- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

CHICAGO There must have been times some years back when Steve Poapst wondered what was going on. He was a solid defenseman in the minor leagues who occasionally was called up by the parent Washington Capitals. But he was always back in the minors before the proverbial cup of coffee was cold.
He must be wondering even more these days, now that he is more or less established in the NHL as a defenseman with the Chicago Blackhawks a veteran of 125 games and more than one quarter of the way to a fully vested pension. He must be wondering why it took so long because he is pushing 34 and doesn't have a lot of time left.
"I was nine years as a pro before I got here," Poapst said yesterday morning, recalling when Chicago summoned him for the first time in 2000-01. He split time that season between the NHL and the minors and has been in the big leagues all this season.
Poapst was a victim, and there are probably a lot more like him out there. He was a better-than-average hockey player, but that's all he was. While he spent years toiling on Caps farm teams, the big league roster was loaded mostly with guys making $1million or more. Whether good or bad, and the Caps have had more than their share of the latter, the guys with the big tickets play while guys like Poapst ride the buses.
Why did he stick around when he had a degree from Colgate?
"Love of the game it certainly wasn't the money," Poapst said. "I didn't have any choice. Washington wasn't going to give me an offer, so I had to go somewhere else. I sent faxes to everybody in the league seeing what was out there."
And Chicago was waiting.
"I remember watching him play for Washington farm teams and wondering when he was going to get an opportunity," Blackhawks coach Brian Sutter said yesterday. "He's the type of guy, you watch him and he does nothing real good but does everything pretty good. He's real steady. He doesn't make many mistakes."
Poapst is averaging 20 minutes a game, which is somewhat surprising because he still isn't a full regular with the Blackhawks. He played four games early in the season, missed six, then played four more.
"You've got to stay sharp if you want to play," he said. "We've got a very deep defense here, and there's a lot of competition to get in the lineup. It's sort of understood when you come here that there's going to be some of that. You've got to learn to step in like you haven't missed a beat, but it is an adjustment."
Poapst has scored only four goals in his NHL career, but his first and only Caps goal was important at the time. It came in Poapst's first NHL game, April10,1996, against the New York Rangers and Mike Richter in Madison Square Garden.
"I remember [the puck] bounced off a couple people before it went in the net," he said. "We won, I remember that, and it was the game-winning goal to clinch the playoffs for us that season."
Long after that game ended, Poapst was still in full uniform, talking to the press after having spent time on the phone with his parents. Jim Schoenfeld, the coach at the time, broke the party up by yelling that the bus was leaving.
"I didn't even know I was going to play that game," Poapst recalled. "I took warmups, but it all depended on whether Joe Reekie could play on his sore foot. To be honest, I think it was broken. So we both took warmup, came off and somebody said, 'You're in.'"
Nothing much has changed. Poapst still comes to work every night not knowing if his name will be on the lineup sheet. His salary has gone from $75,000 to $550,000, but there are still wunderkinds ahead of him, at least in salary.


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