Out of My League
The unique smell was the first thing I always noticed.
Not the dressing rooms, obviously. They all smelled the same, and they all were uniformly bad. What I'm talking about is the scent that hits you as soon as you open the front door to the lobby, one shoulder being dragged down by your heavy equipment bag.
I can't really describe it very well, since I don't know what it is. I think a mix of ammonia from the ice making equipment, and the smell from the ice itself, and the never-quite-dry painted wood from the boards. It leaves its own distinctive flavour in the air. Also stale sweat and wet cotton and synthetics, old french fries and greasy hamburgers from the concession, old rubber from the floor padding in the dressing rooms and walkway to the rink itself, and from pucks. And tape, lots and lots of tape—stick tape and sock tape and the adhesive from both. And something tangy and sharp, maybe the metal of skate blades or the weird smell of broken composite-material sticks.
And adrenaline and testosterone. Oh yeah, lots and lots of that.
All I know is that as soon as that smell hits my nostrils my heart starts to race, my legs become lighter, my pupils dilate, and I know I'm exactly where I belong. The adrenaline starts pumping through my veins, even while I'm still looking at the board to see what dressing room I'm in.
We learned about feedback loops last year at school. I think this qualifies. All those smells, all that adrenaline and testosterone, and wham, it hits me, my own being added to that around me.
It's the smell of camaraderie. It's the smell of fun. It's the smell of intensity and competition and drive and energy and skill and friendship and sometimes frustration and anger and bitter disappointment. But mostly, it's the smell of hockey.
I love the game. I have ever since I was first mesmerized while sitting with my dad watching Hockey Night in Canada when I was two years old. I loved it even more when I learned to skate at three, then was completely hooked by the time I was on the ice with my first team at five years old in the pre-novice group. I scored my first goal that day, raised my little arms into the air in proud exultation, and never looked back.
Nowadays though, I was beginning to hate the smell I loved. Because I knew this was almost certainly going to be my last year. And I just didn't know how the hell I was going to deal with that.
I'm in first-year midget this year. Which means, by rule, that I'm fifteen years old. Much more important to me was that, for the very first time, I was playing triple-A.
Oh, I have no illusions. Midget triple-A is great hockey, the best there is at my age. Of the roughly 5000 kids playing organized hockey in my city of 200,000 people, Saskatoon Saskatchewan, only a select few ever make it to triple-A. But, out of those that do, maybe only a tenth will get drafted to play anywhere in the CHL for junior. Less will ever make the teams they were drafted to. And from there, out of the hundreds that think they're on the brink of stardom, less than a tenth of those will ever play even one shift in the NHL, and less than one in a hundred or more will ever see a regular shift for a multi-year career.
I'm realistic. I'm a third-line grinder on a middling triple-A team. My chances at the bigs are less than one in a thousand. Probably more like one in ten-thousand.
So, while I gave the game everything I could, I knew that my future lay elsewhere. I made sure I was a straight A student. If nothing else, hockey could help give me a free ride through university if I played my cards right.
So the personal revelations of the past year were somewhat of a disappointment. More to the point, they were a disaster for my plans.
You see, hockey is a whole lot like many other team sports in the world. Even here, where tolerance was considered cool in my school and community, where diversity is celebrated and differences in language, culture, religion, and skin colour are mostly shrugged off as trivial, sports are an exception. And hockey, the true religion of the nation, stands resolute above that.
Still, the game has had to adjust. Almost every community-level team from five years old right up to fifteen has at least one, and usually three or four, girls on it. At older ages and higher levels the girls have their own leagues. Thanks to immigration, most of us didn't even notice unimportant things like skin colour, or even language. Half the teams I've played on, we all knew the words for, “Pass it over here!” in Punjabi, Farsi, Armenian, and half a dozen other languages as well as we knew them in English or French. Immigrant kids, even against their parents' wishes, wanted to play hockey, and so they did.
But, there was still one exception. One huge, glaring exception. It stood unmoving, unaffected. Completely rock-solid, even today.
There are no gay hockey players.
Not a single one, now or ever, in the NHL. None in the AHL. None at all in the Q, none in the O, and likewise, none in the Dub. Not in Junior A either, or even down in Junior B. And certainly none in Triple-A, even down to bantam age.
Hockey players just aren't gay.
I'm gay. I'm a hockey player.
So, I have a problem.
It was a problem I was working hard to ignore for the time being. We were just under a month into the season and I had other things to worry about. Triple-A was intense. Expectations were a lot higher than what I was used to. Our practice schedule was brutal and rigid, our coach a slave driver. Then, there was the fitness regimen, the nutrition and diet guidelines, and all of the community events we were expected to volunteer for.
On top of that, we all were required to maintain stellar grades at school. At least I didn't have many issues in that department.
Unlike a lot of my teammates, and the kids on other teams, I was lucky enough to play for a team in my hometown, so I didn't have to be billeted for the entire year with some family I didn't know in a city I knew nothing about.
It was an unusually warm October this year. Warm enough that I was only wearing my team hoodie when Mom dropped me off at the rink Tuesday afternoon after school for practice. I waved a thanks to Mom as she drove off, opened the doors to the lobby, and breathed deeply of the scent of my game.
Thanks to the warm fall weather, the inside of the rink was colder than it was outside. I ignored that though, knowing that I'd be sweating buckets in less than an hour. I glanced at the white-board to find out where we were, and made my way down the hallway to Red 2. Many rinks in Saskatoon, and lots of other cities, have two or more ice surfaces in the building. Each one projects off the lobby in varying directions, kind of like a multiplex movie theatre. Some arenas numbered the rinks, some of them had names. Others, like ours, colour-coded them. So Red 2 meant we were practicing today on the Red rink, and we were changing in dressing room 2. Each rink had the usual four dressing rooms next to it. During games, 1 and 2 were the home rooms and 3 and 4 were the away team's rooms. That way they could keep alternating for the endless back to back minor hockey league games that made up most winter evenings and weekends.
I made my way down the hallway behind the stands and leaned my sticks up against the wall in the corner near the door with all of the others. I banged open the dressing room door and walked into the semi-structured chaos that was a teenage hockey team's dressing room before practice, and before any coaches had bothered coming in.
A wadded up ball of sock tape hit me on the forehead almost immediately, followed by, “I knew it was you, Lucas. I could smell ya when you were still in the parking lot.”
I fished my water bottle out of the top pouch of my hockey bag, still half full of yesterday's luke-warm stale water, aimed carefully, and squirted a good shot right at the purveyor of the sock-tape projectile. “Glad to hear you know me by smell alone, Pete. Now if you can learn to skate half as good as you can smell maybe we'll be able to keep up with those guys on Friday.”
Pete was a good guy. Actually most of my teammates were good guys. Most of the real jerks tended to be weeded out by the expectations of our coaches and teams before we got here. There seems to be a bit of a correlation between self-discipline and decency. There were a few notable exceptions of course. Every team had them.
I'd known Pete since we were both six years old. We went to the same school, and we played against each other on and off for years. This was the first time we were on the same team, and he was the only familiar face when I got here that first day in September.
Like most dressing rooms I'd been in, this one was too small. White painted cinder-block walls with a long wooden bench bolted to all four walls. Above that were hooks for clothes and gear, and then a long shelf above that. No stalls, no lockers. The showers and toilets were just around the corner.
I found a slightly less crowded area against one wall, and kicked Ben's hockey bag over to make room for my own. Ben nodded a hello at me as I sat down and unzipped my bag.
Ten minutes later, Coach Turner walked in with a bucket of pucks in one hand, and a big nylon bag in the other. Like always, three feet of bench right next to the door had been left empty for him, despite the crowded conditions in the rest of the room. That hasn't changed since I was six years old. The guy with the least equipment, who needed the least amount of room to get ready, always had the biggest area to himself.
But he was the coach.
To be fair, he always had a clipboard with papers on it, another stack of papers to hand-out with whatever information we were being given today, the white-board with the lines of a hockey rink on it that he used to draw up plays and strategy, and the usual assortment of coaching stuff. And his skates and gloves, and his helmet. When I started playing hockey, coaches weren't required to wear helmets on-ice during practices. That rule was brought in a few years ago when some coach was accidentally hit by a player, fell backwards, cracked his skull, and died. Now, they wore helmets, but as a rule, they hated them.
The room quieted down by half the moment Coach Turner walked in, and then became almost silent when he stared around to see who was ready, and who was still gearing up. Those that had the temerity to not be completely ready when he walked in at that random moment began to hurriedly finish putting their equipment on. The rest of us sat and waited.
Coach tightened his skates, stood up, grabbed his white-board, and hung it on a hook on the wall. With three different colours of dry-erase markers, he began telling us what the torture-of-the-day was going to entail.
“We're playing the Rockets on Friday,” Coach Turner said. As if we weren't all well aware. “They're the fastest team in the league. We can't match 'em for skating, aside from maybe Lucas,” he nodded in my direction, “so we need to play a positionally sound, defensive game when they're in possession of the puck, and we need to make sure our break-outs are clean. We're not going to get many chances with a clear shot at the net on the rush, so the ones we do get, we'll need to make 'em count. Guys, when we have the puck in their zone, we'll need to forecheck hard and cycle efficiently. They're faster, but we're tougher and bigger. We need to take advantage of that.”
Alec, one of our goalies, raised his hand, “Who's in net, Coach?”
Coach looked at Alec, then turned his head slightly and nodded at Chris, “Chris is starting on Friday.” Alec's shoulders slumped slightly, and Chris perked up a bit.
“You'd better damn well make sure you're ready though, Alec. If Chris shits the bed,” Chris' shoulders were now slumped too, “then you'll be in before the first period's over.”
He then turned to Chris, “Andrews, listen up. You won't shit the bed. Don't sulk. Just work on your rebound control, dammit. You'll be fine.” Chris brightened up a bit.
The coach went through the drills, called out the practice lines, and then we were on the ice.
I took that first step off the rubber mat and onto the frozen sheet of glass, fresh and shiny from the zamboni, before we had a chance to chew it all up. I pumped my legs hard, and did a couple of quick warm-up laps, swinging my shoulders and stick to loosen up. On the next lap I scooped up a puck from the pile near the blueline, and pulled it from my backhand onto my forehand. Stickhandling in front of me, I reached the top of the circle and wristed the puck into the empty net, two feet off the ice.
I knew why I was here. I had two things going for me. I was fast, and I was big. Unfortunately though, I had hands of stone compared to many of my teammates, and the nebulous skill Coach called “hockey sense” for me was barely passable. That's the ability to see plays, to predict what was going to happen before it happened. Hockey is a fast game, faster than anything. Plays turned in microseconds and offense became panicky defense before you had a chance to blink. Thinking ahead was one of the best skills a player had, and I had little of it.
So, I worked within my limits, and tried to expand them as best I could. My limited skill-set put me squarely near the bottom. I was a role-player. A defensive forward, a clock-killer. I had enough speed to make sure my backchecking was effective, and I had enough size to grind it out behind the offensive net and against the boards, working the puck hard, killing time or killing a penalty, or killing the other team's offensive shift.
