The rest of the players would look with out-of-breath wonder. How does he do that? If asked, he would say that he did not know.
"You know what happens when you're on the ice and Craig Janney is on your side and has the puck?" Derek Sanderson, the former Bruin and now a television broadcaster, asks. "You're always eligible! You know what that means? There's always a way he can get the puck to you. Keep working. Keep moving. He'll get it there one way or another. Most guys, there's a second when they can make the play...Craig Janney? Keep moving. You're always eligible."
The stage has moved to the finals of the Stanley Cup, the Bruins against the Edmonton Oilers, but the basic question is the same. How does he do that? The hands are the same, and the results, often as not, are the same. The pond somehow still belongs to this slender 22-year-old center from Enfield, Conn., and Boston College, this quiet young guy with the velvet touch.
Each stop on the Bruins' happy march to the finals brought another play to be remembered. Another goal. Another pass. Another...wait a minute, what's he doing? Control, control, control. He has picked up three goals and a 1990 playoff-high 19 assists in 13 games. Against the Hartford Whalers, he scored the game-winning goal in the seventh game. Against the Montreal Canadiens, he set up the game-winner in overtime in the pivotal second game. Against the Washington Capitals, in the third game, he scored the game-winner and was knocked dizzy on the same play. He has passed the puck between people's skates, around falling bodies and over the corner of the net from in back of the goal. He has helped Neely, his right wing and an NHL All-Star, score 12 goals after scoring 55 in the regular season. He has made an elephant and a brass band appear from a top hat.
A local columnist has requested that his hands be insured by Lloyd's of London. A hockey writer has compared him to Madge in those Palmolive dish-soap commercials. The hockey term "soft hands" has been mentioned again and again. These are hands that somehow can control the stick that controls the puck, hands that would work nimbly at second base in the middle of a double play, hands that a neurosurgeon would slide into rubber gloves. A teammate, Dave Poulin, suggests that Janney must have learned how to stick-handle in a shoebox.
"Here's what amazes me," Bruins coach Mike Milbury says. "Everybody's looking for him, and he's still successful. What's the first thing you're going to stop if you play against us? Janney passing to Neely. That's what you work on doing. That's your plan. And yet Janney's made that pass 50 or 60 times this year and Neely's scored the goals. That's what is most amazing."
"What's the comment everyone makes when he comes into this league?" teammate Andy Brickley says. "He says, 'The big difference is the speed of the game. It's faster.' Well, here's a guy who isn't bothered by that speed. He has such a low panic button. He just holds on to the puck while everybody else is looking to get rid of it."
The comparison that has been made most often is to a certain center for the Los Angeles Kings. There has been an immediate disclaimer that nobody is Wayne Gretzky, that it is the heresy of heresies even to mention anyone else's name with Gretzky's, and yet...and yet, there are certain moves. The ability to wait and wait, to refuse to surrender the puck, is a legitimate comparison. Doesn't Gretzky wait until other people commit, then move past as they lose their momentum or balance? The ability to work from behind the opponent's net is another comparison. Isn't Gretzky a master at working from behind the opponent's net? Doesn't Janney do the same thing, turning the game upside down, making nearly impossible passes from behind the goalie's back?
It would be easy to suggest that this is the first in a line of kids who have grown up with an image of the Gretzky game in their minds. It would be easy, but it would be wrong.
"I saw Gretzky play on television, of course, but I never really watched sports too much," Janney says. "I mostly just went out to play. I wasn't playing hockey to be in the National Hockey League. I basically wanted to play to make some friends and have some fun. I played baseball. I played soccer. I just played whatever sport was in season. I wasn't one of those year-round hockey players. I think that's awful, playing only one sport all year when you're a kid."