First thing about the Washington Capitals' Bobby Carpenter is his practice jersey: It's distinctive, black with a big white No. 1 on the back, a shirt both empty and abundant of meaning.
Second thing: the way he skates, and the way he shoots a puck. He positively glides. Quicker than an eye, he flicks his wrists -- it's all in the wrists -- and with a left-handed slap lifts a puck into the air. It rises surprisingly slowly, almost hangs suspended like the wash. A goalie's temptress, daring but untouchable. The puck floats over the goalie's shoulder and sails softy into the upper left corner, bulging the net.
Carpenter turns left with a swoosh, scattering ice chips, and circles to the end of the shooting line. Even at a morning practice in a rink in Virginia, where only small children brought by their mothers are watching, an aura envelops Bobby Carpenter.
He's "The Can't-Miss Kid," of whom it might finally be said: He hasn't missed.
"It's a good feeling, everything that's going on," he says later. "I'm just feeling real good about the team and myself."
So is Bryan Murray, his coach. Actual anger in his voice as if there just might be an injustice in the offing, Murray says: "If Bobby Carpenter isn't an all-star this year I don't know when he will be. I question (the Islanders' Bryan) Trottier even beating him out."
Yet more can be said of Carpenter because , at 21, he hasn't merely not missed, he holds still more promise. Much more.
He can be one of the Golden Bobbies of the National Hockey League. There was Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr and, for a time, Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke. Now it's Wayne Gretzky, perhaps the permanent measure of greatness in a hockey player.
Carpenter has that look. He's tall and slender, 6 feet, 190 pounds, muscular but not too much so, boyishly good-looking with curly brown hair and deep brown eyes. And he's got all his teeth, big and even and white -- NHL players count their teeth every day. Carpenter carries no visible scars from a trade that guarantees them.
"I wouldn't want to project superstardom for him three or four years from now; that's pretty heady stuff," says Max McNab, the former Capitals' general manager, currently a New Jersey Devils vice president, who drafted Carpenter in 1981. "You're talking (Gordie) Howe, Bobby Hull. That's a very select group of special people." McNab pauses. He hasn't said quite as much as he'd like about a young man he thinks of almost as a son.
"How many goals does he have? Twenty-eight. Who's got more? Gretzky, (the Islanders Mike) Bossy, (Edmonton's Jari) Kurri. That's a pretty elite group."
McNab pauses again, as if thinking, oh, cruel fate, if Carpenter were only a Jersey Devil. But, glory be, Carpenter's a Capital, and McNab offers felicitations from up the pike and down four notches in the standings, "He's going to be around a long time. He's got the wiry strength to sustain."
Carpenter has always been special, even before he signed with the Capitals. A native of Peabody, Mass., he was the most heralded U.S. hockey player ever. When he was 17, playing for St. John's Prep of Danvers, Mass., Sports Illustrated put him on its cover and labeled him "The Can't-Miss Kid." What's more, he became the first U.S. schoolboy to jump directly to the NHL.
You'd have thought he slept with his skates on.
Every city Carpenter the rookie went into he got the same questions. Was he homesick? Could he cope with the pressures of the NHL? "Everybody figured I was different, I came here from somewhere else," he says, meaning not only that he was from the United States, not Canada, but also fresh from high school. "They figured, there's got to be a story there somewhere. But it just kind of wore out after a while."
Between questions, and welcome-to-the-NHL wallops, he scored 32 goals his rookie year, quite remarkable. Then he followed up with seasons of 32 goals and, last year when he got off extremely slowly because of a shoulder injury, 28. But now, in clearly his breakthrough NHL season, he appears headed for 60 goals and, with assists, 100 points. This, then, is Chapter Two in the Carpenter Saga: "Bobby Grows Up."
"You know what's really nice?" he asks. He's pulling off gear in front of his locker and feeling justly satisfied, after Wednesday night's 6-0 rout of Philadelphia. "Being here four years. When I came in, I didn't know anybody. Now I know the people. I know the community. I've adjusted to the climate, to the life style."
Most importantly, he knows his teammates, and they him. He knows his opponents. He's playing with confidence. He is, in a word, mature. "A great player has to play 75 of the 80 games at a very high level," says Bryan Murray. "This year he's reached a high level and stayed there."
Carpenter began that high before training camp when he starred for Team USA in the 1984 Canada Cup series, almost leading the U.S. team to the championship. "The season has been a carryover from the Canada Cup for Bobby," says winger Mike Gartner.
Carpenter's father, Bob Sr., agrees. "I think he's been proving himself lately. When he went to play in the Canada Cup, they felt he was trying out, like they didn't know whether he was going to make the team." The very idea! Does that ever make Bob Sr.'s blood boil. "Bobby said he would give up hockey if he couldn't make it," he says.
"After that," adds the father, "I think they, the Capitals, decided, we've got to give this kid a chance. Before he was just playing. Now he's playing an important part. He feels more important than he did other years, part of the team. Like he's contributed. He's appreciated. It's a pretty good marriage at this point."
"I always knew he'd come on like this. I just hope he keeps it up."
