[Published in 2001 – read reviews]
The saviour was supposed to come in the form of a skinny kid from a town with a long French name. That’s what I had been told. After three seasons so miserable 2-1 defeats became bearable and shootout losses downright success stories, it was also what I needed to hear. Not only had the Kildare Kougars obtained a supreme talent, but we were going to win because of it. Make the playoffs, get on a roll, maybe even, you know, catch a break here or there, and, who knows after that, right?
Okay, so I was getting ahead of myself, but who wouldn’t have?
“Scott, things are going to be different now,” said the team’s new owners. “We can finally get this town a winner and you that scholarship.”
And there was more. No more month-long losing streaks, they had sold me. No more getting used to teammates only to see them traded away. No more disrespect. And I bought into it, all of it, no matter if it was true; it was the hope I was after. That’s what I told Grandpa Joe, and he understood. I knew he would. For both of us, the truth could wait. In tiny Kildare, Ontario, life, as my teammates and I knew it, was about to change.
The previous year we had won just ten of fifty-six games. Think of that: ten of fifty-six. So many players came and went, and the losing streaks dragged on so long that by the end of it I felt I had endured a career. Still, after three humiliating seasons as a Kougar, I returned for more; in uniform again, preparing for a new season. Lured back, with hope and promise as the bait, to that parochial little town in the heart of the Ottawa Valley.
But I felt conned when Dion Marcelle, the keeper of much of that promise, arrived at training camp. Swiftly, like a slap, the phenom managed to sully expectations before even one practice. He had no confidence, much less an aura of greatness. Tall and gangly, he kept his head hung low, hiding his pimply face, acting more like a nerd than a talent. On the ice, he would stumble when he tried to turn a corner and was so slow he barely stayed ahead of the fully equipped goaltenders, limited because they strained to contain their laughter. It wasn’t long before he began to pant, taking deep, heaving breaths and blowing out frosty air as if allergic to it. A supposedly speedy centre with a wicked shot, Marcelle had moved to Kildare with his family from rural Quebec because “of undisclosed personal reasons,” as the paper reported. The Kougars, believing the scouting reports that oozed with praise for him, immediately brought him in to foster change on our Junior A team that needed lots of it. Unfortunately, Marcelle displayed no traces of being a star, let alone a salve. After finishing my laps, I brushed my black hair out of my eyes, wiped sweat from my face and leaned against the boards, shaking my head at the sight of him lagging behind the other players, only a handful of whom showed signs of skill themselves. It wasn’t long before I had company.
In my daze, I didn’t notice Brendan Kowalczek, my best friend and our best player, gliding toward me. He was bent over with his stick resting across his knees until he whacked me on the shin with it: a hockey player’s hello.
“That there’s the future of Kildare hockey, my man,” he said and lifted his chin to gesture toward Marcelle.
“Then I can’t wait to be in its past,” I replied.
He laughed. “One more season, bud,” he said. “Just one more and it’s welcome to the USA.”
“Yeah, I wish,” I said. “Looks like just another long year to me.”
“No worries,” he said. “We get that first win, things’ll be lookin’ good.” He then jabbed my belly with the end of his stick, glanced up and said, “Gotta get rid of this, though.”
“That’s what camp’s for.”
I pushed his stick away and gave him a playful smack on the helmet. But he was right. Not into weights, I had gained a few too many pounds during what was a downer of a summer. Brendan, on the other hand, was in the finest shape of his life. His future was waiting to be seized and he was already putting a vice on it. Entering his final season of junior, Brendan, tall and blonde, built like a sword’s blade, was being recruited by several schools from the States and was guaranteed a scholarship. He just had to decide where he wanted to go. Most of the rest of us — the less apt — had much more tenuous offers, if any at all. A couple of scouts had told me that — maybe — if I continued to show improvement, and stayed healthy, I would have a good shot at getting an offer for a full ride. Although that possibility was the main reason for my return to Kildare, I had never been totally convinced it would come true. Besides, I was too concerned about the present to ponder my future.
“How’s Gramps?” Brendan asked. The coach’s whistle had blown and he quickly skated to centre ice, looking away from me like he didn’t want to see a wound.
“Doin’ good, doin’ good. He’s hangin’ in there.” I followed him to the redline, where all the players were gathering. We lined up in front of Tyler Raycliffe, our new coach, who was eyeing us like a judge ready to pass sentence.
“Okay, lads, we’re gonna keep it simple today,” he said in a bellowing voice. “Just some easy drills — some up-and-backs, some breakouts — so we can see what you can do. But don’t get used to it, we’re going to be working here from now on.”
He skated back and forth in front of us like a general marching before troops. His bushy brown eyebrows were furrowed and looked like a baby squirrel’s tail. Hidden under his vinyl track pants was a brace that bulged around his left knee like a disfigurement. “I know this team has had a couple of tough years, but we’re gonna turn it around. And we’re gonna do it with hard work. So, let’s get to it.”
He blew hard into his whistle, smacked his stick on the ice a couple of times and his two aides took over. They separated the forwards from the defencemen, sent the goalies to the nets and readied us for a two-on-one drill. Assistant coach Clyde Parker, a fat, volatile man, was charged with instructing the defence. He demonstrated proper positioning by holding his hands out as if he wanted to be hugged and skating backwards, head constantly swivelling. “Take away the pass!” he yelled, his green eyes intense. The defencemen nodded, when they weren’t wiping snot from their noses. In the mean time, Peter Jones, the equipment manager and volunteer coach for the day, was dividing up the rest of us: eighteen forwards, six each at centre and on the two wings.
