MONTREAL — The morning after a game, Guy Carbonneau sits in the stands of the Montreal Forum, where the legacy of former Canadiens always has dwarfed his admirable career.
Wearing baggy, worn practice garb cut off at the knees and slippers over his bare feet, Carbonneau looks decidedly unintimidating. And yet there is an air of confidence about Carbonneau that is almost regal.
Clearly, Carbonneau knows his mind as well as his game.
"I can beat anybody," the 26-year-old center says with direct simplicity.
And he does. He does not outscore Wayne Gretzky, Peter Stastny, Denis Savard and Mario Lemieux--the league's most explosive centers. He usually stops them.
In a season when New York Islander Bryan Trottier has resurged and Chicago's Troy Murray has surfaced, the NHL's premier defensive centers are coming to light. And so, Carbonneau finally is starting to capture attention for the two-way game he has played throughout his four-year NHL career.
Even so, while Carbonneau and Murray particularly are praised most for defensive prowess, the attention finally has come because they are scoring goals at a career-high pace this season.
"When Montreal and the Islanders won their Stanley Cups, they had good offense, but they were counting on a defensive line, defensive players, too," Carbonneau analyzes. Then the (Edmonton) Oilers came and the defensive players were less noticed. That's how the league is now.
"Every team at least had a defensive line, but now, almost every team has started to have one player especially--and it's how I got here. I was able to stop Gretzky, I was able to stop Stastny . . . "
And what a two-edged sword that has become, as Carbonneau's shadowing and penalty killing leaves little time for the joy of every Quebec Major Junior Hockey League product--goal scoring.
"What's unfortunate about Guy Carbonneau being such an excellent defensive center is that his offensive abilities get ignored," says Montreal defenseman Larry Robinson, who earlier in the season questioned some of rookie Coach Jean Perron's policies.
Carbonneau takes obvious pleasure in Robinson's words, but if anyone has little fear of speaking for himself, it is Carbonneau.
"I went to see Jacques Lemaire. I went to see Bob Berry (Perron's two predecessors). It's not that I don't like the job I have; I do," Carbonneau says. "I get lots of respect. But the point I tried to make with the coach is that I could score; I always could.
"Even if I play defensively, I still know when we're losing by three, four goals and have to catch them, maybe I could help. That's when I wish I could play more offensively."
It is an ultimate irony that the offense-oriented QMJHL--criticized by NHL scouts for forsaking defense--should spawn possibly the NHL's best defensive specialist and that he ever would have to justify his offensive capability.
Still, as the key member of the penalty-killing unit and checking line between Bob Gainey and Chris Nilan, Carbonneau has registered 20 goals and 47 points in his first 64 games this season.
"Scoring goals; you can't learn to score goals, and I can score," Carbonneau says. "You can't teach anyone that. You can improve your shot, you can learn to play defense--because I did."
Six years after Carbonneau was sent to Halifax of the American Hockey League to learn defense, he is surfacing as a candidate for the Selke Award as the NHL's best defensive forward.
Carbonneau would like to score more, but he also thinks there's credence in suggestions that his healthy offensive production is held against him when the award is voted.
"That's one point," he says. "Maybe if I have only five goals, they (media voters) would say, 'OK, he's the best defensive player.'
"I just want it to be fair. Another thing is that we play in a division where the press is not in big numbers; Quebec, Buffalo (in addition to Hartford and Boston) . . . If I was playing against the New York Rangers and Islanders eight times each, or shut down Gretzky eight times a year . . .
"That's something I have to live with, though."
Another is not being able to be all things at once.
"I know some guys have to score, some guys have to play defense, some guys have to block shots," he says. "I understand; that's why we have success.
"But we talk a lot between players and everybody says it, that they wish I could play on the power play. I tried (talking to Perron). If he puts me on the power play, all I have to do is do my best. But if he's the coach, he has to live and die with his decisions. We have the best power play in the NHL and maybe he thinks they don't need me."
The last time the Canadiens thought they didn't need Carbonneau was in 1981, when they sent him back to Halifax for the second year.
He played right into their hands--forcing himself to become so effective defensively that they had to keep him the following year.