The Can’t-Miss Kid Comes Home : Former King Carpenter Tries to Salvage Career in Boston

<i> Hartford Courant</i>

At 17, when most kids are posing for prom pictures, Bobby Carpenter was posing for the cover of Sports Illustrated. A police officer’s son and the pride of Peabody, Mass., he was the first American-born hockey player to go directly from high school to the National Hockey League. SI dubbed him “The Can’t-Miss Kid.”

Eight years later, “The Can’t-Miss Kid” has missed three times--with the Washington Capitals, New York Rangers and Kings--and now he comes home to play for the Bruins as something less than a conquering hero.

His right hand, owing to a New Year’s Eve collision with a goal pipe during the Soviet series, is in a cast. His career, owing to the fact he has scored only 66 goals in his last 250 games, is in a rut. His contract, a 4-year, $1.6-million deal he signed after scoring a career-high 53 goals for the Capitals during the 1984-85 season, is in its option year.

But when it comes to the NHL, how many options does Bobby Carpenter have left? True, he’s only 25, but in the last 2 years, he’s been marked down more often than month-old milk. If he fails here, the Bruins will practically have to give him away. Has Bobby Carpenter come home to stand trial in a hockey court of last resort?


“There’s no middle ground for me here,” Carpenter said. “A player in my situation has to be real good, or I’m going to be considered a real bomb.”

In many quarters, he has been considered a real bomb ever since that 1984-85 season--the last time his contract was in its option year--when he became the first American-born player to score more than 50 goals. Coming as it did after seasons of 32, 32 and 28 goals, it seemed to announce Carpenter’s expected entry into hockey’s highest echelon.

It was a brief stay. Carpenter scored only 27 goals in the 1985-86 season. But for the fifth consecutive season, he played in every game. And as his points plummeted to what was then a career-low 56, so did his already uneasy relationship with Capital Coach Brian Murray.

Physically, Carpenter was tough. Despite shoulder and other injuries, he played hurt. But mentally, he wasn’t so tough. When things weren’t going his way, he sulked. He sulked a lot.

“Bobby, he’s a different (type of) guy,” said Scott Stevens, Carpenter’s closest friend on the Capitals and a member of Carpenter’s wedding party. “He’s very honest. Most people would say something to someone (just) to make them feel good. Bobby’s not like that.”

“I’m really hard on myself,” Carpenter said. “I always have been. I can’t let things go by real easily. I wish I could. When I get down on myself, it’s tough for me to bounce back.”

The ocean floor is higher than Carpenter was at the start of the 1986-87 season, when he suggested that perhaps he and the team might be better off if he went elsewhere. Angry Capital management told Carpenter to go home, where he sat in limbo for 6 weeks while they worked out a trade with the Rangers, who used him sparingly in 28 games before trading him to the Kings in exchange for aging star Marcel Dionne.

It was in Washington that Carpenter earned a reputation, perhaps undeserved, as a spoiled brat. More than 2 years after he and the Capitals said good riddance, Carpenter stiffened noticeably when asked about his Washington experience. Brusquely, he declined.

Carpenter is not an easy guy to get to know. Reporters on both coasts who covered him for several years regard him as distant, strained. Bruin General Manager Harry Sinden says Carpenter is shy. Even his father, whom Bobby says he is very close to, describes his son as “a very private person,” someone who would rarely share innermost thoughts.

“He never did like the limelight,” Bob Sr. said. “He’d just as soon go to the game and have nobody (media) there.”

Many players feel that way. The difference is in how they handle it. Bob Sr. says the family wanted Bobby to go to college (he would have gone to Providence) rather than directly to the NHL, because it would have helped him mature.

“I knew what he was going to have to go through,” Bob Sr. said. “You can’t buy the things you lost. You lose phases of growing up. You never handle them smoothly.”

When Carpenter came into the league, the Capitals announced his signing by opening up the raw bar and a ritzy room at the Capital Centre. Two U.S. Congressmen, one member of the White House staff, and dozens of members of the national media attended.

When Carpenter came to the Boston Garden Friday for his first Bruin practice, he was greeted only by several local reporters, and an arena full of empty seats. Bobby Carpenter is no longer big news.

