BALTIMORE — Don Beaupre peered through his mask for one of the first times as a National Hockey League goaltender to see Mark Howe flying down ice with no defenseman between them.
Beaupre, a 19-year-old rookie for the Minnesota North Stars, was starting in the 1980-81 opener against the Hartford Whalers before a capacity Met Center crowd. "I was pretty nervous," he said.
Howe skated across the blue line, cut to Beaupre's left, faked a shot and then fired the puck high toward the net.
"He shot to my glove, and I stopped it," Beaupre said. "You kind of stop and think after the first time you stop a big-name player."
During his first season in the NHL -- an eight-month rise to fame -- Beaupre didn't have much time to think. In one year, he went from an all-star for the Sudbury Wolves in the Ontario Junior League to the starting Campbell Conference goalie in the NHL All-Star Game. He finished with 18 wins, including a 9-3 victory in the opener, third place in the rookie of the year voting and was in goal during the North Stars' only victory in the Stanley Cup finals against the New York Islanders. "The highest point of the whole year," he said.
Eight years later, Beaupre is at the lowest point of his career.
He's an NHL goalie playing for the Baltimore Skipjacks in the American Hockey League -- the result of a trade the Washington Capitals made with Minnesota for Claudio Scremin, a University of Maine defenseman who was a 10th-round pick by the Capitals in the 1987 entry draft.
"In our evaluation, when we acquired (Beaupre), he was more the victim of circumstances -- a new coach, new general manager, a new-look type of organization that was getting rid of the old and bringing in the new," Capitals General Manager David Poile said. "We feel we have three NHL-caliber goaltenders in our system probably for the first time in our franchise's history."
However, only two (Pete Peeters and Clint Malarchuk) are kept on the Capitals' roster during the regular season. And for the first extended period in his career, Beaupre is playing in the minors.
He played one period with Washington in November, replacing Malarchuk when the Capitals were losing, 5-2, after two periods to the New Jersey Devils, and Peeters was unavailable because of an injury. Beaupre allowed one goal in six shots.
"After the game, they told me I was going down to Baltimore because Pete was ready to play again," Beaupre said. "I was disappointed, but didn't think it would be for that long. I had heard talk that they were unhappy with their goal-tending at the beginning of the year, would make a deal and I'd come back up.
"But it's 2 1/2, three months and I'm still here. I came to play for Washington, not for Baltimore. Things are going good here, but it's not the NHL, and after eight years there, this isn't the highlight of my career."
The adjustment has been tough for Beaupre, who, with his wife Kim and daughters Jennifer, 23 months, and Christina, six months, moved from their house in Burnsville, Minn., to a rented townhouse in Bowie, Md. He said he sometimes wakes up after dreaming about the dreads of minor-league play -- the bus rides, cheap hotels, smaller paychecks -- things he thought he left behind in Sudbury. "All the angry feelings about the way things are going kind of come together," he said.
"It's swallowing your pride. I'm making less money this year than my first year in the NHL," he said. "I've given my energy to the NHL. It's the premier hockey league in the world, and after playing in it as long as I did, and knowing I can play there, being in the American league is pretty tough."
Still, he won six of his first seven games with the Skipjacks, allowing 2.4 goals per game while winning the AHL Player of the Week award. In 24 games, he has a 12-9-2 record with a 3.57 goals-against average.
"He's able to make the second and third saves on shots that are in tight," Skipjacks Coach Terry Murray said. "He's very quick and has tremendous legs. The best part of his game is his agility - moving from side to side, out (of the goal) challenging."
"The main thing is believing they're not going to score on you," Beaupre said.
At 15, Beaupre was one of the best goalies in the junior leagues; he joined the Wolves when he was 17. He was drafted by Minnesota two years later, and made the team after training camp -- which included a week in Sweden. He celebrated his 19th birthday on the plane ride home.
"Everything was so new, all the different cities, and you're playing against players you've seen on TV and read about," he said. "We had our own bus with bunks in Sudbury, and now I was flying and staying at first-class hotels."
After his first year, Beaupre slumped, finishing with an 11-8-9 record and a five-game stint in Nashville of the Central Hockey League.
"My second year was the toughest. I got hurt (rib injury), and they sent me down right away," he said. "During my first year, I never thought I'd ever play in the minors."
Beaupre rebounded, winning 36 games during the next two years, but began 1985-86 in a rut. However, he came back after the All-Star break to win 14 straight games.