All of that meant I was lucky to see ten or twelve minutes of ice-time a game. That's okay though, I was still here, on a triple-A team, and I was damned proud of that.
I shoot right, which meant I usually played right-wing. Made it easier to pick up loose pucks on the boards on that side. In any case, the variations of the modern hockey playbook meant that those positions were mostly moot once you entered the opposition zone with possession. Your role was determined by your entry into the zone more than anything else. Coach had us do a lot of crossing plays on the rush though, where you'd come across the line, barely on-side, then switch to your off-wing at speed and hope the defenseman covering you bit and followed instead of staying on their side. Then, you often had an easy deke or a clear shot on the net. If not, usually it opened up a pass to your centre in the slot or a drop-pass to the D at the point.
Of course, I rarely got to do that. My role meant I more often than not dumped the puck deep after crossing the redline to avoid an icing call, then raced the D back behind the offensive net, trying to beat him to the loose puck. Then I'd start a cycle on the boards with my other winger or my centre and grind it out, and hope my centre can get free for a half-second in the circle near the hashmarks or in front, or I can get a pass back to my D for a slapshot and then maybe a screen or a deflection or a rebound.
So I didn't score a lot. Not like when I was little, back when my limited skills still meant I was the best player on my community team. Here, I pretty much sucked. Just good enough with just enough important and useful skills that the coach let me stay.
Practice was tougher than usual. Coach Turner had us working hard, with barely a break for a drink of water between drills. He was up to something. I could feel it. I just didn't know what. He had a funny look on his face, almost a smirk. And we were getting worked like it was still training camp.
We limped back to the dressing room, exhausted. I had taken a slapshot to my back, just below my pads, while trying for a deflection and it was throbbing mightily. We slumped down and began peeling our soaking wet gear off. I was looking forward to a hot shower, hoping the water would ease my sore shoulder.
Coach Turner came back into the room and looked around at us. He still had the smirk on his face. “Listen up, guys. Get yourself showered and changed, then grab a piece of the bench and wait for me. I have a couple of announcements to make.” With that, he turned on his heel and left.
That was unusual. If Coach had anything to say after practice, he would usually say it right after we got into the room, before we got changed. I couldn't figure out what he was up to.
Pete looked at me, his eyes containing the same question I had. I shrugged at him, and said, “I dunno.”
Pete said, “Whatever. He'd better be quick though. Larissa's waiting for me in the lobby and I promised her a real sit-down restaurant tonight, before homework.”
“What happened to Marie?” I asked, peeling sock tape off my legs and un-velcroing my socks from my jock.
Pete grinned, “She dumped me.”
I knew the answer, but I asked it anyway. “Why?”
Pete's grin widened, “'Cause I was already seeing Larissa.”
I just shook my head and threw a tape wad at him. He laughed all the way into the shower room.
I followed him in a minute later. The hot water felt great. “You should come with us,” came Pete's voice from beside me.
I took my head out from under the spray and looked at him. That was unusual. We never saw each other outside of hockey or school. He continued, “She has a friend with her. Sarah. We were going to drop her at home before we went to eat, but I'm sure she'd come along if you came too.”
I tried to figure out how to handle this, and took a minute to finish rinsing the shampoo out of my hair before answering. “Can't,” I said, “I got homework. Spencer assigned that stupid project and it's due next week.”
Pete snorted, looking at me. “It'll take you two hours to do the whole thing. I know you. And you have a week.”
I just looked at him without answering, hoping it wouldn't go further than that.
“Whatever,” he said, giving up. “But next time, you're coming. And you're buying.” He walked out of the shower room.
It was actually fairly easy most of the time, at hockey. Pete was the only one on the team who I went to school with. And while everyone talked about what they were doing with their girlfriends, the structure of the practices and games meant that our social lives were separate. Sure, a lot of people on the team hung out with each other afterwards, and there were always a few girlfriends in the stands watching us practice. I didn't socialize with my teammates though. I stopped that just before last year. It made it easier. I didn't like lying, and making up stupid stories about girls I wasn't seeing seemed pointless.
I turned away from Pete's receding back and shook my head, looking down at my feet. Something caught my eye, and I looked up again, across the shower room.
Chris Andrews, one of our goalies, was looking at me. When he saw me glance towards him he quickly looked away, grabbed his towel, and walked out.
Shit. I didn't need rumours starting. Not here. Not now. I just wanted to get through the year, and enjoy being here while it lasted.
I finished up fast and went back out to the room to get changed. I had barely sat down again after getting dressed when the coach walked in. He started talking even before the door swung closed behind him. “All right guys, I know it hasn't been a great start so far this year. That's why I've been working you so hard. We can do better, a lot better. And, believe me, if we don't want to completely embarrass ourselves, now we'll have to.” He was grinning.
We sat there looking at him, trying to figure it out. Of course we needed to get better. What was he getting at?
Pete risked a question, “Uh, Coach? What do you mean?”
Coach Turner frowned at him, “You mean you think we don't have to get better, Jenkins?” he asked, frowning.
“No!” Pete protested. “Of course we do, but...” he tailed off, not knowing how to ask what we were all wondering.
Coach laughed, obviously enjoying our confusion. “Okay, I'm handing out a tournament schedule.” He pulled a sheath of papers out of his bag and began handing them out. We knew the drill. There were a few tournaments, outside regular league play, every year. Usually we hosted one, and then went to at least one other one, often way outside the cluster of towns and teams we usually played against.
“Guys,” Coach continued, grinning, “I hope you don't have plans for Christmas. We're going to Calgary. We've been invited to a little event they call the Mac's Major Midget Tournament.”
Our jaws dropped open and we stared at Coach Turner for several seconds in complete silence. Then pandemonium erupted.
You gotta understand. This is huge. Bigger than huge. It's enormous. The Mac's Major Midget Tournament is the biggest and best AAA invitational tournament in North America. Hell, in the world. It's a big deal. A really, really big deal. It takes place in Calgary, Alberta from Boxing Day until just after New Year's. Teams from Russia, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland, the US, and practically every other hockey playing country would be there.
And, apparently, so would we.
The playoff games were all televised. The final game was played in the Saddledome. The NHL Calgary Flames home arena. Whoever made it that far would be playing on major league ice, in front of a major league crowd, and they would be televised to the country. There'd be CHL scouts galore there. Not to mention NHL scouts.
Holy shit. I was going to play in the Mac's!
I couldn't sit still during dinner. I was talking so fast it was a wonder I managed to eat anything. Mom and Dad just nodded and smiled, not bothering to try and get a word in edgewise. Darren, my older brother, tried, but even he gave up after a while.
Eventually Dad managed a little chuckle and said to Mom, “Well, Hon, I guess your parents won't be coming for Christmas after all, 'cause we'll be out of town.”
Mom laughed and even Darren looked intrigued.
* * *
Even though almost everyone's family was going, the team itself took the bus. Coach figured it was good for team bonding or some such. We couldn't afford to fly, our budget just wasn't geared for that. So we rode the bus. Saskatoon to Calgary was about eight hours by bus. Maybe closer to twelve if the roads were bad due to snow. By the third hour the excitement had worn off and most of us were dozing, listening to music through earphones, or watching the movie on the seatback in front of us.
We'd worked our asses off for the past month and a half. Coach was practically killing us, but it didn't matter. We knew what we were up against, so we buckled down and pushed ourselves to the limit.
We knew we wouldn't win. Everything was stacked against us. The teams, the schedule, and, of course, the rules.
Since it was an international tournament, adjustments needed to happen. Other countries have different rules for age restrictions. Allowances were made. Many countries, such as the US and Russia, allowed up to three over-aged players in triple-A midget, up to eighteen years old, on their teams. Hockey Canada and all of the other country's hockey governing bodies eventually reached various compromises. One of them was that teams wouldn't be broken up due to their over-agers, which were allowed in their leagues.
Despite that, our team still needed to follow Hockey Canada rules. Our oldest players were sixteen. Many countries had teams with up to three eighteen year olds. As a result, this tournament was almost always won by teams from those countries. It's just the way it was. At least in the boy's division. It was a bit different for the girl's division, since they played under no-bodychecking rules so size didn't matter quite so much.
See, age makes a big difference in hockey, especially for teenagers. The difference between a fully-grown eighteen year old and an average fifteen year old is huge. Hockey is a tough sport. Weight and size and speed matter. A lot.
I was big for fifteen, and fast, but these guys would crush me. And I knew it. So we were happy just to be there. We wanted to make a good showing, maybe do well enough in the round-robin portion to make it to a playoff game. That would be our victory. And that's what we were working on. Anything more would be gravy.
The bus made a stop in Kindersley, SK, the last stop before crossing the provincial border into Alberta. We all got off and made our way into the A&W for something to eat. I let the team go ahead of me, wanting to stretch my legs a bit, and get some fresh air. I stood in the parking lot, facing west, looking out across the open prairie towards Calgary. Wondering what would be in store for me. My breath puffed frostily in the December air.
A voice from beside me startled me slightly. “Nervous, Lucas?” it asked.
I turned to look at Chris. “Nah. What's there to be nervous about? I'm on the third line. I'm just glad to be here. Now you, Chris, you're the one who should be nervous. You're a goalie. The last line of defense. You're going to be playing in some of those games. I don't know how you stand it.”
Goalies are a different breed. Even at nine and ten years old, when kids stopped shifting positions like they changed underwear, we all understood that. Goalies were different. They had to be. When you had 170 grams of frozen vulcanized rubber being fired at your head every day at speeds of over 100 km/h, and your job was not to avoid them, but rather the reverse, you had to a little on the far side of the bell curve. Sure, they got a lot of the credit when we won, but they also took a hell of a lot of the blame when we lost. It wasn't usually fair, but it was true. So, yeah, they had to be unique. Just to stay sane.
It was quiet for a few minutes, then Chris said, “I'm really glad we're going to this tournament. 'Cause this is it for me, I think. My last year.”
I caught my breath, then turned to look at him. Chris was a year older than me. Sixteen. He'd be in Junior next year. “Why? You're good enough to get drafted. You could easily play at least Junior A.”
He shoved his hands in his team jacket pockets, and shifted a bit. “I don't think hockey is in my future. It's been a great run, but...” He tailed off.
I stared at him, wondering. I decided to be honest, at least slightly honest, “Well, actually, me too, Chris. I think I'm probably done too. After this year.”
Chris looked at me thoughtfully and shifted from foot to foot. Maybe to stay warm. Or maybe because of something else.
Finally, he turned away from me slightly. “Come on, if we want time to get some food we'd better get in there.” He walked away, towards the draw of greasy fast food. But before he did, he put his hand on my back, patting me once.
I wasn't quite sure of what to make of that.
We all trooped back onto the bus after our meal, after Coach Turner made sure we cleaned up every last scrap of trash or leftovers at every table. Coach Turner was real big on team image. I sat down in my window seat, and Pete plopped himself down beside me, grinning. “One more stop, then we're in Calgary. I hope our hotel has a waterslide!”
Chris was suddenly in the aisle, standing next to us. “Move it, Jenkins. Me and Malachuk got strategy to discuss.” He stared right at Pete.
Pete looked at Chris, then at me, his eyebrows raised. “Strategy? You're a goalie. He's third line. What the fuck kind of strategy do you need to discuss?”