After the quick shuffle and lost season--9 goals--of 1986-87, he’d hoped to find himself, and his game, in L.A. in the 1987-88 season. And while he found more playing time than the Rangers had given him, he found nearly as much frustration, with 19 goals and 33 assists in 71 games.

All his life, Carpenter had been a center. Sure, he played wing in the Canada Cup, and in a pinch, but it was not his preferred position. But somewhere along the line, he says, people got the idea he was a wing.

Then the Kings got Wayne Gretzky. They had Carpenter and Gretzky room together in training camp, perhaps hoping that a bit of The Great One would rub off on a would-be great one. They put Carpenter on Gretzky’s left wing. If that’s not hockey heaven, what is?

It stayed that way the first 17 games of this season, but Carpenter wasn’t reminding anybody of Jari Kurri. Before the New Year’s Eve injury, Carpenter had 11 goals and 15 assists in 39 games, 4 goals in his last 21.

Carpenter says the Kings had too many offensive players to fit him in, that while he did get to play on lines with Gretzky and Bernie Nicholls, he only got to play four or five shifts per game with them because he wasn’t used to kill penalties or on every goal-scorer’s dream assignment, the power play.

“I was happy in L.A., and they were very happy with me,” Carpenter said. “But they had too many great players, too many great goal-scorers. Now they expect you to get 30 goals when you’re not even on the power play. What they expected me to do, and what they put me in the position to do, were two different things.”

Carpenter always seems to have an excuse why things have gone awry since that 53-goal season. Some people say he’s overprotective of his right shoulder--which he first injured the season before he scored 53--and therefore lacks the hellbent aggressiveness that, combined with his speed, shot and stick-handling, set him apart.

“The year after he scored the 53 goals, he wasn’t getting involved in the corners, bumping and grinding as much,” Stevens said.

Sinden says Carpenter was his former aggressive self when the Bruins scouted him this season. Carpenter was being very aggressive--diving over the Soviet goaltender--when he injured his wrist and hand, which should be OK in 2 weeks.

Steve Kasper, whom Sinden traded to get Carpenter, is a great defensive center, but goals are what the Bruins need. Playing center, Carpenter--who only had one more goal than Kasper when the trade was made--is confident he can supply them.

“When you score 53 goals at (age) 20,” Sinden said, “you’ve got some kind of talent. It may be innate, or inert, at this time. I don’t know. If he doesn’t score a lot of goals, it won’t bother them (his teammates). If he jumps in and plays hard, they’ll accept him.”

Feeling awkward already, Carpenter knows acceptance may not come easily. Kasper was one of the most popular Bruins. The day after he was traded, his former teammates each got ahold of some adhesive tape and affixed a makeshift “11", Kasper’s number, to their sweaters. Defenseman Ray Bourque, a future Hall of Famer and the unofficial conscience of the team, publicly criticized Sinden for making the trade.

No, they’re not jumping for joy that Bobby’s come marching home.

“He’s tainted (in the NHL),” Sinden said. “He’s probably perceived as a little brat. When it was happening in D.C., I was saying to myself, ‘What’s the matter with that kid?’ ”

Nothing, they used to say. Remember that 1981 draft day? The Hartford Whalers, picking fourth overall, were all set to draft Carpenter when the Capitals swapped No. 1 slots with the then-Colorado Rockies--picking third--and grabbed him. The Whalers had to settle for Ron Francis. Sometimes you win when you lose.

Carpenter’s father, who liked Whaler management and the easy drive to Hartford, was furious that day. Eight years later, he laughs about how naive, how narrow-minded he was about where his son should and would play. Things change.

So do perceptions. When Bobby was starting out in the NHL and things didn’t always go his way, Bob Sr. says he always sided with him. Now, he doesn’t. And he admits he “was probably wrong” to be so quick to see it his son’s way in the early days.

“It happens to everyone,” Bob Sr. said. “The coach isn’t always going to like you. Everyone’s not always going to do what you say.”

But if you can put the puck in the net, they’ll learn to love you. The Bruins are hoping to love Bobby Carpenter. Center Bobby Carpenter. And Carpenter? He’s excited to be here.

“To be able to come home in my prime is very special,” he said.

But whose prime will it be? The pulsating prime you’d expect from The Can’t-Miss Kid? Or the uninspired prime of a 25-year-old journeyman who once had a special gift, but lost it along the way?