Doug Wickenheiser stood in the Montreal Forum one day last June wearing a fawn-colored suit and a mile-wide smile. He had just been chosen No. 1 in the NHL's annual entry draft, a distinction comparable with being picked No. 1 in the NFL college draft. Small wonder that his family was agog and that the press strained to hear his every word. Montreal, the sacred Canadiens, had selected the 19-year-old from Saskatchewan over 210 other prospects. Montreal. What more could any hockey-hungry kid ask for? But now Wickenheiser is wondering if he should have signed on with the Ice Capades.
"To be honest, I didn't dream of not dressing for so many games," he says. Indeed, to date he has skated in only 30 of the Canadiens' 54 contests. A year ago, in his final season with the Regina Pats, a junior amateur team, Wickenheiser participated in 93 games, including playoffs, and logged nearly 40 minutes of ice time a night. However, in Montreal, his role is that of designated bench warmer. It has always been that way. "It is what we call holy tradition," says one veteran. "The young guys, they sit. They learn. Then one day, they're ready."
Which doesn't make it a whole lot easier for Wickenheiser. "There are so many people here with years of experience," he says. "I know I won't get one of their jobs right away. I try hard to stay up for practices because you never know when someone will get hurt and you'll get a chance to play. And I try not to worry about it too much."
But he does, of course, and even in practice, his frustration sits heavily. He skates through drills with a grim-faced intensity, as if greater determination will spirit him into the lineup.
"You have to give Doug credit," says rookie Bill Baker, who roomed with Wickenheiser until being sent down to the minors two weeks ago. "He keeps his feelings to himself and never complains. Even when the newspapers were full of why-isn't-Wickenheiser-playing-more, he never said a word against the organization."
Wickenheiser's situation has indeed brought sharp criticism from the Montreal press. The Canadiens drafted the 6-foot, 200-pounder to add size at center, where the veteran Pierres—Larouche and Mondou—and the Dougs—Jarvis and Risebrough—are on the runty side. Why not use the big kid who was the hottest shot in the amateurs last season with 89 goals and 81 assists? Mais non. Tradition.
If such attention to tradition was O.K. back when Montreal terrorized the league, it may not be now. The Canadiens are in trouble. They can't buy a win on the road, and they obviously need something to bring back the magic that used to be synonymous with the Stanley Cup. As Wickenheiser continues to play spectator, some Canadien observers wonder what the rap on their prize rookie might be.
They should look more closely. When Wickenheiser has played, he has shown occasional flashes of brilliance but more often stretches of mediocrity. For a center, he has played too hesitantly. Offensively, he performs well when he has the puck, but he seems lost without it. Defensively, he needs to develop his checking skills, which he never had to use at Regina.
Wickenheiser's season began brightly enough. He was centering Guy Lafleur's line. He scored his first NHL goal in Chicago on Oct. 23 in the Canadiens' seventh game when Lafleur fed him the puck and he slid it into the net behind Goalie Tony Esposito. Heady stuff, indeed, for a kid just out of junior hockey. Since then, though, he has scored only five goals, and the shifts have been rare. "He'll play three, sit out 12," says Baker. "All the things that were second nature to him last season, or early this year, are still there, in his head. But he needs game situations to make them become second nature again."
For Wickenheiser, it's scant consolation to know that in their rookie years, Lafleur, Lapointe, L'etcetera played the waiting game, too. "Even if he is aware of Montreal's system, I know Doug had hopes of playing much, much more," says one teammate. Certainly, any junior outstanding enough to be branded tops by Montreal in the NHL amateur meat auction would expect to dive into the league and rip up the record books, or at least tear into a couple of pages. "I try not to think about it. and I don't enjoy talking about it." Wickenheiser says. "It can depress me."
To chase depression. Wickenheiser spends his off-ice hours reading, sometimes a book a day, and cocking an ear to Bruce Springsteen on his stereo. He also is trying to learn his way around the city. "This looks familiar," he says as he rides home from a noon skate at the St. Laurent arena. "Yeah. I think I live around here." Wickenheiser hasn't bought a car yet, nor has he decorated any of the walls of his apartment. "I want to get the right car and the right stuff on the walls." he says.
At the moment, he'd settle for being able to tell the right jokes. Wickenheiser is attempting to build an image as a team comedian, but he isn't having much success because of his low-key, overly subtle sense of humor. "Whenever I've got a joke to tell, everyone groans and says 'Don't,' " he says. "I just want to keep the guys and myself loose. When I'm not playing, I get too down if I don't joke around."
Last week, after cooling his skates yet again while Montreal played Minnesota and Boston. Wickenheiser paused to consider his life before he joined the Canadiens. "My father once figured out that I traveled 18.000 miles in one season of junior hockey," he says. "The shortest bus trip was about eight hours. Some were 15, even 24. A day on a bus. I can't tell you how many card games that is. But it teaches you to wait; you can't go anywhere except inside that bus. Eventually it'll get you to your game, and you can't play till it does. That sort of prepared me for what I'm going through now."
If the waiting is half of it, wanting is the rest. Pride in being a Canadien, in being privileged to wear the Montreal colors, is another tradition in the Forum. "You've got to want it bad," says Wickenheiser. And he does.
One recent afternoon, Wickenheiser was tinkering with his stereo, wearing decrepit jeans and a slate-blue pullover with a Canadien crest embroidered on one pocket. "I wear this—notice the logo is over my heart—until they tattoo one on me permanently." he says, only half kidding. "Then I'll know I'm here for real, and for good."
Lack of ice time gnaws at Wickenheiser in practices, too.