Chris just smiled back at him and pleasantly replied, “The strategy of how the fuck to make you less ugly. You bring the whole team image down six notches.”
Pete grinned up at Chris, took his chewing gum out of his mouth, stuck it right onto Chris' team jacket zipper, then moved out of his seat. “Right. I'll be just over here, Andrews. You let me know when you two have figured out how we're going to win the Mac's tournament.”
Chris didn't even look back at Pete. He sat down, picked the gum off his zipper and tossed it in Pete's general direction, then turned back to me, grinning. “Your last year, huh? Wanna tell me why?”
Well, crap. I didn't want to have this conversation. Not now. Actually, not ever. I just looked at him, not saying a word. It always worked with Pete.
I guess Chris wasn't Pete. He just looked back and grinned wider, making me uncomfortable. The bus lurched into gear and then turned a corner, making Chris lean almost right into me, then it hit a huge bump and began noisily accelerating to highway speed. Chris just stared at me, rolling with the motion of the vehicle.
“I dunno,” I finally answered, “I guess I'm losing interest.”
Chris laughed, and slapped his knee. Yeah, he actually slapped his knee. I didn't think people actually did that. But he did. “Yeah. Right. Lucas Malachuk is losing interest in hockey. That's like Stephen Harper losing interest in fucking up the country.”
I didn't say anything, and began fiddling with the air vent control. I don't know why it didn't occur to me to ask the same question back at him. He started this, after all.
“How come you didn't double-date with Pete and Larissa a while back?” he pressed.
Fuck this, I thought. Fuck everything about this. Not now!
“I had homework.”
Another knee slap, and another guffaw. Then he got all silent for a few seconds. “Listen, Lucas. You don't have to tell me. After all, I didn't tell you. So let's just pretend we're both bored of the topic. I'm gonna take a nap. Let me know when we stop in Hanna.” Chris then slipped off his jacket and put it over himself like a blanket, reclined his seat back as far as he could, ignoring Larry's pissed off, “Hey!” from behind him, and then he closed his eyes.
Right after taking my hand into his own under the jacket.
* * *
I must have dozed off after a while. I awoke as the bus slowed down from highway speed and turned a corner into a parking lot. I saw the golden arches through the window. We were in Hanna, Alberta. I guess the bus driver was convinced teens didn't eat anything but hamburgers. Sheesh, a Mr. Sub or something would have been a nice change. This crap was throwing our dietary charts into meaningless garbage.
I was still holding Chris' hand under the jacket. Good thing it was dark.
Right after he had taken hold of my hand, back in Kindersley, he closed his eyes and leaned his head to the side. He didn't even look at me. But I could have sworn that was a satisfied little smile on his face.
I didn't move. I didn't know if I should snatch my hand back, or maybe pretend I didn't notice that a very good looking and well built goalie was gently holding my hand under his hockey team jacket, or maybe I should start rubbing the top of his hand with my thumb. So I did none of those things. Instead, I just left my hand where it was, after barely, barely giving Chris an acknowledging squeeze, then, after a while, I fell asleep.
We bumped to a stop and Chris awoke. He turned to look at me, gave me a big grin, and squeezed my hand a final time, then let go, stood up, and began stretching.
I stared at my sweaty hand for second, then stood up myself, not sure how I was going to talk to Chris about all this now. This kind of changed things. I think. Kind of. Or maybe it didn't.
I climbed down the three steps onto the snow covered pavement and looked towards the familiar restaurant. Pete got off the bus behind me and shoved me out of the way. I grinned at him, but I noticed he wasn't grinning back. Instead, he was looking at me strangely. Then he nodded to me to walk with him and began striding towards the building.
I waited two long seconds, while my head tried to sort out which one of the infinite possibilities his little non-verbal message conveyed, and then gave up and followed.
I got a salad and a quarter pounder and a milk, then looked around for a place to sit. I couldn't see Chris anywhere, but Pete was looking right at me. He pointed at the seat across from him, and I carried my tray over to him and sat down. I don't know what his face looked like since I was avoiding looking at him by opening my salad and carefully mixing in my dressing. Finally, when the silence was too much, I looked up.
Pete was staring at me.
I just looked back and took a bite of salad. Half of it fell off my little plastic fork and back into the little plastic container.
“Well. That's certainly a surprise,” he finally said with no inflection at all. He was still staring at me the same way.
I ate my salad. Trying to hide my rising utter panic. “What is?” I asked, much too casually.
“You,” he said in the same tone.
I stopped with my fork halfway to my mouth. More greenery fell off back into the container. I ignored it. I looked at Pete. I'm sure my eyes were showing terror.
He must have seen something, because the next thing he said was, “You put dressing on your salad. Thousand Island. You never do that.”
I looked down, then back at Pete. “Oh. Yeah.”
He smirked a bit, but not a mean smirk, more an amused one. He waited until he saw me relax slightly, then said, “So...Chris, huh?”
I almost spit out the mouthful of milk I had just taken, forced myself to swallow it while my eyes watered, then stared back at Pete. I'm surprised I didn't die right there in a McDonalds in the middle of the Alberta prairie.
I know I sure wanted to.
* * *
It was close to two in the morning when we finally rolled up to the hotel somewhere on the east side of Calgary. Since Coach was a slave-driver, the bus didn't leave Saskatoon until after school, hence the late arrival. God forbid we miss a half day. Sheesh.
I let go of Chris' hand and stood up to grab my carry-on from the overhead bin. Yup. All the way from the second we sat down when leaving Hanna to Calgary we were holding hands. Under Chris' jacket. The only difference this time was that after he put the jacket over top of him, kinda sloppily off to one side, we both reached for each others hand at the same time. Chris grinned really widely when he felt my hand in his. And it looked really good on him.
We stood beside the bus in the cold air, waiting for the driver to open the luggage area so we could grab our hockey bags, sticks, and luggage. We were triple-A midget, not NHL. So we carried our own gear. Pete was beside me, while Chris had wandered off to talk goalie stuff with Alec. They had a lot more gear to carry than we did, so they had to wrestle a luggage cart from the hotel lobby. As goalies, they were sharing a room of course.
Me and Pete were sharing our room. He was standing beside me right now. Looking as the bus, not at me. His arms crossed tightly against his chest in the cold air. He hadn't said a word.
I wasn't looking forward to getting into that hotel room with Pete. I just know our interrupted conversation was going to be resumed. Right after Chris had made his little pronouncement back in Hanna, Larry had shoved his way beside me and launched into scheming how we were going to get around curfew to explore a bit of Calgary. I breathed a relieved sigh and joined in the conversation, though I knew I wouldn't be breaking the curfew.
I'd been to Calgary before. Quite a few times, actually. Just not for hockey. My Aunt and Uncle lived here, along with two cousins. My Dad's brother and sister-in-law. My parents and Darren were going to be staying with them for the tournament. And for Christmas, obviously. I'd be joining them Christmas morning and staying there until after Christmas dinner. Then we had to be back at the hotel. Our first game was on Boxing Day. That only left us a few days to practice and get used to the thin air. Calgary's altitude is a bit hard to get used to for aerobic activity.
So, while I'd been here, and seen most of the sites, I hadn't been in any of the hockey rinks. Well, with two exceptions. First, when I went with Uncle Don to my cousin Steve's hockey game at their community rink. He was in bantam, and was on the bantam fives for his community. I think they played in Division seven or eight. So, yeah, he kinda sucked. Didn't matter though, he seemed to have as much fun as I did. He kept trying to show off to me too, which I thought was hilarious and obviously hugely pissed off his coach. Then, last time we were here, Uncle Don managed to get four tickets to the Flames vs. the Canucks. Dad and Uncle Don took me and my cousin Steve. It was my first live NHL game. Too bad the Flames lost. Again. Iginla scored though.
We obviously weren't the only team staying at this hotel. There was a big sign in the lobby, saying, “Welcome, Mac's Midget Players!” Then, underneath that was a long list of rules, including, “No hockey in the hallways,” and “No hockey or equipment in the pool area,” and, “Please respect other guests and quiet time rules.”
I guess they'd had a few teenage hockey teams stay here before.
Just as I was standing in the lobby reading all this, another team came through the doors in single file. I could tell from their team jackets and their conversation that they were Swedish. I'd never played against any international teams before, well, except the US, but they were pretty much the same as us so they don't count, so there was something a bit exotic about it, knowing there was a good chance we'd be facing off against them sometime next week. Most of us were giving them a good looking over as they filed past, and they were doing the same to us. Probably this was their first trip outside of Sweden too. One very, very blonde kid was looking right in my eyes. When he saw me looking back at him he grinned and nodded. I couldn't help grinning and nodding back. Until I noticed Pete looking at me again. Then I pretended to examine the card-key Coach Turner had just handed out.
My and Pete's conversation was going to be a bit delayed again, much to my relief. It was late, or I guess early, but Coach told us to drop our gear in our rooms, then come down to a conference room he had booked for a quick team meeting.
Me and Pete dumped our gear in the middle of the room, then Pete looked at me for a couple of seconds. But he just said, “Let's go,” and walked out the door. I made sure I had my card-key and followed him back downstairs.
The meeting was brief, and exactly what I thought it would be. Rules of conduct in the hotel, in the rinks, and anywhere else. Curfew expectations and consequences if they were broken. Details about practice times and when to be on the bus, starting tomorrow morning much too early, given the time right now. Expectations about dress code—shirt and tie always at any rink and going to and from, both before and after getting changed, whether for practice or games. Team jacket or hoodie at all other times, except when out with parents. Though it was encouraged to wear them then too. Break the rules, and you don't play. You might even have to take the bus home, back to Saskatoon, by yourself. I knew he meant it too. This was pretty high profile, being here. We all knew it. We'd damn well better behave.
It would literally make newspaper headlines if anything unusual happened.
Finally we were back in our hotel rooms. I busied myself finding my bathroom stuff and getting my teeth brushed, trying to ignore Pete. For his part, he was bustling around getting ready for bed too, but he kept looking over at me.
I knew he was biding him time. And I was dreading it.
Then, we were in our beds. Pete reached up and clicked off the lamp between our beds. “Good night, Lucas. I set the alarm, and asked the front desk for a wake-up call too. We don't want to be late. We gotta be on the bus at eight. I set the alarm for seven.”
I said good night, and turned over, facing the wall away from Pete, and closed my eyes. I was waiting, though, not sleeping.
Sure enough, ten seconds later, it came. “You know no-one can know, right?” Pete said. “It would be, like, a huge scandal. Especially here.”
I pretended to snore very lightly, which just made Pete chuckle. “Look, I couldn't care less, Lucas. Really. But, man, this is hockey! You're gonna have to be so damn careful. Or you'll never play again, except maybe community or rec level.”
I finally turned over and tried to find his eyes in the dark. “Don't you think I know that?!” I said. My voice had a hitch in it. I didn't realize I was getting so emotional.
I closed my mouth, turned over and tried to sleep. Pete didn't say another word.
