When Mike Gartner was growing up in Toronto, the highlight of each week was the televised National Hockey League game on Saturday night. Gartner watched the stars and wondered what it must be like to play in the NHL.
"Pro hockey was always a dream but it did not start to become a reality until I was 15 or 16," said the Washington Capitals' right wing, a 34-goal scorer at age 20. "I was always a fairly good skater and that helped me, because I did not have a lot of talent through my minor hockey and junior years. "I'm just starting to develop other skills now. In junior, I'd just try to shoot as hard as possible and hope I'd hit the net. Now, in practice I go for the corners and my main goal is hittig the net."
Gartner's 34-goal accumulation greater than that of any other player chosen in the 1979 draft. Also, he has scored in eight straight games, five shy of the modern NHL record held by Los Angeles' Charlie Simmer.
At the Centre, fans respond to every shot by Gartner, and the folks who create the bedsheet graffiti have chosen him their No. 1 subject, with such messages as "Gartner, Speed Kills" and "Mike Gartner, the Caps' Eric Heiden," and, "Oh, Thank Heaven for No. 11." Last night, the Capitals Fan Club chose him the team's most promising player.
Gartner first skated at age 3 and leaned on a hockey stick so soon thereafter that he was not old enough to know what he was doing. That is why he is a right-hand shot, although right-handed. Most Canadians shoot left, because they are right-handed. Only in the United States, where boys generally pick up baseball bats before hockey sticks, does a player normally shoot the way he writes.
Gartner is extremely strong, with a grip that temporarily paralyzed a few typing fingers when he first greeted reporters in Hershey, but he is not a barbell freak.
"During the summer, I play tennis, squash, racquetball, golf, tag football," Gartner said. "My body (a solid3 feet, 180 pounds) is generally in condition. I use the weights just a little bit, just to tone up."
Gartner finds it difficult to relax. Tuesday, as the players awaited Coach Gary Green for a scheduled team meeting, Gartner was busily engaged in table tennis competiton.
Gartner left his home in Barrie, Ontario, at age 15 to play junior hockey in Niagara Falls. He boarded with a family named Taylor, recent immigrants from England.
"I stayed with them two years and they were fantastic people," Gartner said. "I was just one of the family, really. I was so busy playing hockey and finishing high school -- yes, my priority was hockey -- that I never had time to be homesick."
He signed with Cincinnati of the World Hockey Association, even though he had another year of junior eligibility that made him immune from selection by NHL teams.
"I thought I'd get a lot more experience, a lot more exposure and a lot more money," Gartner said. "I signed for one year but the club had an option for four more years. If the WHA had survived, I was prepared to stay there as long as they wanted me.
"Then the merger came and I had no objection to being drafted, although I was already a pro. It's nice to be a free agent, with a little more bargaining power, but I had gotten a year of experience while I was supposed to be playing junior and now in the draft it was just as if I was coming out of junior."
Nevertheless, Gartner reported to Hershey late because of a monetary squabble with the NHL. Five members of the WHA's other defunct club, Birmingham, protested their inclusion in the draft and were bought off by the NHL so that the merger could go through. Gartner felt that, although he had not complained, he deserved the same amount. The case is pending before the courts.
While Gartner hs no intention of playing hockey for nothing, he cannot think of a more pleasant way to earn a living.
At start of this season, however his joy was shackled somewhat by bad luck on the ice. A victim of an inordinate number of shots off goal posts, Gartner scored only one goal in his first 12 games, three in 22.
Commencing with a hat trick Dec. 1 against Quebec, Gartner has connected 31 times in his last 46 contests and has not gone more than four games without a goal. He has scored 11 times during that eight-game streak that is still alive.
"I was a little depressed at times early in the season," Gartner said. "I had to tell myself that just as long as I was still getting the chances, things would be okay. I was a little impatient, but then, everything started falling into place."
Where once a 20-goal season seemed doubtful, now 40 goals are not beyond reach. However, when Gartner is asked about his goals as a hockey player, individual records do not intrude upon the reply.
"Ryan (Walter) and I were talking about that the other day," Gartner said, "and we have just one goal. That is a Stanley Cup ring.
"Hockey is such a team concept and to excel in a team sport you have to be able to communicate with other players. On this club, if somebody is having trouble, he just has to ask somebody who excels in that area to help out. One of our biggest assets is communication.
"When I was put on the point on the power play I felt shaky about the defensive part of it, with guys coming at you. Pic (Robert Picard) has been helping me out on the defensive aspects.
"This is a good place to play. The fans are good, They don't mind if you lose as long as you put out good effort. As we get better, the whole situation should be just great.
"Right now, I'm concentrating on hockey, but it's not going to last forever. You have to prepare for the day it stops existing. As things go well for the team, doors open up for you, things like promotional opportunities. I'd love to get into things like that."
Mike Gartner believes in planning ahead, but in at least one area he has been remiss. He does not know his ring size.