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Picture this, hockey fans: it is six months from now and post time for Washington's first-ever appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Inside the enemy arena they're playing The Star-Spangled Banner, while outside a youth wearing a tie and bearing a note from his mother attempts to convince security guards he is really the Capitals' coach, not some tardy program vendor. Finally, reluctantly, 27-year-old Gary Green is waved inside, where he finds the Caps have another crisis: no goalie. Seems that Mike Palmateer, who is scheduled to start that night, has been delayed because he is checking out a solar-powered popcorn cooker. At night? Naturally, Palmateer, otherwise known as the Popcorn King, just has to sample the product before the puck drops. So, do the Caps go on to snap and crackle without him? Or will Sunkist popcorn replace "fam-i-lee" as a team inspiration?
Hold the melted butter a minute; Palmateer wants to set something straight. Despite the bushels of popcorn stories about him, the number of popcorn machines he possesses and endless requests to pose for pictures with a box/wheelbarrow/ Toyota full of the yellow stuff, he is not a popcorn freak. "While I was in Toronto, I noticed that if I happened to have some in my locker I'd generally have a good game," he says. "But it was more habit than superstition. Then somebody wrote about it."
And before you could say Orville Redenbacher, Palmateer became the Popcorn Kid. "But that's all history," he says. "I want people to think of me as a serious hockey player, a thinking goalie. I'd like to kill the guy that wrote the popcorn thing, because that's the first thing anyone associates with me."
Fear not, Mike. The Popcorn Age ended for the four-year NHL veteran in the Caps' season opener a fortnight ago as Palmateer beat Winnipeg 4-1 in his Capital Centre debut. Few of the 12,984 watching the man in the Confederate-flag mask hurl himself into orbit to halt flying pucks could possibly have regarded him as anything less than a "thinking goalie." And Washington's powers-that-be—namely. Green and G.M. Max McNab—were all the more certain that they had not acquired a mere cruncher of popcorn.
"How could any team not like Palmateer?" says Green, whose young, injury-ridden Caps missed last season's playoffs by just three points. "We knew we needed consistent goaltending to take us the extra distance, and with Palmateer available, we went after him."
In this day of alternating goalies, Palmateer takes turns in the net with Wayne Stephenson, the Caps' No. 1 goalie last year. In his most recent game, Palmateer scrambled to a respectable 3-3 tie in the Centre last week with Montreal, a team Washington had beaten but once in its history.
Palmateer became a free agent on June 1 after an unhappy and unproductive season in Toronto, and signed with the Caps 10 days later; in return, the Caps sent Defenseman Robert Picard, Forward Tim Coulis and a second-round draft pick to the Leafs.
"It wasn't just a trade," says Palmateer. "I had the option of where I wanted to go. And I did want to come to Washington. When we played the Caps last season, I could see the desire and drive in their faces. That's important to me, to be with a team that has heart and the desire to be winners."
The Caps have been looking to be winners since the end of the 1974-75 season, their first in the NHL, when an 8-67-5 record gave them a no-down-payment mortgage on the adjective "hapless." Last year's late-season drive almost shook the hapless image, but as Green says, "We started too late. If we'd pointed toward the playoffs in November instead of January, we'd have done it."
But even breathing the word "playoffs" in Washington was a novelty, and Green was primarily responsible. A mere child by stodgy NHL standards, he took over the Capitals in November, when he was just 26. Up to that point his pro coaching career had consisted of 14 games with Hershey of the American Hockey League. Before that, he had coached junior hockey in Peterborough, Ontario. "I had never coached pro hockey; I never even played pro hockey," he says. "But I've always been in a big hurry." Indeed, Green earned a degree in psychology from Ontario's Guelph University in only 2� years, became president of a hockey school at age 21 and then knocked on every door in hockey to establish himself. He organized international seminars and wrote three weighty books on the psychology of the game. His industry paid off when the Caps promoted him a month into last season.