* * *
Our hotel was only ten minutes away from where we were practicing. A lot of our games were there too, being one of the main venues for the tournament. Max Bell Centre was the home of the Alberta Junior Hockey League's Calgary Canucks. A Junior-A league that a lot of my teammates hoped to play for next year, the ones who knew they wouldn't make it to the CHL .
The bus pulled up in front of the doors at 8:20. Our ice-time was at 9:10, so we didn't have a whole lot of time to get organized and geared up. Max Bell Centre has two ice surfaces. The main one with seating for maybe around four thousand, that's where the Calgary Canucks played, and a smaller rink with limited seating that was used for practices and community minor hockey games. We were on the big surface today though, for our practice. Another bus was already here, carrying a team from who-knows-where, and they were already on the ice on the other rink.
It took five minutes or so for the driver and a couple of my teammates to toss all our hockey bags off the bus from the luggage area. There's wasn't much I could do, so I looked around. The view west of the building was enticing. I walked that direction to the edge of the parking lot. It really was spectacular. Right at the edge of the parking lot, a steep hill looked down into the river valley. The frozen river down below snaked through the valley, beside it an empty irrigation canal and a freeway. The ridge we were on overlooked the buildings of downtown Calgary, and the snow covered Rocky Mountains in the background.
I had never seen the city from here before. My Aunt and Uncle lived somewhere in the Northwest, I couldn't remember the name of their neighbourhood. So I stood there for a moment, just staring at the majestic looking mountains in the distance, behind the skyscrapers in the middle ground.
“Wow!” came a voice from beside me. I wish people would stop doing that. Maybe a little warning would be nice for a change.
Chris was standing beside me, looking at the same view that I was. He was standing right next to me, shoulder to shoulder. Out of the corner of my eye I could see his hand twitching slightly, but he didn't dare move it any closer to mine.
“I've never seen the mountains before,” said Chris. “They look so close, like you could walk there.”
I smiled at him. “I've been. My Aunt and Uncle live here. We went to Banff one weekend. They're like an hour and half away or something. I thought the same thing before, that they were closer. They're even cooler up close.”
“I'd like to go sometime,” he said. Then I could've sworn he added, “with you,” under his breath. But he was probably just breathing out noisily.
I was about to tell him we'd better grab our bags and get inside, but before I could he turned to me and said, “Alec saw us, you know. Holding hands. On the bus. He told me last night.” He was talking quietly but clearly.
I blinked and looked at him, then back at the mountains. “So did Pete. And that means probably others too.”
“Alec wouldn't say anything. He's cool. But he thinks we're nuts, and that Coach will kick us both off the team if he finds out.”
I contemplated that. “I know Pete's kind of a loud mouth sometimes, but I really don't think he'd say anything either. And he's fine with me too. But he thinks the same thing Alec does, that it'll be hockey suicide if anyone finds out.”
Chris shrugged, “Nothing we can do about it right now, except hope they won't say anything and there aren't any hidden homophobes on the team.” He hesitated, then added, “You know neither of us have said it yet...”
I glanced back at the bus, they almost had all the bags unloaded, we had like thirty seconds before Coach would be screaming, “I know,” I finally replied, then gathered up what little courage I had, and said for the first time in life, “I am, you know. Gay.”
Chris smiled halfway and nodded. “Me too. I'm gay too. I mean, I know we were both thinking it, but now we've said it. Now what do we do about it? I've never been on or around any hockey team in my entire life that had a gay player. Not even anyone that hinted at it.”
“We do nothing,” I said, looking hard at him. “If anyone finds out, who knows what'll happen.” I looked back at the bus, then started walking. “C'mon, Coach Turner is going to kill us we don't get in there.” I started jogging, with Chris right beside me. We scooped up our gear and went inside.
It was weird. Practice, I mean. First, that place is big. Sure we're triple-A, but we're midget, not junior, so our arena doesn't hold half what this one did. Most of the other teams we played had similar, or smaller buildings. Even the puck hitting the boards sounds different. Though I suppose when the building was full of people it might not be the same. But it had a different feel to it. A special feeling. Like the building was somehow more important, more significant.
Coach tried to kill us. Lots of wind sprints, laps, stick pulls, line drills, and anything else he could think of to get our hearts and lungs going. We barely did any puck drills. He was trying to get us used to the altitude I knew. It was brutal. I couldn't seem to catch my breath.
The good news was that, except for certain looks from Pete and Alec, nobody seemed any different. Maybe nobody else saw us after all. I guess that made sense. Our roomies would naturally be paying a bit more attention. One less thing to worry about.
Afterwards, exhausted, we dragged our hockey bags out into the lobby. Pete and I dropped our bags and tossed our sticks on top of them, awaiting the bus. Alec and Chris of course were still in the shower. It always took goalies longer, with all that gear. Five or six of our teammates were clustered around something on one of the walls in the lobby. I looked at Pete, and told him to come with me. I was pretty sure I knew what they were looking at. We walked over.
Yup. I'd heard about it. It was the famed Mac's Wall of Fame. A huge list of every NHL player that had played in the Mac's Major Midget Tournament over the past few decades, with their Midget team, the year, and their NHL team. It was an impressive list. I saw a whole lot of names, very familiar famous names, that I had no idea had played in this tourney. It was weird. Thinking that for one week, years ago, those guys had been standing right here, just like us, looking at this board and thinking about those that came before. Wondering what their future would hold. Jarome Iginla himself, superstar on the Calgary Flames and one of my favourite players, was once standing right here, and played on this ice, in this tournament. Ryan Smith from the Oilers....Holy shit! Sidney Crosby! I had no idea. This was amazing.
Like I said, it was an odd feeling. I felt like a ghost went through me.
I think Coach Turner knew what we were feeling. He was just standing back near the other side of the lobby, leaning against a vending machine, his arms crossed and a grin on his face as he watched us whisper out names and play our fingers down the list.
* * *
The bus wasn't back at the hotel for ten minutes before Mom and Dad showed up to take me out for the afternoon and for dinner. We didn't need to be back in the hotel until 7:00, as long as the coach knew where we were. So we all had some time to see the sights.
I could tell Chris was disappointed. I think he was hoping we cold spend some time together, but it wasn't to be. I felt bad for him, actually. His parents lived in Winnipeg. They wouldn't be here until tomorrow. So he probably was going to be by himself for a few hours, unless he could hang out with another teammate.
Mom and Dad came into the lobby where I was waiting for them, followed a few feet behind by my older brother Darren. He seemed more interested in texting on his phone than in what was in front of him.
Mom hugged me and Dad slapped my back, after asking how practice went. I filled them in as we walked towards the hotel doors and the parking lot. I could see the familiar shape of our minivan outside. It was somehow reassuring.
Dad pushed open the door and held it for Mom. She walked through, as did Darren, still texting. I don't think he had even said hi to me yet.
I looked over my shoulder as I was walking through the door, then stopped. Chris was sitting on one of the chairs in the lobby, looking a bit forlorn.
“Dad? Mom? Do you mind if one of my teammates comes with us? His parents aren't here 'til tomorrow, and he's kinda at loose ends.”
Dad looked over where I was looking, then back at me. Mom and Dad shrugged at each other, then Dad said, “Sure. The more the merrier. Go get him.”
I smiled a thanks at Mom and Dad, then began walking towards Chris, trying to get his attention.
Darren wasn't texting anymore. His fingers were stock still on his phone, and he was looking right at me with the strangest expression on his face.
* * *
“So, you're one of the goalies, right?” Dad was asking from the driver's seat of our minivan, “You got those three shutouts in a row, right? Nice job.”
Chris shook his head and seemed to get a bit red, “No sir, that was Alec Banachuk. The other goalie. I'm Chris Andrews.”
I could see Dad looking at him through the rearview mirror for a half second. “Oh, right,” is all he said.
Chris laughed, “I know, I don't have much to boast about. My GAA is sitting at around 3.02 right now, but my save percentage is about .921.”
Dad grunted, then said, “Sounds like your D needs some work, then.” That was Dad's way of letting Chris off the hook.
Chris was too politic to agree with that, so he just said, “I think we all need to get better. Every one of us.”
Dad laughed. He knew exactly what Chris was doing. “You should be a politician, not a goalie.”
Chris was sitting next to me, behind the front seats. Darren was in the third row, behind us. When Dad made this last comment, Chris turned to me and smiled, and I was looking into his eyes and smiling back. We held the look for just a bit too long maybe, because I turned my head a bit more and, once again, Darren was ignoring his phone and was staring at me with the same expression as earlier. This time his gaze was alternating between the two of us.
I turned away from Chris and stared through the windshield as Dad tried to figure out how to get in the right lane for the ramp he needed.
Mom had her sun visor down, using the mirror to put on some lipstick before we got to the restaurant. My eye caught hers through the mirror. She, too, was staring at me with a strange expression. Though when she saw me looking back she immediately resumed her lipstick application.
I looked down at the floor instead. It seemed safer. I seemed to be getting in a serious habit of causing people to stare at me with weird expressions, and I was finding I really didn't like it at all. I felt Chris shift uncomfortably next to me. He was obviously feeling it too.
Dinner was amazingly good. Some Vietnamese place that Uncle Don had told Dad about. On something called International Avenue, though from the number of pawn shops around us it probably should have been called something a bit more down-to-earth.
Still, the food really was amazing, and Chris was being charming. My parents seemed to like him. Darren, well, I couldn't figure him out at all. He kept looking at Chris. And at me. I found it unsettling. He was supposed to be texting his girlfriend back in Saskatoon. Like usual.
* * *
He tried to kiss me!
For fuck's sake, what the hell is going on! Am I broadcasting some rainbow strobe light or something these days?! He tried to kiss me!
No, I'm not talking about Chris. I'm talking about Steve! As in, my thirteen year old cousin Steve.
After practice on Saturday, we had the afternoon and evening off again, until curfew at 8:30. It was Christmas Eve, so today was the last practice before our game on Boxing Day.
Dad was picking me up after practice, and we were going to spend the afternoon at Uncle Don and Auntie Shelly's place. An early Christmas Eve dinner was planned, then Dad needed to drop me off at the hotel before curfew.
I'd seen Steve once since I'd arrived in Calgary. Uncle Don showed up with my Dad at my practice yesterday, and Steve was with them. I saw them while grabbing a drink of water between drills, they were sitting about halfway up the stands, talking.
Well, Dad and Uncle Don were sitting halfway up the stands, talking. Steve was standing next to the glass, right at the boards across from the benches, his eyes wide. He saw me notice him and began waving much too energetically. I gave him a half-wave back, then set my water bottle back on the bench, put my gloves and helmet back on, and skated down the ice, intending to...well...I don't know what I was intending. I just knew I was embarrassed by Steve's rather blatant display of hero worship. Pete noticed too. Oh boy, did he. He couldn't help saying, as I skated away, “The puck bunnies are looking different these days, aren't they?”
I ignored him. What a jerk. He was going to get people talking. The term puck bunnies is the colloquial name for the girls that follow hockey players around, from game to game and practice to practice, and try and get the players interested in them. Many of them aren't exactly the kind of girls you should bring home to Mom.
Anyway, that was yesterday. Then, today, after Dad picked me up and we drove to my Aunt and Uncle's place, I barely had time to say hello to them before Steve was practically dragging me upstairs to see his room, and talking a mile a minute about the tournament. I swear, I think he was more excited than I was that I was playing in it.
