At 18, goaltender Don Beaupre was a National Hockey League All-Star; at 19, he helped the Minnesota North Stars to their first and only Stanley Cup final. Eight years later, he was playing for the Baltimore Skipjacks, riding buses to backwater rinks in Binghamton, N.Y., and Hershey, Pa., and the rest of those minor-league stops, seemingly on the way to oblivion.
"Donnie and I talked many times on those long bus rides," recalled Washington Capitals coach Terry Murray, coach of the Skipjacks when Beaupre played there for 30 games of the 1988-89 season. "He was very eager to get back to the NHL. I told him that he had to be patient, but he would be back."
Beaupre has been back in the NHL for the past two seasons and now, at 29, finds himself one of the hottest goaltenders in the league. Beaupre will try to continue his streak --three straight victories against the New York Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs -- tonight when the Capitals begin the best-of-seven Patrick Division finals in Pittsburgh.
It has been a long and often depressing road since Beaupre's rookie season a decade ago, when he made the jump from junior hockey to the big time in one startling leap. But the darkest time was, without question, the time Beaupre spent in Baltimore.
"I was close to packing it in," said Beaupre. "Really, it was even silly for me to be there. I was losing money playing hockey. I lost six figures playing down there, and that's money I'll never get back. But I knew that I could still play on this level, and I didn't want my career to end that way."
Slowly, Beaupre's path began to clear. Toward the end of the 1988-89 season, Clint Malarchuk was traded to the Buffalo Sabres and Beaupre was called up. After the season, Pete Peeters, who had been the Caps' No. 1 goalie, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Flyers. By the end of last season, as the team reached the Wales Conference final for the first time, Beaupre and Mike Liut were sharing the No. 1 job.
There were more obstacles earlier this season, beginning with a contract holdout that caused Beaupre to miss training camp and a pulled groin muscle that relegated him to a backup role for a while. But, as the season wore on, it became evident that Beaupre was the best goaltender in the organization. His 20-18-3 record belied the season Beaupre had; his 2.64 goals-against average and league-leading five shutouts didn't.
Beaupre's personality isn't like a runaway puck, prone to wild mood swings and quirky behavior. It was Beaupre who, after the Caps were blown out by the Rangers, 6-0, in Game 3 at the Capital Centre, spoke of "not getting too high after a win or too low after a loss." In fact, the Caps followed their goalie's lead.
"Some goalies are more buoyant," said Caps forward Dino Ciccarelli, who was a rookie in Minnesota with Beaupre. "But he really bounces back from a game pretty quick. He really prepares well. Everybody's different, and that works for him. But that's the way he's always been."
The changes are subtle, but there. When Beaupre was in his first pro training camp, his naivete helped blind him to the pressures of making the team. "I was stupid enough to think that I was going to make it. I never expected not to make it, because I had never got cut from anything in my life," he said after Monday's practice.
But the fun of that first season gradually wore off, and the expectations began to mount. He had winning records his next three years, but by 1987-88, it was clear that he didn't fit in the North Stars' future. It was about that time Caps general manager David Poile began looking at Beaupre.
"We had always liked Donnie, and the price was right," Poile said this week of a trade that cost the Caps a second-round draft pick. "We were looking for depth, and that's what we got him for. He wasn't excited about coming here. But I told him to wait, that things were going to happen."
Though Beaupre bites his lip and shakes his head when recalling his months as a Skipjack -- "When I was on the ice, it was fine, but five minutes after the game I realized it wasn't the NHL," he said -- the adversity he faced helps him appreciate the spotlight a bit more than he did as a teen-ager.
"I think I learned a lot from it," said Beaupre, whose save percentage (.920 on 188 shots) is the best among goalies whose teams are still in the playoffs. "I've had a lot of humbling moments in my career. One minute you can be up on top, and the next you're tumbling down."