Although Capital Centre fans have saluted him enthusiastically with chants of "Rol-lie, Rol-lie" and Coach Gary Green has given him an unequivocal vote of confidence, goaltender Rollie Boutin does not consider himself a full-fledged member of the Washington Capitals.
"I wish I was, but I really don't think so yet," said Boutin, an honest young man with roots in the farmlands of central Alberta. "There's nothing definite. I haven't earned a spot on the team yet. I've got to play well every game. "That's what it's all about up here."
Perhaps Boutin's feeling of uncertainty is abetted by the fact that he has been assigned the dressing room cubicle of ailing Bob Sirois, rather than a section of the goalies' area shared by veterans Wayne Stephenson and Gary Inness.
Or perhaps he is reluctant to embrace full NHL stature because of the recent history of the Capitals' star goaltenders of autumn, each of whom quickly headed for a fall.
In 1975, Bernie Wolfe was summoned from Richmond, won his first NHL game and became an instant hero of Centre fans with his spectacular saves. Coach Tom McVie decided saves were not enough and ordered Wolfe to become a puck handler, with such startling lack of success that Wolfe eventually could not stop enough pucks, either, and is now running a financial consulting service.
The savior of 1977, after highly touted Gary Smith bombed out, was young Jim Bedard, who came from Hershey with boundless confidence and an uncanny ability to challenge the shooters. Coach Danny Belisle criticized Bedard so constantly the following season that Bedard lost that confidence and eventually was dropped, to be picked up by Edmonton.
After Bedard was demoted, the man for 1978 became Inness, signed as a free agent when Indianapolis of the World Hockey Association went belly up. Inness posted a 14-14-8 record with 3.70 goals against and seemed destined to be the No. 1 goalie this season.
Following the tradition of Smith, however, General Manager Max McNab acquired veteran Wayne Stephenson from Philadelphia and Inness was No. 2 without receiving the chance to play himself. Even when Inness was spectacular early in the season, he saw only spot duty, so that after Stephenson proved a flop, a rusty Inness could not do the job, either.
Enter the 22-year-old Boutin, to win more games, four in his first six appearances, than either Stephenson, three in 21, or Inness, two in 14. With a 2.67 goals-against mark, Boutin's performance has been an extension of the remarkable 11-2, 2.48 record he compiled in Hershey.
It has not been easy, despite the favorable climte created for a talented newcomer by the Capital's poor start. Everyone loves a winner, particularly when he is accustomed to a loser, and Boutin quickly proved to be a winner, and a good-luck charm as well, when the Capitals wiped out a 4-0 deficit to beat the New York Rangers, 5-4, in Boutin's first game.
It was not the first NHL exposure for the 5-foot-9, 180-pounder drafted by Washington in the seventh round in 1977. That occurred a year ago, during Bedard's fall from grace. Boutin blanked St. Louis for 30 minutes in relief, then absorbed a 10-2 shellacking in Los Angeles.
"I was upset after that, I guess, and I wasn't surprised that they sent me back," Boutin said. "It was just one of those games.I lost my concentration and every shot would either go off somebody and in, or off the post and in, or right past me. Everybody has those nights, but it was bad timing for me."
So instead of challenging for the No. 2 spot behind Inness, Boutin became just another goalie in a September training camp that was to include two new faces, Stephenson and Dave Parro. At season's start, there was reason to believe Boutin would be back in Port Huron, where he had played so well in 1977-78.
"I knew I probably wouldn't get a chance with Washington," Boutin said. "I knew what was going on. They had picked up Wayne, and last year for me was not that great a year."
The Capitals kept three goaltenders while weighing Bedard's future and Boutin became Parro's backup at Hershey. Parro started poorly, Boutin quickly replaced him and he emerged a winner even on the night that the decimated Bears were forced to dress radio announcer J. D. Mathers as a spare defenseman.
From No. 5 in the organization, Boutin became No. 4 and, eventually, the No. 1 he will wear in Connecticut tonight against the Hartford Whalers (WDCA-TV-20 at 7:30 p.m.).
Once again, however, the promotion was accompanied by the knowledge that he was joining a team in deep trouble. He could have been forgiven if he had wondered how many more 10-2 games were in his future. Instead, he chose to view the call positively.
"You have to forget what happened before," Boutin said. "This was an opportunity. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I said to myself, 'You're getting a chance, so give it your best shot and hope things go well. If they don't, at least you tried.'"
Things have gone so well that Boutin will be making his sixth straight start tonight, a streak that has kept Inness idle since Dec. 12 and Stephenson active only once since Dec. 8. Green is concerned about the two veterans rusting away and he is considering starting one of them in Minnesota Saturday, but right now winning is everything.
"We dug ourselves a deep hole and we have to get out of it first," Green said. "I'm concerned they'll get stale, but if Rollie plays well and we win, I'm more concerned about winning hockey games. The position we're in, there's no choice. He's played so well, we have to stay with him."
That would indicate that Boutin can expect a shift to the goalies' dressing area in the near future, and then he can stop fidgeting about his place in the Capitals' plans. Or maybe there are other reasons for his ants-in-the-pants routine during the National Anthem, when he waves his arms, kicks his feet and has his helmet poised before the final note has died.
"I've just started to do that lately," Boutin said. "I'm just thinking about the game, trying not to let my mind wander. You have to concentrate so much more up here.
"The shots are the big difference. Everybody is that much smarter. You can't make the first move and get away with it. You make the first move and the puck is in the net. The quickness of the game is a factor, too. You have to react that much faster."
Boutin has reacted so well that even he appears somewhat surprised by all the fuss. It's as if he expects at any moment to wake up with dreams popped in his old bed in Dapp, Alberta, the tiny community northwest of Edmonton where he made his reluctant debut as a goaltender.
"I just always played goal," Boutin said. "Nobody wanted to play goal and my dad coached the team, so I was selected. I couldn't skate that well when I was a kid, either. But I kind of liked being a goalie.
"Goalies are part of the team, particularly these days. Before, goalies used to just get aside in practice to stop the shots and most of the drills were for the forwards. Now goalies are more part of the team and there's more thought given to a goalie playing the puck and making a good pass."
At Capital Centre, a lot of folks are even more interested in keeping the puck out of the net. Boutin has blocked 91 percent of the shots aimed his way and, if he can maintain that record, this goalie for autumn will be saluted with "Rol-lie, Rol-lie" for many a fall. He has a big factor in his favor. The law of averages demands that one of these men make it big pretty soon.
Defenseman Brent Tremblay, impressive during a six-game emergency visit earlier this season, was called up from Hershey yesterday. Heading in the opposite direction was defenseman Pete Scamurra, who scored three goals and had a minus-two rating in 23 games. Hampered by a sore knee, Scamurra had seen limited ice time recently . . . Greg Polis is still sitting at home, rather than reporting to Hershey . . . Tom Rowe and Robert Picard will play tonight.