“...and we got tickets to every one of your round robin games! And Dad's gonna try and get playoff tickets, too, 'cause I know you'll be there, Lucas!” Steve was talking so fast I barely was following him.
I looked around Steve's room and tried to figure out how to get back downstairs without hurting his feelings. He was just, well, a bit too intense for me right now. And I wasn't at all sure how to deal with what I was increasingly recognizing as wholly misguided hero worship. For chrissakes, I was a plug. A pylon, a third line grinder. Why can't he pick someone who can actually play to idolize?
Anyway, I found myself, half an hour later, out in his driveway with an old wooden hockey stick in my hands and a street hockey net in front of me. We were passing a street hockey ball back and forth and taking shots. I was trying to use the opportunity to practice my accuracy, picking corners from twenty feet out, and Steve was running around and back and forth and shooting randomly in no pattern I could figure out. I was saved a short time later when Aunt Shelly yelled outside that it was almost time to eat. I helped Steve drag the sticks, balls, and net into their garage, and that's when it happened.
We had just pushed the net up against the wall where they kept it, and Steve was standing beside me, looking up at me. He said, “Thanks, Lucas,” while staring at me, and then he started to lean forward. His lips pursed comically, and he actually closed his eyes, then leaned further.
He would've missed anyway, since he closed his eyes so early. I think he would've ended up kissing my collar, or maybe my chin, but before that could happen I panicked and jumped back. He almost fell over, expecting to lean into me, right in front of him, then caught himself and opened his eyes suddenly. He looked up in confusion, then saw me standing five steps back, looking at him with a huge shocked look.
His confused look morphed in a nanosecond into something halfway between panicked terror and complete and utter hopelessness. I didn't know tears could actually appear that fast. But before I could open my mouth to say anything at all, not that I had the foggiest idea what I was going to say, he turned and slammed open the connecting door to the house, ran through it and upstairs and into his room. I could hear his door slamming all the way from down here.
Well, fuck me.
What an interesting trip this was turning out to be.
I walked through the still open door and into the kitchen, where all four adults, my youngest cousin Dana, and my brother Darren, were staring through the doorway where the bawling whirlwind called Steve had just noisily and dramatically blew through.
Naturally, as soon as I walked into the kitchen, all six of them turned and began staring at me.
I was getting used to that. To my dismay.
Mom found the courage to ask, “Uh, Lucas honey? What just happened?”
I opened my mouth, but couldn't find any words to explain. None at all. Not without outing my cousin. Or me.
I just shook my head, and finally said, “I think I upset him. Something about playing street hockey. I don't really know why. I'll go up and try and talk to him.”
Dad's stare was now burning holes through my skull. Darren had actually put his phone away in his pocket. I guess this was all way more interesting. His stare would melt titanium.
Like I said, I think I'm getting used to that.
I walked through the kitchen between them all. I could feel every eye following me. I went through the doorway and into the front foyer and started to climb the stairs. I heard Aunt Shelly say to Mom behind me, “I don't know what's wrong with Stevie lately. He's, well, he's just so moody. It's like there's some huge weight on his shoulders that he can't figure out, and he just won't talk about it.”
If it's anything like me, I knew exactly what that weight felt like. And what it was doing to him.
Oh boy, did I.
And it was completely beyond me how I was going to do anything about it. For fuck's sake, I hadn't even figured out me yet. Never mind try and help a kid two years younger.
I was so out of my league.
But, again, I was kind of used to that. After all, here I am in triple-A. So, I climbed the stairs, and knocked on my cousin's door.
“Go away, Mom!” came the heated reply, in between pitiful sniffles.
“It's not your mom,” I answered, “It's me. Lucas.”
The pitiful sniffles immediately became loud wailing. I closed my eyes in frustration and leaned my forehead against his door.
Well. Isn't this fun?
I knocked again. “Steve. Let me in. I'm not mad at you. I promise. I double promise. I'm not. Let's talk. Really.”
The wailing stopped at least. The sniffles kinda sounded thoughtful.
I knocked a third time, “Steve. It's okay.”
Finally, another sniffle, then a whimpered, “Whatever.”
Good enough for me.
I opened the door and walked in. My cousin was a pitiful sight. He was lying on his bed, curled up in a tight ball, his hands covering his head and face. His whole body was shaking in despair. Needless to say, he didn't look up at me.
I sighed and looked at him. Hoping that by some miraculous intervention some actual real words would come to mind.
I don't think I was good at this.
Finally, he peeked out between a couple of fingers. He saw me standing there, looking stupid and confused. Maybe he took pity on me. He talked first. “Please don't hate me,” he said.
I sat down heavily on the foot of his bed and stared at my hands. The miraculous intervention hadn't yet occurred. I had no magic words to say. So, I just said, “I don't.”
He peeked out again. Then, probably thinking I looked worse than he did, he took his hands away from his face, and half sat up. I guess his confused expression was better than what I saw before.
Eventually, he just said, “I'm sorry.”
I tried a smile, and said, “Dude, it's okay. But, listen, you can't...I'm you're cousin.”
Well, at least I now know what the exact wrong thing to say was. He immediately started bawling again.
I'd really rather be playing hockey. I almost understood that.
After a minute he stopped again, and asked, “So you don't hate me?”
I shook my head. “No. Of course not.”
He actually looked puzzled. “Why?”
I blinked a couple of times. “Uh, why should I? I mean, uh, all you did was try to...”
Yeah. Bawling again.
I really don't think I was very good at this.
Architecture, I thought to myself. Yeah. Or maybe hydraulic engineering. That could be fun. Definitely not anything within six miles of social sciences. Nope. Just nope.
I looked at him and waited. This time I think it was a bit less than a minute.
“Look,” I said. “you can probably figure out I kinda suck at this. So give me a bit of a break here. I'm trying. You tried to kiss me. I don't hate you, and I might just understand a lot more than you think I do.”
I never knew watching someone gather their courage could be so visible. He did so, then he said, “Uh, Lucas? Uh, I did that 'cause...well...uh...'cause...I think I might be...” That's all he could manage.
I closed my eyes. It was like I could feel every emotion he was going through myself. Because I did. “Steve. I know. Me too.”
His eyes widened. He stared at me. At least he wasn't crying.
Actually, I was impressed. It took me two whole years longer before I could even begin to try and say what he had just tried to say.
After that it was almost easy. He just looked at me for a few seconds, then gave me a giant hug. I swear, I think he was trying to comfort me more than the other way around. I wonder what he was seeing in my eyes. It was weird.
Finally, he just said, “Let's go eat.”
So we did.
* * *
On Boxing Day, I discovered, much to my surprise, that I was nervous. All morning I've been trying to calm Chris down, since he was starting in net, and he said he felt like he was going to throw-up all day. I didn't even pay attention to how I was feeling, just talked with him and gave him a few hugs and held his hand. We were in his hotel room. Since Alec wasn't starting today, he took the optional skate this morning, so we had a couple of hours to ourselves. I could've gone to the optional, but my stupid shoulder was twinging again, ever since I fell on it awkwardly yesterday, so I told the coach, had the trainer give me a look-over, and decided to give it a pass.
Of course, having a couple of hours to actually spend with Chris, privately, had gone through the back of my mind too.
Just a few hours later, I was sitting on the bench in the dressing room, and Coach Turner was going through the pre-game.
Before I get to that, just let me say, 'cause it's really incredible, these dressing rooms are huge! I mean, there's enough room for two teams in here. It was strange getting dressed without elbowing, bumping, jostling, and shoving the guys next to you out of the way all the time. I'm jealous.
Anyway, I found my stomach was more than a bit unsettled. We were all completely silent, our eyes on the coach and listening, or doing our best to pretend to listen while dealing with nerves, to what he was saying.
“Okay guys, this is it. The wait is over,” Coach Turner said. “This shouldn't be anything you haven't dealt with before. We're playing a team from Windsor, so there's no eighteen year olds and there really shouldn't be any surprises. Chris, you and Alec have been working your tails off with the goaltending coaches, and I know you're ready. Just relax, and do your job. Remember your positioning and the rest will take care of itself. Try and keep the rebounds down.
“F1's and F2's, remember your job. Only commit behind the net if your F3 is in position. Otherwise, stay on the half-boards. I expect you to backcheck early and smart. I know their system. Watch for their left winger breaking.” I nodded to myself and he continued, “These guys are fast. Get in their lanes, force 'em to pass rather than skate with it. F1's and twos, I want hard, mean forechecking out there. F3's be ready to backcheck hard on any transition. Read the play, dammit!” Coach was looking right at me now. “I don't want to see any odd-man situations against out there. We're going to win this game through puck possession and grit, not through wide open river hockey. Let's be smart.
“D, take your chance when you get it, but you guys need to be smart too. Be aware. They're fast, but they can't skate through you. Make 'em go the long way, then pin 'em hard on the boards. Once we have possession, watch your first pass on the break-out. These guys love to try and hover in the zone and try for an easy interception and shot. Not in front of our own net, please.”
My nerves were getting exponentially worse. I just wanted him to shut-up and get out there. A few hard laps in warm-up would help settle me down. But, he had more to say, “All of you...” he hesitated, trying to meet everyone's eyes before continuing, “Be proud. We're here for a reason. You're a good hockey team. You know how to play. Stay focused, do your job, and for God's sake...remember to have fun out there. You'll play better if you do.”
Just as he said this we heard the horn sound. Larry, our Captain, yelled out, “On three!”
We all simultaneously counted to three and yelled out our team cheer, then streamed out of the dressing room and onto the ice.
Wow. The noise of a crowd this size when you come out onto the ice really gets your blood pumping. I can easily see why teams and players lose their focus amid all that adrenaline and excitement.
I did my warm-up laps while the sound system blared out Stompin' Tom Connor's classic, The Good Old Hockey Game, then we were on the bench. The refs came by the benches and gave the captains and coaches their spiel about how they were going to ref this game, I grabbed a seat on the bench and watched our first line get set for the opening face-off. I looked over at Chris in his net. He was bobbing up and down on his knees nervously, but looked focused and intense.
The ref blew the whistle and dropped the puck, the centres clashed for it and the game was on.
My first shift was a disaster. Coach always liked to get all four lines going early, so barring a penalty or power play would usually rotate through them all before deciding to lean on one line or another, or start throwing lines into the mixmaster. One and a half minutes into the game our second line right winger crossed the redline, dumped the puck deep, then raised his arm and came to the bench for a change. I waited until he was close enough then hopped over the boards and raced deep into the enemy zone to try and forecheck their defenseman, who by now already had the puck on his stick and was turning for a pass deep in the right corner. I charged hard towards him, he saw me coming and threw the puck off the glass into the neutral zone, not having a skating lane or a pass. I finished my check a good second after he got rid of the puck, slamming the defenseman into the boards hard, trying to keep him there long enough to be useless on their neutral zone play.
One of the refs was right there, and gave me a good hard stare and yelled to me, “That's awfully close to interference, son. Or boarding. Next time, you're in the box.”
