Former NHL center Syl Apps, recognized in a Los Angeles restaurant the other day, dispatched greetings to old pals Jean Pronovost and Rick Smith. Then he said, "Say hello to Ryan Walter, too. I got to see him in my last year and I was really impressed. He's a dedicated kid."
It is recognition of that sort, from the men who play the game, that means the most to Walter, the Washington Capital's captain whose talents have been appreciated less by the press-box critics who pass out the awards.
In his first NHL campaign, Walter was chosen rookie of the year in a poll of NHL coaches. The official Calder Trophy winner, selected by the writers, was higher-scoring Bobby Smith of Minnesota.
Walter wanted very much to earn a berth on the Campbell Conference team in this year's All-Star Game, because he is a fan of Snoopy and creator Charles (Sparky) Schulz, the cartoonist who received the Lester Patrick Award at the all-star dinner for contributions to hockey. Walter, however, was ignored in favor of players with more points or ties to more successful teams."But I never look at things like that negatively," Walter said. "The biggest thing I work for is acknowledgment and acceptance among my peers. My father told me that's as much as you can ask. He always had respect for journeyman hockey players, like Bob Gainey, who maybe scored only 20 goals but came to play every night.
The coaches' poll was important to me. Everybody works toward awards, and hopefully this year it will be a team award. There have been growing pains here. Herb Pinder (Walter's agent) and I knew that when we chose Washington over Hartford. Eventually, I'll look back on the growing pains with satisfaction, but along the line I might get a little frustrated."
A recent poll of the 25 top NHL centers for Goal magazine revealed part of Walter's recognition problem. He was rated second in defense, fourth in forechecking, eighth in facing off and 25th in scoring ability. Of the 25, Walter was rated 11th overall, but his best categories are not those that inspire fan and media praise.
"One thing that's crucial in Ryan Walter's case is that every night he plays against the top centerman on the other team," said Washington Coach Gary Green. "Naturally, he takes a more defensive attitude.
"I know what he'll be like every night. He plays through the man, he backchecks, he works like crazy. Whatever you ask him to do, penalty killing or the power play, he'll try to do it. Success is not guaranteed, of course, but he'll try. He's not a finesse player and he'll never be a 50-goal scorer, or if he ever is, it will be through sheer effort.
"It will take a pretty big brick wall to stop Ryan. He's a great captain and he's going to be one of the best ever. I'd like to have 18 more like him."
Walter admits that defense is his first thought and he wonders whether he possibly ought to be taking a few more chances offensively.
"Gary has defined our job straight out," Walter said. "We play against every top line and it's up to us to play them even or better. Then it's up to the rest of the team to do most of the scoring and beat them.
"I never think that to win a game I have to score. Some nights you do, when you get the chances. If we win and I don't score, it doesn't matter. But if we lose and I had a couple of good opportunities, where maybe if I'd bear down more I could pop it in the net, then I'm upset. w
"I know I can score in the NHL. Maybe I should bear down more, take the extra chance instead of picking up my man."
Walter goes into tonight's contest at Buffalo (WTOP-1500 at 8 p.m.) with a total of 46 points, about even with his first-year 56 (he missed 11 games with knee and rib injuries) and second-year 66. He has also stretched his consecutive-game streak to 183, longest on the club, despite frequent bumps and bruises and a debilitating sickness that has cost him a few pounds and, assuredly, a few points.
"It's really frustrating when I can't do the job the way I want to do it," Walter said."I want to go 100 percent on every shift and it's frustrating when my body won't let me do certain things. I haven't felt that bad that I'd miss a game, though.
"I figure it's better for me to try to go 100 percent and actually go 90 than to sit out. It's frustrating that I've missed a lot of practices, too. It really sometimes embarrasses me, but if Gary tells me to stay away, then I stay away.
"Some things you can't control. Now if it's a matter of getting hurt, I don't know if they removed some of the nerves out of my body, but a little pain doesn't bother me at all." s
Defensemen Rick Green and Pat Ribble with return to the lineup tonight. . . Rolf Edberg's broken jaw has been wired and he will be out for some time. . . Goalie Dave Parro is skating and his dislocated shoulder does not appear as serious as Parro first feared. . . Buffalo will be missing center Gil Perreault, who suffered three cracked ribs in Washington Jan. 24; winger Rick Martin, who has a knee problem, and winger Danny Gare, who will begin a three-game suspension for his stick session with Philadelphia's Behn Wilson. t