The Can’t-Miss Kid. That’s what they called Bobby Carpenter when he was a 17-year-old at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, MA in 1981. “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,” wrote the legendary E.M. Swift in a 1981 Sports Illustrated cover story. “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.”
Carpenter went No. 3 overall to the Washington Capitals that year. He retired in 1999 after playing 18 seasons with the Capitals, New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils. He played in the NHL All-Star Game in 1985 and was a Stanley Cup Champion in 1995 with the Devils.
His son Robert, who also goes by Bob or Bobo, had 24 goals in 22 games as the team captain at Austin Prep in Reading, MA and is currently a member of the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL.
A year after Bobby won the Stanley Cup with New Jersey, Craig Wolanin, a long-time defenseman for the Quebec Nordiques, won a championship with the Colorado Avalanche during their inaugural season in Denver. When Wolanin brought Lord Stanley’s mug home, he placed his one year old son, Christian, in the cup. “I don’t remember [it],” says Christian, smiling, “but I’m assuming that was a pretty awesome time for my mother and father.”
Eighteen years later Christian is in his third USHL season, playing for the Muskegon Lumberjacks, who are located a three-hour drive across the state from his hometown of Rochester, MI.
The elder Wolanin was drafted No. 3 overall by the Devils in 1985 and played in New Jersey until 1990. He played with the Nordiques from the 1990-91 season until 1996 before finishing up his career with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. His career spanned 13 seasons, ending, like Carpenter’s, in 1999.
“Truthfully it doesn’t really cross my mind a lot,” says Christian when asked if he thinks about his father’s accolades in professional hockey. “I know my dad did what he did, and he had some pretty awesome accomplishments in the NHL, but I’ve never felt pressure, I’ve never felt the need to follow in his footsteps.
“He’s always been unbelievable with me in letting me know that what I do is what I’m gonna do, and what he did is done with, and right now he’s just a father to me.”
Robert says that he is frequently compared to his father, but he does not seem to mind.
“He’s always been there for me; he’s helped me, he’s taught me everything I know, so I owe a great deal of it to him, so I’m always grateful to have him, and I know I can always go over to him for help,” he says. “Now that I’m out in Sioux City, I call him after every game and he helps me, and he’ll always have a couple things that day that I can work on, so it helps out a lot.”
Both players were coached by their fathers before joining the USHL. Bobby Carpenter helped out on the bench with Robert’s other coach, Bob Sweeney, and the younger Carpenter never seemed to mind having his father around during and after games.
“I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s been the biggest opportunity for me to have him; I’m so thankful for it. He knows so much about the game, and I couldn’t be luckier,” he says. “He’s still teaching me, so it’s crazy to me, and it’s unbelievable — some of the stuff I never would have thought of, and he’s teaching me after every game and helping me, and it’s just weird. It’s something new every day and it’s the biggest help in the world.”
Wolanin says that he got no special favors having his father on the bench; in fact, more was often expected of him.
“He was always hardest on me,” he says, “which is one of the reasons why I’m here. Without him, truthfully I don’t think think I would be in this position.”
The two have two very different games, which may be one of the reasons that Wolanin is compared less to his father than Carpenter is. Wolanin played forward growing up, but was converted to defenseman in his first year with the Green Bay Gamblers during the 2012-13 season. He remained a defenseman when he was traded from Green Bay to Muskegon the next year, and says that the change in position is part of the reason why he spent an extra year in the USHL.
“It was very hard, very frustrating at times, but I had a good coaching staff as well there (in Green Bay), and I knew it was only a matter of time,” he says. “I tried not to get too down on myself, and although it did take three years, I’m finally in the position I want to be in and I’m just gonna try and continue to get better.”
“I don’t exactly have any old-time defensemen on the top of my head,” he says. “I just watched forwards my entire life because I thought I was gonna give it a shot as a forward, but I ended up switching when I went to Green Bay my rookie year, and I think it’s been a blessing in disguise.”
One player that Wolanin does not emulate is his father.
“He was 6’3”, 6’4”, big guy, big shutdown defensive kind of player, and I like to think I don’t play that type of game,” he says. “I’ll play solid defense and stuff like that, but the offensive side is where I like to get involved and where I like to make a difference.”
Despite their differences in play, Wolanin says that his father is still able to help him out with his development as a player.
“He just knows,” he says with a shrug. “He has a very smart hockey mind, and he teaches me a lot of things, offensively, that I wouldn’t even know, and maybe he might not be able to do it, or maybe he wasn’t able to do it, but he knows for sure, and he’s very smart.”
The teaching goes beyond the ice, too. Wolanin’s father has helped him think the game as a defenseman, and Carpenter’s father has always preached the value of nutrition.
“My dad introduced it to me a couple years ago because I used to love all the candy and everything, and he kind of introduced me to that,” says Carpenter. “It definitely helps improve your game, it’s a big difference, the way you feel, when the puck drops.”
For both players, the challenge has been adjusting from a 20-plus game schedule to one with nearly three times as many games with longer road trips and against tougher competition.
“Definitely gotta keep eating the right foods, and rest is a big part of it,” says Carpenter, who eats lots of healthy snacks and takes a nap before games. “You’ve just got to take care of yourself.”
Both players have also connected with their current USHL coaches. Christian Wolanin calls Muskegon coaches Todd Krygier and Rich McKenna “unbelievable” and says they have taught him a lot. Robert Carpenter speaks highly of Sioux City coach Jay Varaday and says that assistant coach Ethan Goldberg has gone above and beyond when it comes to helping with his development.
“He’s been a great friend, so I know that I can always go to him if I need help with anything,” says Carpenter. “He’s always helped me with my shot, he gives me passes all the time — I feel bad kind of bugging him about it.”
Carpenter says that Goldberg also helped with the transition of moving away from home, which was difficult for him.
“I do miss home every day, but I know in the end this will be great for me, and I’ve had a ton of support back home from my family, my girlfriend and friends,” says Carpenter. “I feel like I’m very prepared for college, just being on my own, and just time management and everything — just making sure that everything’s getting done, and doing what’s best for you. It’s definitely been a great help.”
Carpenter will return home, as he is committed to Boston University and will join the Terriers next season.
“B.U. just stuck out to me more when I visited,” he says when asked about choosing B.U. over B.C., “and I felt it will help me get ready for what’s up next if that’s ever the case.”
Wolanin, on the other hand, is leaving the Wolverine State next season to attend the University of North Dakota despite getting offers from in-state schools.
“I was talking to a few Michigan schools, a few big-name schools, but North Dakota felt right,” he says. “And their coaching staff, I’ve heard nothing but good things about, so that was the place that I wanted to play.”
Time will tell where Carpenter and Wolanin end up after that. But regardless of where they go, they will know that they will have carved their own path to get there.
Follow Tom Schreier on Twitter via @tschreier3