I gave him a nod and both me and the defenseman that I was checking raced into the neutral zone.
By then, my right defenseman had the puck and he fired it around the boards behind our own net to the left D. He did his job and neatly picked up the puck on the half-boards, took two hard strides just inside the blueline, then fired the puck cross-ice through the middle to me.
It wasn't the best pass, and ended up in my skates. I stopped hard, spraying snow against the boards and tried to kick it from my skate to my stick. The same defenseman I had checked several seconds ago returned the favour by pinning me hard right in front of the box and we clashed, battling for the puck. It squirted loose two feet up ice, I broke away from my check and had it on my stick. I spied my left winger on the other side and fired off a pass towards him, intending to have him pick it up just outside their blueline to stay on-side. What I failed to notice was that he was already looking to the bench, arm raised, heading for a change, so the puck sailed past him.
Even worse, Their centre, who I somehow completely missed, read the play perfectly, grinned at his amazing good fortune, intercepted the attempt, pushed the puck ahead of him and skated hard into our zone. I could've sworn their left winger was three inches off-side, but the linesman yelled, “Good!” One of our defenseman had pinched into the neutral zone to add some puck support for my attempted offensive play, so, naturally, that meant they were now coming in hard on a two-on-one.
The centre faked a wrister, which completely froze Chris, and he sailed a perfect pass five feet to his left, right onto their winger's tape and he slammed it home into the gaping net, past Chris' flailing catcher.
They celebrated their goal, Chris gave me a big frown, knowing I started the comedy of errors, and I slinked off to the bench, ignoring Coach Turner's shaking head.
He made me sit a shift in penance, then I was finally out there again, two minutes later. This time me and my linemates were able to hold their top line deep in their own end by grinding it out along the boards and in behind their net for a good forty seconds. The two elbows to the ribs I took and the little crosscheck to the back were well worth it when I saw their line finally get possession, but all they could do get across the redline, ice the puck deep, and go for a change.
Much better. And my nerves were finally settling. I headed to the bench once we had control and was grateful that Coach Turner gave me a little nod.
The game played itself out. We did a good job neutralizing their speed, and managed to keep them from getting any flow or momentum by taking every opportunity for a stoppage in play. It was a close checking affair, with few good scoring chances for either team. I was on the second penalty killing team, and we were able to do a good job keeping them to the outside and preventing anything but the weakest shots getting through on our two minor penalties. I took a ferocious shot to my foot, right on the ankle, while blocking a slapshot on the penalty kill, and after limping to the bench after icing the puck it took me a good few minutes before I felt I could get out there again.
It was still 1-0 for them when the clock showed three minutes remaining in the third period. They had gone completely into shut-down mode, and were pretty much playing a 1-3-1 neutral zone trap, trying to kill the clock and get out of here with the 1-0 victory.
I was out for what I knew would probably be my last shift. Coach would be double shifting our first two lines for the remainder of the game, trying to generate some chances. Just before the end of our shift I had the puck on my stick and was about to dump it deep for the change. However, right at that moment I noticed that my left-winger had already changed and Pete had jumped on the ice to replace him. So, instead of dumping it, I threaded a pass through their winger's skates and managed to hit Pete right on the tape, smack dab right on their blueline. He made a great deke around their defense and fired a beautiful snapshot an inch over their startled goalie's blocker. Tie game. And I had an assist to boot, to even my plus-minus back to zero after my first-period brainfart.
I grinned at Pete's raised hands as he swooped around the net and then joined in the group hug for the goal celebration. We kept it short though, then I got off the ice. We didn't want to go overboard and give them any emotional lift. The crowd was still cheering as I climbed onto the bench, and just before I turned around to sit down I noticed my family twelve rows up, cheering madly. Steve had his hat off and was jumping up and down and waving it in circles. I chuckled to myself and sat down to watch the rest of the game, knowing I wouldn't see any more ice time.
So I was awfully startled when, with forty seconds left in a tie game, Coach yelled out the next line, “Jenkins, Ranford, Malachuk, get ready, you're up. Let's close this thing out.”
I swiveled my head around and looked at Coach Turner, checking to make sure I didn't hear wrong. I never played a first line shift. Well, hardly ever. Maybe in a blowout, but certainly not with forty seconds left in a tie game, at the biggest tournament I'd ever been at.
Obviously he was pleased, and was rewarding me for my last play. I stood up with Pete and Larry, and got ready to jump on the ice.
The Windsor team had shifted from their trapping into an aggressive 2-1-2 pinch-on-the-wide-rim forecheck attack after our goal. For our part, Coach ordered that we stick to the same game plan, Coach's modified 2-1-2 attack with a slighter lower F2 and no D pinching.
We got lucky. Real lucky, and I can't take any credit at all. Windsor, trying for a long break-out, completely missed their winger and the puck sailed down the ice unimpeded. They were called for icing. The face-off was in the right face-off circle in their zone, so I lined up almost right at the boards opposite their winger. Larry won the draw clean back to our D, who passed it up the boards to me. I rang it around the dasher to the other side and Pete picked it up a half second before their winger fired it out. He sent it hard into the middle towards the net, where Larry was attempting a screen. It hit his butt and bounced off their defenseman's elbow and into the net.
Larry got credit for the goal of course, which was hilarious given the last part of him to touch it, with the assists going to Pete, and, surprise surprise, yours truly. I had two points. More importantly, we won our first game. We all flooded onto the ice to celebrate at the final buzzer and to congratulate our goalie on the win. I think the congratulatory hug I gave Chris may have been just a wee bit too long.
* * *
We lost our next game. We were playing a team from Russia the next morning, which was really cool. Just listening to them yell at each other on the ice in Russian was a real experience. They played the game a bit differently too, less dump and chase and a lot more off wing plays and drop passes. They weren't as physical as us though. The game was close, which was surprising enough given their size and the fact they had three huge, fast eighteen year old players in their line-up, but I don't think they were quite used to our style of board play, so that worked to our advantage. After checking a big Russian seventeen year old hard against the boards for the fourth or fifth time, I now knew a few Russian swear words. I knew, from his tone and look, that they just had to be swear words. I was going to have to remember those and look for the right opportunity to use them.
It wasn't enough though. They were damn good. We were lucky we only lost by a goal. Coach Turner was well pleased with our work ethic and determination, and after a short team meeting we had the rest of the day to ourselves until the curfew.
Me and Chris finally got a bit of time away from the team and our families. I borrowed Pete's laptop and used the hotel wifi to figure out where to catch the train downtown. I wanted to show Chris something that I'd heard about from Uncle Don but had never seen.
We caught the train at a station a five minute walk from the hotel and arrived downtown a short time later. We still had to be careful, as per team rules we were wearing our team jackets and carefully made sure our eye contact and personal space was “appropriate” for teammates. That wasn't easy. After everything that's happened this week I found myself really wanting to find somewhere to just sit and talk with Chris while holding his hand. And maybe a bit more. The more we got to know each other, the more he intrigued me. Among other things.
The train stopped at Olympic Plaza. The stop I originally had in mind was a couple stops further along, but Chris wanted to see Olympic Plaza and I knew what I wanted to see was within walking distance, so we got off the train just before the doors closed.
Olympic Plaza was where they had all the medal ceremonies way, way back in 1988 when the Winter Olympics were in Calgary. Now, it was a big urban park, with areas for stages to be set up for various events, some grassy spots and trees, lots of interesting nooks and crannies, and signs with information about the Olympics.
And a skating rink.
I felt a bit stupid. I knew there was rink here, but I didn't think of it at all when we were making plans back at the hotel. So neither of us had skates. Not that Chris would likely want to skate around a public rink in his goalie skates anyway.
We walked across the park and down to the edge of the rink. I felt his fingers brush mine a couple of times, sending tingles up my arm as we stood there watching dozens of people skating around. There were no sticks or pucks of course, this was a public skating rink, and I saw kids as young as two and one old supremely fit looking guy who I swear must've been north of ninety years old. He wasn't even wearing a helmet. Probably hadn't been invented when he played.
Chris tapped my shoulder and pointed, grinning. I followed his outstretched finger. A skate rental booth was parked just on the other side of rink. I raised my eyebrows at Chris and he grinned wider and nodded. So I laughed, patted his back once, and we walked towards it.
The skates were awful. Dull and ill-fitting, and I felt more than a little out of place given the crowd around us. But it may have been the most fun I've had since we arrived in Calgary.
About being out of place. See, something I haven't mentioned, but it's something everyone who knows hockey already knows. We're not the only tournament that matters right now. In fact, other than to the teams involved, and this city itself, most of the rest of the country was intensely following another tournament that always happens at the exact same time.
Yep, I'm talking about the World Juniors of course.
It's a tournament that involves teams put together from the very best of the best Junior players in all of the countries involved. These are the cream of the crop, the sure-fire future NHLers. And it's damned good hockey. It's watched by millions of Canadians, and marketed ridiculously hard by the sports network that has broadcasting rights for it. Canada hasn't won the gold medal in three years now, but before that had won the gold five years in a row, and has medaled for the past dozen years or something. Fans take this tournament seriously; it's part of the holiday season in the country for those that follow the game.
So, well over half of the people on the ice were wearing Team Canada World Junior hockey jerseys. There was a game tonight, after all. Canada vs. Slovakia, and, of course, Canada was expected to trounce them handily. As usual.
Chris and I were the only teenagers on the ice. Most teens are probably at their community rinks playing shinny. The prohibition on sticks and pucks here meant that they went somewhere else. So the skaters consisted of the really old guy, quite a few couples holding hands, and a number of mothers with kids. Oh, and a few businessmen probably taking breaks from their downtown office jobs, skating around in suits.
We were having a hard time containing the horseplay, of course. Chasing each other around, back and forth, in between people like they were pylons. Most of the little kids tried to chase us and join in too, until their moms stopped them or they couldn't keep up. We had to tone it down after a particularly rude glare from one guy. So we slowed it down and just skated leisurely, talking. We didn't want any complaints about us, obviously. And Coach's dire threats about representing a proper team image rang in our ears.
I was skating backwards, real slow, and talking with Chris, when I bumped somebody solidly behind me. The guy was solid on his skates, and I almost went down. I turned around to apologize and realized I had almost killed that poor ninety year old guy. I blushed and stammered out an apology while he just grinned and looked back and forth between us, then at our jackets.
“Are you two in the Mac's tournament?” he asked. I'm pretty sure he knew the answer though. His look of recognition after seeing our jackets was pretty obvious.
“Yes, sir,” I answered. “We have the afternoon off. Sorry for disturbing you, sir. We'll tone it down.”
He laughed. “I wouldn't have expected anything else.” He looked around, “Must be hard skating here, everyone being so slow.”
I just shrugged, but Chris grinned cheekily and said, “Nah. I'm used to skating slow. I'm a goalie.”
The man stuck out his hand and announced, “I'm Bill Walterson.”
Chris and I introduced ourselves and shook his hand. He had a very firm handshake.
Chris and I were now skating backwards slowly in front of him while we talked. Bill looked at our jackets again, then at us, and said, “I miss it, you know. Playing.”
I didn't really know how to answer that. He sounded a bit sad. Wistful. So I just smiled. Chris said, “Where did you play?”
