Pat Flatley, they are saying in Canada, is trying to go from national hero to national villain in just three months. Last winter the 20-year-old Toronto native was the star of the Canadian Olympic team. This spring he has been outstanding in the National Hockey League playoffs for the defending champion New York Islanders, who defeated Montreal in the Stanley Cup semifinals and are now matched against the Edmonton Oilers in the finals.
Flatley was a principal reason the Islanders came from two games down to drub the Canadiens and has also been a key factor in the best-of-seven finals, which stand 1-1 with Game 3 coming up tonight in Edmonton. His eight goals overall in the playoffs have already doubled the Islanders' rookie record.
He also more than fulfilled his primary role (everyone in the well-constructed Islander machine has a primary role) as a rambunctious checker, running into opponents all over the ice and making the action look like a demolition derby on skates. It took him about six seconds to instigate a body-rattling, but entirely legal collision with Edmonton superstar Wayne Gretzky in the opening game of the finals.
As for how it feels to be one of the ''bad guys'' in these playoffs in terms of playing against the Canadian-based teams, Flatley indicated that the whole thing concerns him about as much as the price of skate sharpening.
''Being from the eastern part of the country, Edmonton never meant that much to me,'' he said. ''I've heard as much about Gretzky as everybody else has, and I respect him, but I admire the guys here more for their two-way style. That's my style, which is why I like it.''
Flatley fit in with the Islanders at once. The club's No. 1 draft choice in 1982 scored on his first shot during the regular season and scored on his first shot of the playoffs. He came out hitting and hasn't stopped.
''He's been a dominant player for us,'' says veteran center Bryan Trottier, a linemate. ''He's a catalyst. His corner play and toughness along the boards in our zone is an inspiration. He teaches me things, the way he controls the puck to get away a pass or shot. He has tremendous poise and confidence. He's a young kid with a 30-year-old mind.''
Winger Bob Bourne is not surprised at Flatley's prolific playoff scoring.
''He's a hard working, digging type player,'' Bourne says, ''and that's the kind of forward who scores in the playoffs. Very rarely do you see a lot of pretty goals in the playoffs. You have to work for them. This is his kind of hockey.''
Flatley has scored by positioning himself quickly and shrewdly, usually in the high slot in front of the goal, and getting his shots away quickly. Not a smooth skater, he is deceptively quick with his feet and his hands.
Flatley is not surprised by his scoring either.
''I'm not over-confident in my scoring ability, but I'm confident,'' he says, running a hand through his curly red hair. He is a pleasant looking young man who might be a journalism student, which he was at the University of Wisconsin. ''I led an NCAA championship team in scoring and Team Canada too. I still think checking is my most important contribution, though.''
Flatley is a devout believer in the work ethic that manifests itself through rugged checking. He's a working man's hockey player.
''I'm just another guy in the work line here,'' he says. ''I bring my lunch pail every day. I've always been that way. When I was 10 years old I could barely skate. If the puck wasn't along the boards, I had no chance to get it.''
Listed in the program at 6 ft. 2 in. and 190 lbs., Flatley does not look that large peeling off his sweat-drenched uniform after a game. ''It isn't the size that matters as much as how hard you work,'' he says with conviction.
Flatley's dedicated checking can flatten opponents because he plows through them rather than just bumps them, as do most forwards. He takes them out of the play, and his checks are felt for a good while afterward.
''In Olympic hockey, on a bigger playing surface, you concentrate on cutting off areas and avenues of ice. Here you take the body every chance you can and finish your check.''
Too often it is overlooked in analyzing hockey that it's a punishing, rough, physical game. The Islanders wear teams down with their strength and aggressiveness, and Flatley has added to that capability. Montreal learned in the semifinals that the longer a series lasts, the tougher the Islanders become, until toward the end they shift into overdrive. Or so it has gone until now.
That's the work ethic,'' says Pat flatly.