Ninety minutes before one of the biggest moments of Glen Metropolit's life--the culmination of 25 years of work--he was pulled aside by Washington Capitals center Adam Oates. Oates, the team captain and perhaps a future Hall of Famer, gave the minor league journeyman some timely advice.
Oates knew Metropolit would be nervous enough just making his NHL debut, and even more jittery considering he was skating on the top line with him and Peter Bondra. Oates told Metropolit to focus, stay calm and make the smart, simple play. Metropolit pleased coaches with his earnest effort, but the first line was probably Washington's least effective in the Capitals' 4-3 season-opening loss Saturday night to the Florida Panthers. By the third period, Coach Ron Wilson was auditioning other forwards at left wing on the top line.
"We need our big guys to go," Wilson said. "We got our goals from the second and third line, and our first line has to create something. I didn't think they were doing it, so I mixed people around to get a jump-start.
"I thought Metro played well. I think he felt a lot more pressure playing with Adam Oates and Peter Bondra, and I think what we have to do is find the ultimate winger to play with Oates and Bonzai, and that's just a matter of time.
"Whether we remain patient with Glen, who is naturally a center and not a left wing, or we go with Ulf Dahlen or Jeff Toms, or move Chris Simon or Joe Sacco or any number of guys up there, or even split up Peter and Adam and try to create two offensive lines we know are going to create chances all the time."
Washington's other three lines exceeded Wilson's expectations. The fourth line, centered by Potomac native Jeff Halpern, also making his NHL debut, used its speed and defensive ability to forecheck hard and kill penalties.
"Jeff did everything we asked him to do," Wilson said.
The third line contributed a goal by Yogi Svejkovsky and performed well when granted power-play time. The second line had the Panthers pinned all night, with Steve Konowalchuk (two assists) dominating the boards and youngsters Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis (two goals) peppering the net with shots.
"Both those guys probably played as good a game as they ever have," Konowalchuk said. "They were jumping in holes, beating guys to the puck and they were very strong on the puck."
It's unlikely Wilson will tinker with that line this week as the team prepares for Friday night's game in Buffalo and Saturday's home opener against Los Angeles, but someone other than Metropolit could be skating with Oates and Bondra by then. Still, Metropolit will be given every chance to prove he's one of the top 12 forwards on the team. That opportunity alone is enough for the Toronto native, who never played major junior or college hockey, was never drafted and was never even the property of an NHL club prior to signing with the Capitals this summer.
Growing up in a single-parent household, Metropolit couldn't afford the equipment or fees necessary to play in the top youth leagues that travel throughout North America and feed the Canadian junior hockey system. He was nearly out of junior eligibility when he tried out for Tier II hockey (a level few NHL players ever play in, much less ascend from) and his play there earned him a tryout in the East Coast Hockey League--roughly equivalent to Class A baseball.
He spent two years in the ECHL, with Nashville and Pensacola, and played professional roller hockey in the summers to make ends meet while also working for a friend's water repair company. "We'd dig holes down the side of a house and see where the leak is," Metropolit said. "We'd have to do a lot of digging--it was fun and I was working on my shot at the same time."
Metropolit, who has a knack for the net, put up strong numbers in the more competitive International Hockey League the last two seasons, and scouts began to take him more seriously as an NHL prospect, though detractors said he was too small at 5 feet 11, 196 pounds. But at least for one night, he was an NHL first-line player.
"When you chase your dream you can never give up, and finally I'm here," Metropolit said. "I'm trying to take it easy and tell myself it's just another game. It's unbelievable to be here. I'd play anywhere. I'd be the backup goalie if that's what they want."