“Up until five years ago I was in a senior league. Now my knees are gone. This is all I can manage. Thank God for that, I don't know what I'll do when I can't lace 'em up anymore.”
I nodded, understanding what he was probably feeling, “Where did you play before that?”
He grinned a bit, “Hamilton.”
Chris and I looked at each other. Chris asked, “Oh. You lived in Hamilton? I hear they have some good rec leagues there.”
The man laughed. “I hear they do. I'm not sure about that though. I played for the Bulldogs. A very long time ago.”
Chris' eyes widened a bit and he blushed cutely, embarrassed by his comment. I suddenly remembered why his name kept niggling at the back of my mind. “You played pro? I thought I recognized your name.”
He looked surprised at that. “My name? Oh no. I doubt that. I was never much. Eight seasons I played in the AHL, a third line grinder the entire time. I was just a plug.”
I could definitely relate. And that's probably why I vaguely remembered his name. I'd spent a bit of time last year on the internet looking up old names of players like me.
He continued, “Only three times was I called up, each time only for a few games. Best days of my life, they were.”
I gaped. “You played for the Habs?”
The Habs is the shortened nickname of “Les Habitants,” which is the nickname of the Montreal Canadiens, which is the nickname of the NHL club playing in Montreal. Deal with it. We're Canadian, even our nicknames need nicknames.
Bill laughed and said, “Well, mostly I sat on the bench in the old Forum and watched them play. But I had a few shifts. Even got a goal. I still have the puck at home, in my display case.”
I felt like I was with royalty. I swerved right to avoid piling over a little three year old, who promptly started falling when he saw how close I was to him. I grabbed him under the arms and lifted him back onto his skates. He smiled and skated off towards his mom, and she gave me a thank-you wave. “So,” I finally said, “...what was it like?”
His wide smile made him look at least a dozen years younger, “It was a dream, for the short time it lasted,” he said. “All those names, all that history. You may have seen pictures of the dressing room at the old Montreal Forum. Those old photos, and the motto. It makes you think, that's for sure.”
I blinked hard. “To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high.” The motto of the Habs, writ large above the photos of all the players that had come before in their dressing room. The quote, I knew, is from the poem, “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, which has its own deep history of course.
“I even had a shift with the Rocket,” Bill said, looking more wistful than ever.
My gaping became open-mouthed awe. “You played with Maurice Richard?! Was he as good as they say?”
Bill smiled as we skated around a small family, then answered, “Better. He was pure poetry on skates. He could do things I've never seen with a hockey stick, even from guys today like Crosby. I'd like to put some of them in that gear we wore, with those old heavy leather and steel skates and those old wooden sticks, no curve, and see what they could do.”
Chris and I kept sharing looks. Drinking in the guy's story, all that history.
Finally he stopped, rubbing a knee with his hand. “That's it for me today, boys. I'm not quite as young as you. Time for me to sit down.” He turned.
“Wait,” I said, reaching into my jacket pocket. “The coach gave us all tickets for our games, but my family already bought some. I don't need these. I know you're probably not interested, but...”
He smiled and took the proffered tickets. “I'll be there.” Then he turned and skated away while Chris and I smiled at each other.
Just before he stepped off the ice he turned back a final time and said, “You boys be careful. Hockey's a great game. But it's not quite ready for guys like us yet.”
Then he walked off towards the benches, whistling.
Chris and I stared at each other with wide eyes.
We turned in our rental skates and walked the five or so blocks west. There's this big downtown shopping centre in this city, covering several blocks and all connected with these walkways above the roads beneath. Some of them even have stores in the walkways, on three different levels, so it's pretty cool. But that's not where we were going.
Above that shopping centre, on the top floor, is an indoor park. A huge place full of tropical plants, waterfalls, ponds, walkways, benches, and all that. I'd never seen it and wanted to, and I thought it might be a nice spot to just sit and relax with Chris before we needed to be back at the hotel for curfew.
I had an idea when we got there, and told Chris, “Just a second,” while in the mall, then I walked into the store next to us and up to the cashier.
“Excuse me? Could I just get an empty shopping bag, please?”
The middle aged woman behind the counter stared at me for a few seconds, but then reached under the counter and pulled out a big white plastic bag and handed it over to me. “I should charge you for this, you know,” she said. But she smiled, so I knew she wasn't going to.
I smiled and told her, “Thank you,” and went back to where Chris was standing in the mall, looking puzzled.
He looked at the bag in my hand, and cocked his head in question. I just said, “You'll see.” We went and found the elevators.
Once inside the elevator, I said, “Give me your jacket.” At the same time, I shrugged mine off and began shoving it into the shopping bag.
Chris grinned, figuring it out, then took off his own and handed it to me. It joined mine in the bag.
When the elevator doors opened to the moist heat, greenery, and tropical smells of the garden, we weren't hockey players anymore, representing our team in public. We were just a couple of teens taking a break from our post-Christmas shopping.
Completely against Coach's rules of course. But he'd never know. I hope.
We walked out of the elevator, and started exploring the Devonian Gardens.
Hand in hand.
We got a few looks of course, but more smiles than frowns, much to my relief. The place really was something. We spent an hour there, walking, throwing coins in the fountain, talking, and holding hands.
I shared my first kiss with a boy there, in a tropical garden on that winter afternoon.
And we both made a tentative decision. One that probably would change both our lives.
* * *
Hockey is a strange sport. I love lots of sports. Soccer is my number two behind hockey, probably because it shares a strange kinship of making poetry out of the complex movements of multiple players. Movements that change on a whim and must be figured out as you go, somewhat unlike the structured rigidity of football, though that too has it's allure. I've played basketball at school, football with my friends, even rugby last year. I was in little league baseball back when I was eleven. They're all fun. They all have their intricacies, their unique strategy, their particular brand of individual skill being built upon, and relying upon, careful teamwork.
But there's nothing like my game. No non-motorized team sport even begins to approach the speed of skaters on ice. If you ever get a chance, watch a game from the front row, right up against the glass. You'll miss the complexity of the play, but you'll bask in the speed and physicality, and the intricacy of a player's stick dancing with a puck even while being hit hard by two hundred pounds of defenseman. Players, if they're doing their job, are always moving at full-speed, then suddenly stopped, then sprinting again. That's why the average hockey shift only lasts forty or fifty seconds before the exhausted and completely winded player needs to come to the bench for a break. Then, after a short minute or two to catch your breath, if you're lucky and the coach smiles on you, you're out there at full-speed again.
It's a game of brutal hits. It's a game of millimeter precision while flying at twenty kilometers an hour. It's a game that can make you cringe in pain then suddenly be enraptured in amazement at the stickwork and shot of a talented player. Hockey takes skill and intimidation, hard work and careful strategy. But, the team that wins, more often than not, is the team with the most passion.
Like all sports, losing feels horrible and winning is ecstasy. But even when you lose while playing hockey, well, you're still playing hockey.
I'm really, really going to miss it.
Tonight, I knew, almost certainly was to be my last game. If we win. And I plan on winning.
We made it through the round-robin. It wasn't easy. We lost and we won, just enough. We had casualties. Alec is out with a pulled groin after a spectacular pad save on a one-timer after a lightning pass through the crease. Ben is out with a separated shoulder when a big American eighteen year old painted him onto the boards in the corner. I had a tender ankle after blocking a ferocious slapshot while killing a penalty, but neither the coach or the trainers were about to find out about it.
After all, I was playing in a quarter-final game at the Mac's Major Midget Tournament. If I was wearing a full-body cast, I'd somehow find a way to convince the coach I was ready to go.
A lot of hockey players are superstitious. I'm not. I think that stuff is all silly. The only reason I always put on my gear exactly the same way, in exactly the same order, and said exactly the same words in my head all the while, was ritual. Not superstition. Honest.
I pulled on my jock first, then my shinpads, then my hockey socks. Left, then right. I velcroed my jock to the tops of my socks, clockwise, left leg, then right. Then my hockey pants and skates, left, then right. The first skate was tied before the second one was on my foot. Then my elbow pads and shoulder pads, pulling elastic tight and patting down the velcro fasteners hard. Sitting down, I wound sock tape in the exact same pattern as always around my socks and shinpads. Finally, jersey, neck-guard, mouth-guard, helmet—ensuring the four snaps are done up in the correct order—and last of all, the thick padded hockey gloves. Like a medieval armoured knight, I was ready for battle.
The horn sounded, the coach gave the word, Larry led the cheer, and Chris, as is tradition for goalies, led us onto the ice.
The crowd was insane. Truly intimidating.
We had to move venues. Our quarter-final game was originally scheduled for Max Bell Centre, but they had a problem with the ice-making equipment last night. The crew managed to get it up and running by this morning, but it was too late, the tournament committee had already moved us.
We were playing for the biggest crowd I'd ever been in front of on the ice of an actual NHL building, the Saddledome.
And, yeah, it was televised. Apparently, in more than one country.
I skated my laps in warm-up. Chris and I sharing a long look as I rounded the net and he was doing his stretching. We knew what this meant. We knew.
I was so out of my league.
The next lap I looked up into the crowd where I knew my family was sitting, and spied Mom and Dad, Darren texting on his phone, Uncle Don and Aunt Shelly just taking their jackets off and getting settled, Dana beside them and Steve on the end of the row, somehow having obtained one of our team jerseys and wearing it proudly.
The next lap I noticed another face, right down in the second row, just behind our bench. Bill Walterson had used my tickets after all, and beside him was a friend...no...on second thought, definitely more than a friend. Another gentleman, roughly the same age and build was sitting beside Bill.
For some reason I couldn't figure out at all, he really looked familiar. But I didn't have time to worry about that.
Despite the nerves, despite the fact the closer the game was to starting, the slower the clocks all seemed to run, despite the noise and build-up and plain old fear, the frozen biscuit eventually hit the centre ice face-off dot.
The crowd immediately roared its approval at the commencement of the night's activities. Then roared even louder at the first big hit, when three seconds into the game Pete hipchecked the Danish centre-ice man out into the parking lot.
Denmark, like the Swiss, had put together a national team for the tournament, rather than sending a club team. Made sense, they didn't have as many teams, or as much population, to draw from. Of course, picking the top players from each team did give an advantage.
But, c'mon. They're Denmark. We're Canadian. This is hockey.
I was driven, that game. I played my heart out, every shift, balls to the wall. Hard skating off the bench, and hard skating back on. I knew I had to get everything I could out of this, and leave it all out on the ice.
I had to create a memory.
Coach Turner, by the time the ten minute mark of the first period rolled around, had bumped me up to the second line. Three minutes left in the first, Chris made a spectacular pad save, then immediately passed the puck hard up ice to the redline, where it was picked up by Josh, the second line centre. He deked a defenseman right out of his jock and skated hard across their blueline. I was right with him on the other dot, and with my trailing foot thrown hard behind me, kept a toenail onside as I swept inside the zone hard with my stick angled for a pass. A lone defenseman, skating frantically backwards between us, was all that remained between us and the net.
