A BRAND-NEW CAP Back with team, Carpenter older, wiser, humbler


Bobby Carpenter didn't exactly say he was a jerk when he last played for the Washington Capitals, but leaning against a wall in the team's training facility one recent morning, he made it clear he thinks he probably was.

"You get off track a lot when you're young," said Carpenter, now 29. "There's no question you get off track. But you're very easily brought back when you get traded. Humbleness comes very easily to a pro athlete, because you don't see it coming and it comes so fast.

"What you have to do is sit down and regroup and say: 'OK, I screwed up. Where am I going now?' And you have to get yourself together and start over again. The best way to mature is to get a lot of humbling experiences, and I think I've had a few."

He was a superstar before he was a man, really. A fresh-faced 17-year-old from Beverly, Mass. A Sports Illustrated cover boy: "The Can't Miss Kid," the headline blared. He came to the Capitals as the team's 1981 No. 1 draft choice with the franchise's fortunes on his shoulders.

He left in 1987, when Caps general manager David Poile traded him to the New York Rangers for Mike Ridley, Kelly Miller and Bob Crawford, because of what Poile called an "attitude problem."

"In those days, [for Carpenter] it was individual before team," said Poile. "He was probably a victim of what the Washington Capitals wanted for the franchise. The feeling was if he did well, the team would do well. As we've all found out since then, no one individual succeeds without the support and help of everyone else.

"Neither one of us was mature or smart enough to work it out. It was like a marriage that ended in divorce. When he left, and while he was gone, it never crossed my mind that he'd be back."

But, as it has turned out, neither was too proud to renew the relationship. Carpenter doesn't want to talk about the specifics of those old days, and Poile, who says he always has respected and appreciated Carpenter's talent, says he is impressed by Carpenter's maturity and is glad to have him back.

Carpenter has played in three games this preseason, recording one goal and two assists. The Caps, 4-1 against NHL teams, have an exhibition with the Skipjacks, their AHL affiliate, tomorrow at 7:35 p.m. at Baltimore Arena. They close out the preseason Saturday in Philadelphia against the Flyers.

When the regular season begins Tuesday in Toronto, Carpenter will be depended on more heavily. Poile did not give specific scoring expectations, but offered a list of the contributions he wants from Carpenter.

"He's above average in his abilities, and I think he can play in all situations, power play, penalty killing," Poile said. "We certainly expect him to provide the stability experience brings now that he's a more veteran player."

And with fellow left wing Randy Burridge out for the season after knee surgery, Carpenter is being looked upon by Poile to "provide a strong offensive output."

"We've won [all the preseason] games I've been in, and that's what matters," Carpenter said. "It doesn't really matter what I do, long as the team wins. But, at the same time, I know that for the team to win, I have to play my best hockey. I'm happy that I feel good and that it's time to get to work."

In fact, he hopes to be working with the Caps for another five or six years.

"I'd love to finish my career here," said Carpenter, who lives in Crofton with Julie, his wife of 6 1/2 years. "I've been with four different teams, and no matter where I went -- even though I loved playing in my prime for my hometown team [Boston Bruins] -- I always wanted to come back here because I enjoy the area so much and I like the team."

Carpenter, 6 feet, 200 pounds, has had an up-and-down career. He was the first American to go from high school to the NHL and the firstAmerican to score 50 goals in a season.

But he also has been traded three times, including twice in one year. And he knows the tension that comes with career-threatening injuries. He also knows what it feels like to have your abilities second-guessed, as they were last summer, when the Bruins decided not to take a chance on his knee and allowed him to become a free agent.

"I'd never be the person I am now if everything had gone perfectly," Carpenter said. "Having learned so many things, it makes you a lot better person, and I wouldn't trade it. I don't think you can change karma. I've beaten the odds twice with injuries and I'm grateful. I've learned to appreciate what I have. And I've learned it matters how you treat people."

Carpenter remembers what he was like before all the humbling experiences. Recently, as players jostled and joked with him good-naturedly, the 12-year veteran reflected on how life has changed him.

"It's a lot of little things, like I have feelings for minor-league players," he said. "Before, I didn't see them. I'd pass them in the hallway and just didn't even see them. Now, I stop and say hello and talk to them. And the younger kids who are having trouble handling the puck, I see that now. Years before, I laughed at them. You know, you laughed at the guy because he couldn't handle it. Now, I go over and talk to him and help him, because I see the trouble he's going through.

"I think, if I had had a career that had always been a starring one, I would never have been able to do that. Until you get a little of it rubbed in your face, well, that makes it a little easier. You enjoy it more, because you can actually walk away and feel proud of what you're doing now.

"Before, it was empty. You knew there was something missing. You knew you weren't well-liked. I mean, you got along with people, but there was nobody really who confided in you or had wholehearted faith in you. I think now they expect me to be a leader here, and I can handle that a lot better because of what I've been through."

He is playing with a right eye that has only 80 percent of its central vision because of taking a stick in the eye during a summer-league accident between his first and second seasons in the NHL.

He also plays with a damaged left knee. And while the Bruins may have worried about Carpenter's durability, Poile and Carpenter say the knee is no problem.

"I get treatment on it before going on the ice," Carpenter said. "They apply heat and loosen up the patella tendon so the kneecap tracks properly, but I've had no problems. No swelling. No pain. It's felt great in both games I've played and I haven't missed one skate. I think the knee is behind me now."

Just like a lot of other things in Carpenter's life.

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