June 28, 2011

Carpenter reflects on his days as the 'Can't-Miss Kid'

It's been 30 years since the St. John's Prep star made NHL draft history

Bobby Carpenter had a career-high 53 goals for the Capitals in 1984-85. (Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

It was June 10, 1981, the day of the NHL Entry Draft, and St. John’s Prep star Bobby Carpenter was about to embark on one of the biggest moments of his life.

As we try to envision what that afternoon at the Montreal Forum must have been like for the 17-year-old forward — featured just months prior as the “Can’t-Miss Kid” on a memorable cover of Sports Illustrated — we picture all of the controlled chaos we’ve been exposed to at recent drafts.

But Carpenter didn’t have to worry about multiple cameras zooming into the stands on him and his family. He didn’t have to practice what he’d say in an exit interview with TSN or the NHL Network. He just had to sit at home and wait for the phone to ring.

“I actually didn’t go to the draft,” said Carpenter, who became the first U.S.-born player to ever jump directly from high school to the National Hockey League. “I stayed home. I’ve actually never been to a draft, believe it or not.”

After assuming he was going to be selected by the Hartford Whalers, the Washington Capitals traded up at the last minute and picked Carpenter third overall. When Carpenter got the call, it was the first time he had ever communicated with the organization.

“There were no interviews, no combine, there was nothing,” Carpenter said, highlighting how much the drafting process has changed over the past three decades. “They didn’t even call you and talk to you after you made it. There was nothing like that. You just got a phone call saying they drafted you.”

A few months later, the Bay State native arrived for training camp with nary a sliver of hype, at least not to the extent that exists today. On the surface that may not sound so great, but Carpenter was content with just being able to focus on hockey, not having to worry about his jersey selling out before the season started or pushing products (Dunkin’ Donuts, anyone?) for local companies.

“The media has changed so much,” said Carpenter, who regularly receives copies of that famous SI issue in the mail from autograph-seeking fans. “There was nothing like that before. The games weren’t even on TV. You’d get the radio if you were lucky. It was a much different era. You just laugh; I mean, there weren’t any cell phones.

“Our first training camp, we went to Europe right away. We actually went to Sweden for about a week with the Rangers, and we were one of the first teams to go over there. I don’t think I even talked to my parents until I got back.”

Carpenter hit the ground running in Washington, and by the time the 1986-87 season started, the Beverly, Mass., native had accomplished quite a lot in his first five years in the league. The gifted center played in all 80 games each season, scoring 25-plus goals every season, including a career-high 53 in 1984-85.

But after a falling-out with Capitals coach Bryan Murray, Carpenter was traded to the New York Rangers, only to be flipped a few months later during the 1986-87 season to the Los Angeles Kings. After spending parts of three seasons in L.A., Carpenter was sent back east to his hometown Bruins in January 1989 for forward Steve Kasper.

“That was really good and really exciting,” Carpenter said of his opportunity to play for the Black and Gold. “We had a great team. My only regret is that we never won. I always wanted to win a Stanley Cup for Boston. I was at the one in 1970, and in 1972, I went to Game 5. They lost and had to go to New York to win. It was always a dream of mine to win in my hometown, but it was a great experience.”

Carpenter sang the praises of Boston’s coaches throughout his tenure, including Terry O’Reilly, Mike Milbury (Walpole, Mass.) and Rick Bowness, but one of the best aspects of playing for the Bruins was the chance to play with some of his longtime friends during the prime of his career.

“I grew up playing with Andy Brickley, Bob Sweeney and John Carter,” he said. “To be able to go to the finals with them was great. I was in the middle of my prime. I wasn’t there as an older player just to play in Boston for a year. I really enjoyed that time.”

After capturing a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 1995, Carpenter hung up his skates following the 1998-99 season. He went on to earn two more rings as part of New Jersey’s coaching staff before returning home to Massachusetts to raise his three children, including daughter Alex, a rising star at Governor’s Academy who has committed to Boston College in 2012.

But in the fall of 2009, an opportunity came about that would allow the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee to once again become involved with the sport he loved while still being a dedicated family man. Carpenter is now employed by the Toronto Maple Leafs, aiding them with both player development and the occasional scouting report.

“It’s a great job for me because I have my kids and I get to watch them, too,” he said. “I make my own schedule, and my job is to stay in touch with the kids we haven’t signed yet and go watch them play. I’ll go to development camp and rookie camp, and just basically stay in touch with the kids we drafted that are going back to college or headed to juniors.

“If my kids are playing on the weekend, I’ll go look at the schedule and find two or three kids that are playing during the week up in the Ontario Hockey League then come back home and see my kids.”

As essentially a liaison between the team and its draftees, Carpenter — who will be attending his first draft this summer with the Leafs — gets to help foster the development of prospects in a way that he wasn’t privy to three decades ago.

“You’re kind of right in between the organization and them,” he said. “There were kids that got drafted back then, for two years they never even heard from the team. It was basically on them to call the team when they were ready to come. We’ve changed that. We only have so much time with these kids to help them with their development. We want to be in touch with them and make them feel excited during those two years.”

Now 47, Carpenter has had the proper time to recognize how special his accomplishments were, with both his hands-on work with the Leafs and the retirement party gift that hangs on his wall — a blown-up cover of the Sports Illustrated he once graced, signed by friends and family members — serving as reminders.

“I don’t think you know the magnitude of something like that until you get older, maybe even until you retire,” said Carpenter, the first American to score 50 goals in a single season.

“Back then, it was just something that happened along the way. Now as an adult, you raise your kids and you go back and you look, and you realize how great it was. You really appreciate it more now.”

Whether the Leafs can reel in the next “Can’t-Miss Kid” or not, it’s safe to say they’ll be in good hands with the original one, as Carpenter promises to help them soak in every moment of their experience.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com