The goalie came way out to play the angle on Josh, hoping the defenseman would stop the pass. By the time Josh crossed the circle at the inside hashmarks, their goalie was committed. Josh faked a quick shot for insurance, then laid a beautiful saucer pass two inches over the defenseman's stick and hitting the ice, completely flat for no bounce, right on my tape. It was an absolute gift. I kicked out my back leg for balance, leaned in, and snapped a hard shot into the cage, top shelf, sending the twine bulging and the water bottle up ten feet into the air and then hitting the ice spinning before the puck had a chance to bounce to the ice inside the net.
The red light went on, the horn screamed, the crowd yelled, and I hugged my teammates and high-fived the bench.
Up in the crowd my family was clapping and Steve looked like he may have been having a seizure. Behind our bench Bill nodded at me and smiled.
1-0 Good Guys.
I took my place on the bench and Coach Turner gave my shoulder one quick pat without a word, then started screaming at one of our defenseman.
For him, that was like sending a bouquet of flowers.
Shockingly, I scored again in the second period. Coach must've worn the wrong glasses or something today, because when they were called for a tripping minor with eight left in the second, he tapped my shoulder and I was out, for the first time in triple-A, on the powerplay.
We set up in the zone, but their PK box was keeping us outside, a couple of attempts to get into the slot were blocked neatly. We were lucky to stay onside after the block sent the puck careening to the point, but our D held it in.
I gritted my teeth, plowed into the front amid two slashes to my shins and a cross-check on my back, and held my ground just in front and to the right of a goalie swearing at me in Danish. I didn't need a translation to know he was saying, “Get the fuck out of my face.”
After a missed shot hit the glass high and rang around behind the net, it hit the ice on the left wall where Pete neatly beat out their winger for it and fired a long wristshot at the goalie. He made the save, but the rebound bounced out and into my feet. I kicked it up onto my stick blade, ignoring the other stick hacking at my ankle, and snapped home the back door goal through the desperate goalie's five hole for my second of the game and my first powerplay goal since I was in peewee.
It was weird being able to watch the replay on the jumbotron after I scored. I noticed my feet weren't quite planted right, my right skate a bit off-balance. Coach Turner didn't seem to notice though, I earned another one of those silent pats on the shoulder.
We went in the room a jubilant bunch at the 2nd intermission. I grabbed my stick and went to the back to re-tape it. Larry was standing beside me doing likewise.
While winding on his new tape, he said, “Talk about intense. Did you see that private box on the second level? Full of scouts? Some of them I'm sure were NHL, you know.”
I carefully wound on my own fresh tape. “No, I didn't see them. Didn't have a chance. You sure they're scouts?”
Larry laughed, “No, you didn't have a chance at all, you're too damn busy scoring, not to mention doing everything else today. What's got into you? It's like you're possessed. I've never seen you play like that.”
I looked behind me at Chris sitting quietly, focusing with his head in his hands, then back at Larry, “I dunno. I guess it's just a big game.”
Larry tore the tape off the roll and began smoothing his tape with a puck. Then he grabbed some stick wax and while applying it said, “Yeah. I'll say. Every time you buried one, those scouts—and yeah, business suits, laptops, plastic nametags—they're scouts, anyway, every time you bulged the twine they were typing like mad on their laptops.” Larry picked up his stick and walked back to the room, leaving me blinking and swallowing hard.
Our opponents came out hard in the third period. They were desperate, and it showed. They came at us in waves for the first ten minutes. Coach Turner absolutely hated the neutral zone trap, so we stuck with our system and worked our tails off. Chris made spectacular save after spectacular save. Pads, catcher, blocker, stick, you name it, he got in front of the puck every time. After one particularly spectacular skate save on a slapshot followed less than a second later by a glove save an inch in front of the bar for a whistle, I skated by and tapped his pads with my stick. “Nice going, superstar,” I said with a grin.
He nodded and grinned back without losing one bit of his focus, then crouched down awaiting the face-off.
The tide started to turn again in the latter half of the third. We began to take control, keeping the puck on our sticks and peppering their goalie with shots of our own. Pete, Larry, and I missed two spectacular chances after their goalie made a couple superhuman saves.
Yeah, Coach had me up on the first line.
With one and half minutes left we iced the puck for a whistle after thirty seconds of intense pressure from the Danish team, and they called a time-out. We couldn't change of course, thanks to the icing call, which left me, Pete, and Larry out there trying desperately to catch our breath. Thankfully, their time-out gave us a small reprieve. With the face-off in our zone and them down by two, by the time the puck was dropped we were outnumbered. They had pulled their goalie for the extra attacker and their net was empty.
Larry won the face-off clean and drew it back hard into the corner where our D picked it up with two Danish forwards about to hit him.
I looked the other way and saw their other two forwards, and then the positioning of the two D.
For maybe the first time in my life that I could remember, I saw it. I just knew what was going to happen. I knew it. For the first time ever, when Coach Turner always talked about hockey sense, I had some small inkling of what that meant.
I dug my skate blade hard into the frozen surface and strode past their startled defenseman, accelerating right to the redline. A half second later, as I just knew it would be, the puck was on my stick, and there was absolutely nothing in front of me except a gaping, wide-open, opposition cage.
I crossed the blueline and curled in with the puck carefully cradled in the curve of my stick, then gently slid it across the line for our insurance goal. And my hat trick to boot.
3-0, with less than a minute left in the game. I raised my arms in joy.
Hats rained down around me while I hugged and high-fived my teammates. I looked up and was shocked when I even saw Dad take off his beloved vintage Winnipeg Jets cap and toss it hard onto the ice fourteen rows below, with a big grin on his face.
I skated to the bench, smiling. But I made a short detour and picked up Dad's hat on the way. He really loved that hat, and might just want it back.
If he ever talked to me again, that is.
For the third time that game, I felt Coach Turner's silent shoulder pat, then watched as my teammates finished off the last remaining seconds.
The horn sounded and we streamed onto the ice to celebrate, dumping helmets and gloves behind us.
We swarmed around Chris to congratulate him on his shutout and everyone took turns hugging him and slapping his pads with their sticks.
Then, I was in front of Chris. He was glowing. His grin was as wide as the country and he was looking at me with a sparkle in his eyes. I gave him a hug, then looked him in the eye with raised eyebrows. He nodded. One short, quick, nod and I knew he was still committed.
I took a breath and leaned forward. I saw the zamboni doors open, and a reporter I recognized walked onto the ice, microphone in hand, followed by a cameraman. The crowd was roaring their approval at the win. At that moment, my lips touched Chris' and we kissed.
Not just a peck on the lips. Oh no. We kissed. A long, open mouthed, tongues meshing, drawn out kiss. We wanted there to be no mistaking this.
The 'dome crowd lapsed into stunned silence as the kiss continued. Our teammates stared at us with jaws dropped to the ice, except for Pete, and Alec over on the bench, who were both trying to hide a grin.
Finally, we drew back, ending the kiss, and just looked at each other. Wondering.
We knew we'd just changed everything.
Then, it started. First in one section, then it spread like wildfire. The crowd began making noise again. Cheering, not booing, though I know I could hear a few detractors. Cheering loud. Hooting, hollering, yelling, stomping, whistling, and carrying-on. Pandemonium.
Pete started tapping his stick on the ice in applause, and made a loud wolf-whistle. Pretty soon, Larry, followed immediately by the rest of the team, were hammering their sticks on the ice too, and looking at us with mixed expressions of laughter, shock, and amazement.
I looked up into the crowd, worried about what I'd see.
Dad was roaring. With laughter. I couldn't hear it from here, but from his expression I knew exactly what it would sound like. He was slapping his hands on his knees while half bent over and just roaring with laughter.
Mom was looking like something between bemused and enlightened, like a bunch of things she had been trying to figure out for a long time had just fallen into place.
Darren, cell phone nowhere to be seen, was just standing there, looking intense and directly at me. And clapping slowly and meaningfully. His expression said, “About fucking time.”
Steve was standing on top of his chair, jumping up and down like some kind of a bezerk Cirque du Soleil performer, his hat being waved in circles above his head and a huge laughing grin on his face.
I looked over behind our bench. Bill Walterson and his partner, I think I had figured out why he was familiar, were standing with arms encircling each other, and both looking directly at Chris and me. I'm pretty sure I saw Bill nod and wink.
I leaned in for another quick kiss, which Chris returned, and the crowd roared again. Flashbulbs were going off all around us. That cameraman was awfully close now and the sports reporter was looking gleeful, like the story of his career had just been plopped right into his lap.
Finally, we were in the dressing room. What was weird was that nothing, absolutely nothing, was different. We were yelling, cheering, exuberant after the win, peeling off gear and tossing around insults as usual. Chris and I looked at each and shrugged, not wanting to upset the apple cart.
Larry stood up and went over to the TV in the corner and flicked it on. Yeah, these Saddledome dressing rooms have TVs in them. He told everyone to shush, he wanted to hear the score of the World Junior Game, which should have just ended. Canada was playing their dreaded arch-rivals Russia tonight in the semis.
But, instead of the World Junior game, or highlights from it, the screen was showing the sports desk with two sports personalities behind it that I recognized well. The loud bald guy was yelling and interrupting the loud, blond, big guy who was interrupting back. They were talking over each other so much I couldn't figure out what they were saying or who was on what side of whatever issue they were arguing about. Then I noticed the graphic behind them, taking up the entire background.
Me and Chris in full liplock.
Coach was going to be pissed.
I think we'd just managed to make headlines.
Coach Turner chose that moment to walk into the room, and Larry turned off the TV and sat down. Coach looked around the room carefully, mouth closed and eyes squinted. He then stopped, his eyes on Chris, who paled so badly I thought he was going to throw up. Or maybe faint.
But all Coach Turner said was, “Nice shutout, Andrews.”
Then his eyes found mine. This time it was my turn to feel every bit of blood drain right out of my skull in a half-second. He seemed to ever so slightly frown and ever so slightly shake his head and grin at the same time, but all he said was, “Nice hat trick, Malachuk. Keep it up.”
Then he turned to the room, and yelled, “What the hell are you all doing?! We won, that means we're still in this thing, and dammit we have a game tomorrow! Get moving you lazy slugs, we got a meeting at the hotel as soon as the bus gets back.”
Then he turned smartly and walked out of the room.
I looked down at my hands, then looked up at Chris.
Maybe we'd play another game after all.
Thanks for reading! For those of you who spot the hockey (and other) inconsistencies in the story: Yes, I know. I know the Bulldogs weren't the Habs' AHL affiliate in the forties and fifties, in fact, not until the nineties. I know the Mac's tournament wouldn't have changed venues to the Saddledome in the quarter-finals due to that building's tight availability and cost, among other factors. I know it's rare for any midget team to use the neutral zone trap, not to mention some of the details of a typical midget AAA team's modus operandi and the Mac's tourney's rules. I know the Devonian Gardens in Calgary is currently under major renovations and won't open again for maybe a year. I know...
But c'mon, it's fiction. So roll with it. Now, remember to keep your head on a swivel and your stick on the ice. And hey kids, let's have fun out there.
I want to sincerely thank my hard working editors for their help in crafting this story. They made it immeasurably better. The mistakes that remain are solely my responsibility, and the story would have considerably more if it weren't for their help.
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