“You play Junior?” he asked me.
He meant Major Junior, I knew, even though there are several tiers of Junior hockey—Junior A, Junior B and so forth. It didn’t matter, though. I hadn’t played at any level.
“No,” I told him.
His eyes rose from his clipboard and he gave me a quizzical look. “College, then?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Eastern Washington University,” I answered.
The truth was, when I played there, it was little more than a club activity. But now they were a second-tier contender and the head coach there was my best friend from grade school. It was his letter that got me here for the tryout.
The assistant coach pursed his lips and seemed to be considering my answer. His gray eyes took in my small frame and I knew he was probably thinking the same thing everyone thought.
He’s five-six and a hundred seventy pounds. How much of the net can he take up?
“How many years?” he finally asked me.
“Two and a half seasons.”
“Your stats available?”
I nodded. “The college website has them archived.”
He wrote something on his clipboard and then nodded to me. “Okay. How do you want your hometown listed for the coaching staff?”
He smiled slightly. “Hometown boy?”
I shook my head. “Vancouver, Washington.”
“American, huh?” His smile faded. “Well, you can get dressed in either of the locker rooms. Drills start in forty minutes.”
He turned and walked away without a word.
I chose the Visitor’s dressing room. It seemed like most people took the Home locker room first. Every skater that came into the room mentioned that the Home locker room was full. I didn’t answer any of them. No one seemed to mind. Goalies are supposed to be strange, anyway.
Even though I didn’t say a word, I listened to the chatter around me as I went through the ritual of putting on my gear.
“You think they’re really going to use us?” a skinny guy wearing red long underwear asked no one in particular.
“Probably not,” another voice answered. I pulled on my hockey pants and strapped on the dangling kneed and thigh protectors. The smell of Icy-Hot rose from my thighs.
“My agent said this is just a ploy to get the Player’s Union to come back to the table,” a mop-haired kid with pimples said.
“You got an agent?” the skinny guy asked him.
“Yeah.” Mop-hair pulled his skates tight.
“My dad,” Mop-hair told him.
Laughter erupted in the dressing room and Mop-hair turned red. I slipped on my goalie skates.
“Eric Lindros’ dad is his agent,” Mop-hair muttered.
“Look where it got him,” some smart alec piped up.
“Three million a year in the NHL,” a dark-haired guy with goatee answered him. He was sitting right across from me and was already dressed. He sat comfortably, wearing a faded Philadelphia Flyers jersey.
“And locked out,” the smart alec replied.
It grew quiet. The sound of equipment being donned and some soft whistling was all I could hear as I dropped my leg pads in front of me. I knelt on top of the left pad first, just like I always have and began to cinch it up. Once it was snug, I switched to the right and did the same.
As I stood up and slipped on my chest protector, a voice, thick with a Russian accent, broke into the quiet of the room.
“I just want play hockey.”
There were a few nods, a couple of excited curses and a general murmur of agreement. I snapped a buckle on my left torso that kept my chest protector snug and agreed with him wordlessly.
The NHL lockout had gone on through January and finally the NHL declared an impasse. Its relationship with the player’s union was dissolved, allowing the NHL to implement its own plan for salaries. Some cynics suggested that had been the league’s plan all along. I didn’t know for sure. I just knew it was hard to feel sorry for a group of athletes with an average salary over a million bucks.
Now the fifty of us in this locker room and the one down the hall had a chance to make the team and play in the NHL for the Vancouver Canucks. It was enough to make my head spin. Even under the new salary structure, players would make several hundred thousand dollars a year. It was a second chance.
I stretch my old legs slowly, listening as the chatter became excited again.
“Two-on-one,” the assistant coach of the Canucks bellowed.
I’d been hot so far, stopping almost everything they threw at me. The guy I was sharing the net with hadn’t been so lucky. We both knew I was winning the battle at this end of the ice.
The whistle blew and the forwards started coming from center ice. A single defenseman skated between them, playing the pass. I came out of my crease and cut down the angle, playing the shot. The forward faked a slapshot and zipped a cross-ice pass to his partner. The defenseman missed the puck as it slipped between his skates and right onto the other forward’s stick. He caught the puck, held it for a milli-second and wristed it on net.
I made a desperate move, stacking my pads and sliding to my right. I felt a satisfying thunk as the puck hit my top pad and rebounded into the slot. The defenseman grabbed it and quickly flipped it out of the zone.