Bobby Carpenter's younger brother Ron, who looks nothing like Bobby and is known as "The Bear" because he is built vaguely like one, is talking. He's seated on a bench in the Capitals' locker room. Sipping a Bud Light, too. Beating the Flyers, 6-0 . . . it doesn't get much sweeter than this.
Bobby and Ron used to play together on their back-yard rink, built by their father. Bob Sr. put down a tarp and built the boards around it, and he'd hose down the ice, like they do at the big rinks. He even put up lights.
Sometimes the brothers would go one on one. Ron "The Bear" played goalie, kind of a hockey version of "The Dresser" to The Great One and his center-stage/ice virtuosity. "That's how I broke my nose," says Ron. He touches it, still gingerly.
"Bobby would shoot the low hard ones and I'd save 'em. But the easy high ones, I'd get out of the way. The thing with him, he can put it right where he wants it to go. He'd put it right up in the corners. He could always take the corners nice.
"He was always playing, all the time playing hockey. Some days, like a weekend, he'd play three games. On Sundays, people would always be over. We were the only people with a hockey rink in the back yard.
"We had these nice goalie nets and high boards at the end, behind one net. But the only problem was we didn't have any high boards on this side, where the house is. Every now and then we'd hit the window. Then it was no more hockey for a while."
That's when Ann Carpenter, their mother, would put them in the penalty box. And Bob Sr., the Peabody policeman, would intercede to get the kids back on the ice, to what was important. What was Ann Carpenter to do?
"She goes to church every day and prays for me every day," says Bobby.
"She always worries about our teeth," says Ron. "Mine, too." A college freshman, he plays football for Bridgewater State in Massachusetts. "Sometimes if she's at a hockey game she'll stay in the hallway. She's funny like that. Or if she's watching on TV, she'll go downstairs and do some laundry or something."
Little wonder. "Did you see the Islanders' game last night?" asks Bob Sr., his voice rising. "Did you see (Gary) Sampson get it? You can get put out for a long time, for a career. Bobby almost got it, but he just got away."
Bob Sr., as he's speaking on the phone, is watching a tape of that game, the Capitals' 5-4 overtime victory Thursday against the Islanders.
"Ooooooh," he says.
"That's Bobby, he just missed that shot."
"Ooooooh. He just missed it again."
Bob Sr. likes his hockey, even scouts now for the Capitals. Young Bob says his parents prepared him well for NHL life. "I had to do a lot of things on my own. I'd come home from school and they'd be gone to work. Then when they'd come home I'd go to practice. When I'd come home they'd be in bed."
"Ah, Mom did everything for us," says Ron.
Bobby isn't going to admit he was a little homesick in the beginning with the Capitals -- he's got that New England self-sufficiency. But his father says, "We were sending a kid of 18 into the world. If he went to college (he would have gone to Providence College had he not turned pro) he would have had the chance to rise or fail or seek different levels with his peers. Even in the army, everybody is in the same boat. But you couldn't crybaby about it, you could only feel as a parent."
"He calls me a lot." says Ron. "In fact, we talk more now than before he came here." But Carpenter's adjusted. He lives in a townhouse in Crofton. He's single. Teammate Peter Andersson, from Sweden, lives with him. Occasionally, they'll go to a movie or out to dinner or "food-shopping." Carpenter, who likes to cook, usually prepares "one big meal a week" -- spaghetti, meat loaf, something like that. It'll last for a week, a whole week.
Roommate Andersson is asked what he thinks has made the biggest difference in Carpenter this season?
Andersson seems shy, and doesn't use more words than are necessary. He smiles.
"Option year." Bigger smile.
So it is. Before next season, the Capitals must sign Carpenter. After the season, Carpenter probably will have to invite his friend John Riggins to back up his "Riggo Ranger" at the Capitals' bank to help haul away the money.
Carpenter drives a black-and-white Chevy Blazer with Massachusetts plate, "CAPS 10." After practice Friday, he drove his girlfriend of five years, Julie Berube of Peabody, a sophomore at Salem State, and Ron over to the Potomac. For a photographer, Bobby and Julie sat on rocks at the water's edge and looked at each other like they cared, which was easy.
"One great thing," says Carpenter, "we don't talk about hockey. She doesn't know anything about hockey. About the option year. How much money I make."
Oh, she knows about hockey some. She's a figure skater. Naturally, they met at the local rink. "When I was 14, Bobby took me to a Bruins game. I didn't even know what offsides was. He laughed at me."
For the photographer, Bobby and Ron grapple. "I wonder what football game we have to watch tomorrow," muses Julie.
Ron holds Bobby upside down until they're both red in the face -- never mind that this is a chunk of the franchise being dangled on his head.
Bobby's better at arm-wrestling. He drops Ron quickly.
"Use two hands," says Bobby.
"I'll give you three-quarters of the way," says Bobby.
"This doesn't prove how strong you are," says Ron. "This definitely doesn't prove how strong you are."
"I'm the champ. I'm the champ," says Bobby, arms upraised, teeth gleaming.
Not to worry, Mom.