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They used to say the same thing about Wayne Gretzky's hands, and though Carpenter isn't yet quite the wizard with the puck that Gretzky is, there are similarities. Both play center and are brilliant passers, and Carpenter anticipates plays and moves laterally a la Gretzky. But what seems to please NHL scouts most is that Carpenter—who at 6'1", 185 pounds has good size for his age—is also an excellent defensive forward. "He's strong and he's mean," says Fleming. "Put him in a skating game and he'll skate; put him in a hitting game and he'll hit. Most players his age can either skate like mad or shoot like mad. He just does everything well."
Like they say, the kid can't miss.
Last Wednesday night Sergeant Bob Carpenter watched St. John's Prep lose 7-6 to lowly Christopher Columbus. The defeat dropped the Eagles' league record to 7-5-1 and virtually eliminated them from contention for a berth in the state tournament. Bob Sr. was in uniform, patrolling the arena. Most cops don't like working athletic events at night, so Bob Sr. usually has no trouble getting assigned to Bobby's games. When the outcome of this one became clear, Bob Sr. muttered and went about his work with a frown. It has been a long season for the Prep, and a frustrating one for Bobby. "He's the greatest high school player ever to compete in Massachusetts," Yannetti told Bob Sr. after the game, "and he's probably not going to play in the state tournament. It could be a sad ending to a great story. He's too good for these players. But as great as he is, he can't do it all."
Of course, the story is actually just beginning, and it isn't a sad one at all—except to Yannetti, who knows that he's losing a player the likes of whom he'll never see again. He knows that, and it is a bitter pill to swallow when he thinks of missing the state tournament with such a talent. He feels he has somehow let the boy down, and he loves him like a son. "With better players, Bobby plays better," says Yannetti. "Right now we really don't have anybody who can play with him. What happens is that he makes the right pass, then breaks open but doesn't get the puck back. We've tried to get him to hold onto the puck more, to do it himself, but he's just not that type of kid."
The first time Yannetti heard of Bobby Carpenter, the youngster was a ninth-grader at Higgins Junior High in Pea-body. Some of the parents had told him about this Wunderkind, but Yannetti scoffed that nobody could be that good. Then he saw Carpenter play. The kid won his first four face-offs and took his team down the ice for four goals—two of which he scored himself, two of which he passed off on. "I was right," Yannetti reported back to the parents. "He's not as good as you say. He's better."
College recruiters were already onto Bobby, and several private high schools were wild to have him enroll. Two factors sold the Carpenters on St. John's, a boys school with about 1,000 students: it had a fine academic reputation and, as a member of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, it was eligible for the state high school tournament.
"Bobby's father was looking for the best situation for his son," says Yannetti, "and he was very careful to get all the information before making a decision. He'd seen 10 or 12 of our games, and he knew our program was coming on."
Bobby himself had never seen the school, which is about 10 miles from his Peabody home. Run by the Xaverian Brothers, its 11 buildings are located on a 180-acre campus. Tuition is $1,710, and most of the students come from Catholic middle-class backgrounds. St. John's has always encouraged athletics, but it's anything but a jock school, pointing more proudly to its SAT scores than to its state championships. Still, the Eagles have had their share of sports stars. Brother Ed Keefe, the headmaster, recalls with pride that one of baseball's richest bonus babies. Danny Murphy, who signed with the Cubs in 1960, is a St. John's alumnus. "Couldn't hit the curve, though," says Keefe with a trace of sadness. "Finished his career as a relief pitcher with the White Sox."
In 1978-79, Carpenter's first year at St. John's, the Eagles won their first state hockey title. "He was a leader the minute he stepped on the ice," says Yannetti. "The year before, our team had that aggressive toughness, but we didn't know-how to win. Bobby showed us how."
Did he ever. St. John's went 21-2, and Carpenter finished with 23 goals and 31 assists. He was the leading scorer in the state tournament with 16 points in six games. In the finals of the regionals, Carpenter scored the tying goal, and then set up the winner in St. John's 3-2 upset of defending state champion Matignon. "They should have beaten us by two touchdowns," Carpenter says now, smiling brightly at the memory.