“Nice save,” one of the coaching staff said and made a note on his clipboard.
I hurried back into position and continued with the drill. Sweat ran down my face and my breathing was labored as I made save after save. I felt like a machine, able to anticipate every move the skater with the puck made before he made it. I stoned them along the ice, five-hole, glove side, blocker side, it didn’t matter. In twenty attempts, I only let in three.
“Switch goalies,” called out the assistant coach.
I skated over to the corner and dropped onto the ice to stretch. As I stared up into the rafters, I saw the banners for the divisional and conference titles that the Vancouver Canucks had won in years past. I allowed myself a small smile. How the hell did I end up here? It was surreal.
I closed my eyes and took in the smell of the ice.
Fifteen minutes later, the assistant coach blew his whistle and waved everyone over to the benches. I lifted my goalie mask and pressed into the boards, waiting. The sounds of labored breath and occasional spitting filled the silence. After a few moments, the head coach came down the runway to the bench. His hair was thick with gel and his dark suit was creased sharply.
“First, I want to thank you for your hard work today,” he began without preamble. “Hockey is a blue collar sport, and you boys showed that with your effort here today. Thanks for that.
“Second, I want to congratulate for having the courage to come into this arena in the middle of a labor dispute. That can’t be easy for any of you to do. So thanks for that, too.”
He glanced down at his clip board and cleared his throat. “Anyway, on with the bad news. First round of cuts, boys. If you hear your name, stay on the ice.”
He began reading names from his list. It only took a few names to realize that they were alphabetical and guys figured out pretty quickly when their name was passed over. I was one of four goalies and I figured they’d keep two. The starter’s spot was already nailed down by a guy who came out of retirement when the impasse was declared. But the backup position was still open.
“Laredo,” the head coach said my name and almost jumped. I looked down at my skates and controlled my breathing while he read the rest of the names.
When he’d finished, he said the words every hockey player dreads hearing, “The rest of you, thanks for coming out.”
There were a few muttered curses and almost as many congratulations amongst the unnamed players as they shuffled off the ice. The twenty of us that remained stood stock-still, waiting.
Once the cut players were down the hallway and out of earshot, the head coach continued, “Get some water, boys. It’s time to work.”
In the brief break we had, the head coach put it to us very simply.
“Most of my team is set,” he said. “I’ve got room for about five skaters. That’s four forwards and one defenseman. And a backup goalie. That’s it.”
No one answered him, so he continued, “I’ll be honest with you, boys. If the player’s union breaks and the regular players come back, all of you and most of the guys I already have on the roster will be cut. But until that happens, those of you that make the team will be in the NHL. You’ll be a Vancouver Canuck.”
The head coach looked around the assembled group, considering each of us. Then he said, “All right. Let’s get busy before you guys cool off.”
The assistant coach divided us into two squads and the scrimmage began right away. I stared down the ice at my competition. He was a mammoth of a goalie. The crossbar of the net stood four feet off the ground and caught him at the lower back. The same cross-bar came across my shoulder blades.
Maybe he can’t move very well, I thought hopefully.
That thought went away on the first shift, when my squad peppered him with three quick shots and he stopped all three, moving from side to side with an agility that was surprising for his bulk.
I clenched jaw and focused on what I could control. Stopping the puck.
Five minutes passed and I made two routine saves. The assistant coach acted as referee and lineman, whistling offsides and icing or blowing the play dead when the puck went out of play or was frozen by one of the goaltenders. I noticed after one whistle that the scoreboard was on and the clock stopped with the whistles. They were putting us through a mock game, I realized.
The hulking goalie at the other end of the ice made save after save, but I matched him. The defensemen on both sides were working harder than the forwards. They were all battling over one slot. I knew how they felt.
The first period blew by in no time and neither of us let in a goal. The assistant coach blew his whistle and gave us a ten minute break. I sucked down water and watched the other goalie for signs of fatigue. Maybe that would be the difference.
The second period was a whole different game, as it became a shooting gallery in my end. I was pelted with shot after shot and the leaky defense in front of me wasn’t clearing any rebounds. I let in three goals before the time ticked off for the period and the behemoth at the other end only let in one. I tried to take solace in the fact that two goals were on the third shot after two saves and the third goal was a deflection where I had no chance.
Still, the scoreboard told the tale. Three to one.
During the second intermission, the assistant coach gave us a pep talk.
