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"I think that one of these days," he said, "You're going to have to find out where you want to go. And then you've got to start going there. But immediately. You can't afford to lose a minute. Not you."
Bobby Carpenter has known where he wants to go for years. He remembers when he was eight, walking back home from a rink with his father, Bob Sr., and asking him if he thought he could one day play in the National Hockey League. That was in the so-called Bobby Orr era, and the goal of every kid hockey player in the Boston area was to make it to the pros. When his father said nothing, young Bobby asked, "Is it too early to tell?" His father nodded. Then, two years later, same rink, same walk, he again asked his dad about his chances of making the NHL. Bob Sr., who knows his hockey, turned and looked at his son. "It's possible," he said.
Today, 17-year-old Bobby Carpenter of Peabody, Mass., a city of 48,000 some 15 miles north of Boston, is the best high school hockey player in America. More than that, he's one of the top amateur prospects in the world. In the NHL draft in June, Carpenter's expected to be one of the first six players selected. No high school player, from the U.S. or anyplace else, has ever been among the top 60 drafted, and no American has ever been among the first 10.
The hapless Winnipeg Jets seem destined to have the first choice, and it's just possible they'll use it to draft Carpenter. Winnipeg's director of player personnel, Mike Doran, had lunch last week with Carpenter's father and his coach, Joe Yannetti, who also happens to be a Winnipeg scout. For now, all Doran is willing to say is that Carpenter is in the running with five or six other players.
Upward of a dozen scouts will attend every game Carpenter plays for St. John's Prep of Danvers, Mass. the rest of the year, and player agents are swarming around him. Carpenter himself will see lots of college games. His is a world of possibilities, and he's keeping himself open to all of them. The high school senior will soon have to choose either the big money or a college education, so a subtle sense of urgency surrounds him. It isn't panic, just a time-to-get-down-to-business air. You can't afford to lose a minute. Not you. All roads lead to Oz; he just has to start. The Can't-Miss Kid—that's what they call him.
That's a heavy label to hang on any 17-year-old, but it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which Carpenter does miss. These days when he's asked if he thinks his son can make it in the pros, Bob Sr., a sergeant on the Peabody police force, says, "He's survival-oriented. He'll be able to compete." Lou Varro, who coached Bobby in January's World Junior Tournament, in which the U.S. finished sixth and Carpenter was the team's MVP, says of him, "You'd think a kid coming in with Carpenter's reputation would be cocky, but he's not a big shot. If you ever had a son, you'd be proud to have him turn out like Carpenter. He's just a down-to-earth kid."
So what else is a coach going to say about his star player, you ask. You don't know Varro, a stout, plainspoken Brooklynite. "If he was a horse's ass, I'd tell you," he says.
Boston College's assistant hockey coach, Steve Cedorchuk, believes Carpenter could take B.C. to its second NCAA championship. "People talk about how Bobby's one of the great players," says Cedorchuk. "But he's also one of the great winners. And he'd be a team leader as a freshman."
The only complaint pro scouts have about Carpenter is that he's still playing in high school. "If Bobby had played Junior A in Canada," says Quebec bird dog Red Fleming, "he'd be the first player drafted. No doubt. But they don't play the game the NHL way at his age in the States. The referees think they're playing basketball, calling every little hit."
"Carpenter hasn't proved to me he can take the rough stuff." says Jim Anderson, Vancouver's chief scout. "But he's an exceptional puck handler and skater. And, geezus, he's got quick hands."