he's open or pass across to Guy (Charron) like I tried last night and it wound up in the net. Sometimes I get caught too deep, but this creates a lot of other things and the power play is to score goals, not avoid the other team."
Last year Picard always was trying to carry the puck. He often succeeded; according to General Manager Max McNab, because d "he was getting away with a lot. He was carrying the puck dangerously, making moves the opposition couldn't believe he'd do. This year they were playing him to carry it and he was still trying to force the offensive play. A defenseman can't do that. He has to take what's there."
"Lately I've been more effective to the team when I don't have the puck," Picard said. "I like jumping in holes to force the play. Then when I get the puck I'm in position to do something.
"Last year I tried to do everything. I did too much and sometimes, like the other night in Detroit when I got burnt, I still do. But now I try to let my teammates work for me. It's a team thing and sometimes when you're 20 or 21 it takes you a long time to realize it."
The Capitals of October and November were not a very happy bunch, building an awful 5-17-4 record and going their separate, grumbling ways. A particular point of contention with some teammates was Picard's nearmonopoly of sports-page ink, a factor he cannot control.
"When you're losing, it's always like that," Picard said. "Guys are yapping at each other. When you lose, you don't go to parties. You go home and look yourself in the mirror and try to find out what's wrong. I figured I wasn't doing my work, so why put it on other guys. I'd keep it to me. It shouldn't ever be like that. Now I contribute to the team more and I spend more time with the guys. When you're winning, everybody's together."
Next week, once again the Capitals will be following varied paths, some to Florida and others to hometowns. Most are happy to get the chance to rest, to nurse their bumps and bruises, to rejuvenate their bodies. For Picard, in New York, it will be work, but not as usual.
"I wish I had a week's vacation," said Picard, who has been playing despite an assortment of nagging injuries. "But for me this is such a big thing. I think it's going to be a great series.I'm not going there on a party. I'm going for glory, I guess."
What could be more glamorous, at age 21, than participating in the true would series of your sport?