“You wanna play in the NHL, boys? Then let’s see it!”
None of the players answered. Everyone was breathing hard. I stared at my skates and hoped the coaching staff saw the goals I let past me in the same light I did.
The third period of the scrimmage was desperate. Every player knew that there was no second chance and this would be the end of the road for this tryout. I kicked out everything they threw at me. When a skinny forward in an old Hartford Whaler’s jersey backhanded one past the big goalie at the other end, I let out a small whoop.
Two minutes later, I smiled behind my mask when a defenseman with a cannon for a slapshot blasted one past the goalie’s glove.
Seven minutes left.
I kept my breathing constant and deep while I tracked the puck. I’d outplayed this guy. I knew it. If I could get the tie, or if my squad could get another past him, the job was mine. It had to be.
I felt a flutter of panic in my stomach. I was seven minutes away from being an NHL goaltender. Lockout or not, backup or not, I’d be in the NHL.
I forced out a wavering breath.
Focus, I told myself.
My squad of skaters kept the puck pinned in the other end for the next three minutes, blasting away at my nemesis. He made every save, flashing his glove or kick-saving every attempt. His huge frame took up much of the net. I wished silently, then aloud, for them to score. The other squad iced the puck several time, sending it the length of the rink, only to garner a whistle and a face-off in their own end.
Four minutes left.
A fresh set of forwards broke out of their own end and rushed up the ice toward me. One of my defensemen caught an edge and stumbled to the ice. The other team barreled ahead, three-on-one.
The right winger had the puck. He skated hard into the zone and glanced up at the two skaters with him. I keyed on the shooter. He hadn’t passed the entire game. He wasn’t about to start now.
The winger teed it up and fired a slap shot. I snagged it with my glove and held onto it.
Face-off in our zone. I got into my ready stance as the assistant coach dropped the puck. Our center won the draw and the defenseman worked it out of the zone.
I glanced up at the clock. The four minutes ticked to three and then to two. I made another routine save, sending the puck into the corner, where a defenseman scooped it up and passed it out of the zone.
Two minutes, I realized. A thrill began in my toes and zinged throughout my body.
Down in the other end, the other goalie was being assaulted with shots again. He stopped them all. I pleaded silently with my squad to get one past him.
A pass from defenseman to defenseman was intercepted by a speedy forward, who came charging up the ice. Suddenly, I realized he was on a breakaway. I slid out to meet him and then began telescoping backward. I watch for him to shoot or deke.
His shoulder dropped to shoot and I committed. At the last second, I realized he was faking and tried to recover. The skater pulled the puck to his backhand and easily slipped it past me as I tried to stack my pads.
I knew the puck was in the net before the whistle even blew. The shrill sound was like a death knell.
The skater arced around back of the net as I rose back to my feet. He coasted in my direction and I thought for a moment that he was going to taunt me. His words were thickly accented.
“I sorry for goal. I just want play hockey,” he said and skated away.
I fished the puck out of the net and sent it skittering to center ice. I tried to swallow around the lump in my throat as the assistant coach dropped the puck and play resumed. I blinked away tears as the forwards and defensemen continued to battle the last two minutes of the scrimmage for positions that might still be open. Dutifully, I kicked aside the three shots that came my way.
When the horn sounded, I cleared my throat and skated over to toward the bench for the ritual. I left my mask in place and looked down at the scarred up ice during the silence before the head coach appeared. He thanked us again for our hard work and then read the names.
When he had finished, he said, “The rest of you, thanks for coming out.”
I waited until the curses and murmurs of congratulations had ended before stepping off the ice and heading down the hallway to the Visitor’s locker room. I wasn’t inside the door yet, when a small cheer erupted from the guys still on the ice.
I sat at the locker stall and stared at my empty equipment bag. Then I slowly shed my gear and filled the bag.
A month and a half later, the regular players caved in and came back to the NHL.
A month and a half later.
A month and a half of dreams.
Frank Zafiro's short stories have appeared in small press magazines such as Starsong, Unknowns and Wide Open Magazine, as well as online at Ascent Magazine and A Cruel World. Currently, he is working on his series of police fiction novels known as River City Novels, which are under consideration with a publisher. He is a graduate from Eastern Washington University with a degree in history and works as a police officer in the Pacific Northwest. His website: http://spaces.msn.com/members/frankzafiro/; his email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2005, Frank Zafiro. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.