Once everyone was in position, Raycliffe’s whistle chimed and the first pair of forwards darted off from the redline, their skates scribbling the ice like dried-up pens as they rushed ahead. The awaiting defenceman turned to his side, took a couple of strides toward the goal then began to glide backwards, his knees bent, head up and rear end stuck out. He kept his stick low and outstretched, and his body between the puck and open man. Clyde Parker had a hopeful look, but only for an instant. The assistant coach was soon left swearing under his breath, and turning red, just like he had done so many times the season before.
Turns out, the defenceman was slowing down too fast and once he real-ized the forwards were going to get past him, tried to swing himself around to stay in the play. He went toward the puckcarrier, who rushed a pass to his partner, leaving the defenceman with nothing to do but watch. But his play was not the only poor one in the sequence. The centre’s pass was errant, the winger stretched out to get his blade on it and inadvertently threw his stick, which followed the puck into the boards and made a heavy thud that sounded like a head smacking against a wall. Raycliffe wiped a hand over his eyes. He was struggling, but managed to stay composed. “Go! Go! Go!” he shouted and the next duo was sent to attack like infantry men. After a few rushes, the forwards would change positions so everyone got turns playing centre and off-wing, and with different partners.
The defencemen, though, had no such variety. They had a steadfast task: deny the pass. While each centre and winger brought an individuality that was encouraged to flourish, defencemen were supposed to be as interchangeable as the pistons of a motor. The forwards dipped and dangled, spun and stuttered, but the backliners had to be stoic. Keep the play in front, don’t get turned around, be patient. And when they were none of those things, that’s when they were punished, as Johnny Carruthers, a quiet, unassuming kid, found out that first practice. Johnny was a good defenceman, but had a lot more potential than he showed. (The scouts loved him because he could skate and pass, and, though thin, was tall.) On that day, it was just bad luck for him that he happened to be the defender when Brendan was teamed with me for our only rush. As soon as Brendan took the puck, I knew what he was going to try. We had developed a play the previous season that called for him to cut to his right as soon as he crossed the blueline and immediately float the puck softly, like a water balloon, in the opposite direction, back toward the top of the left faceoff circle. Defencemen were usually caught going backwards or toward Brendan, not expecting him to release the puck so quickly. They would be out of position to defend the pass and too far away to block my shot as I strode into it.
Johnny must have been paying attention to us, however, because instead of dropping back, he charged at the blueline. But Brendan Kowalczek wasn’t considered one of the two or three best players in the league for nothing. He read Johnny’s eyes, stepping away from the check as if he expected it. While the defenceman was left to bat at air, we suddenly had a two-on-none. I got the pass and immediately returned it, getting the goalie to flop helplessly as Brendan snapped the puck in. We high-fived and a couple of guys banged their sticks in approval, but the blast of Tyler Raycliffe’s whistle startled us into silence.
“You can’t do that!” the coach screamed as he skated over to Johnny. “Never get caught like that!” Raycliffe was inches shorter than Johnny, but as he glowered he appeared to tower over the poor kid, who tried to shrink away while moving to the rear of the defence line. Brendan and I were already back in our queues, looking away from him.
We all got focused again when Raycliffe’s whistle sounded once more, restarting the routine. It wasn’t long, though, before the coach was again left to shake his head as he had to endure the sight of Dion Marcelle fanning on a shot while desperately trying to catch his breath. Raycliffe, it seemed, got a good sense of what he was in for and already needed a break from it. He stopped the drill short, gave himself — and us — a five-minute rest, and told his helpers to ready the puck-control test. Clyde Parker grabbed a stack of bright orange road cones and began depositing them on the ice.
While heading to the bench, I glanced back at Raycliffe and whispered to Brendan: “Think he’ll last the season?”
After looking at the coach, who seemed as if he should be perpetually scratching the thinning hair on his head, Brendan said, “Don’t think he’ll last the day.”
We laughed and skated over to meet our teammates. Brendan knocked gloves with Jesse Sullivan, our hulking defenceman.
“Scotty Mac, good to see ya back,” Jesse said and smacked my shoul-der. “Ready to kick some ass, or what?”
“You bet,” I said. “I hear we’re a shoe-in for the playoffs.”
“Yeah,” Jesse said with a snort, “and I’ll see you on Team Canada.” He leaned over the boards to grab a squeeze bottle from the bench and began squirting water on his face.
“MacGregor, you fuck,” goalie Chris Cooper said as he skated over to shake hands. “No give-and-gos on the first day, eh.”
“Sorry, man,” I said. “Just reflex you know.” He rubbed the back of his shoulder, winced and said, “Man, I think I pulled a muscle on that play.”
“He’s always pullin’ his muscle,” Brendan joked.
“Fuck you, Gretzky,” Cooper snapped back. “And why’d you have to pick on Johnny C. for anyway?”
“Yeah, man,” Jesse said. “Some friend you are.”
Coop and Sully winked at each other, they knew how to get to Brendan, who shrugged and looked apologetic while watching, with the rest of us, as Johnny got more from the coaches. To be fair, Raycliffe wasn’t being a hardass. He probably noticed he was too tough on Johnny right off, so he kept his distance, spoke slowly, waved his stick in the direction of the blueline and acted out some of his own instructions. When Johnny nodded and said okay, Raycliffe patted him on the shoulder and was off. Clyde Parker, who had been paying careful attention, stayed, apparently to advise the kid further. He, too, made a few hand gestures and waited patiently until his point was across. Parker, who also billetted Johnny, got the requisite nod, then gripped his pupil’s shoulder with one meaty hand. When he let go, Johnny lowered his head and skated to the bench to join us, sort of. After reaching down for a water bottle, he slouched along the boards several feet away.
“Hey, Johnny. How ya doin’?” I asked, knowing it sounded ignorant.
“Hey,” he said. “Okay.”
Brendan went over to him and said, “Sorry about that, J.C.”
Johnny said not to worry about it, forced a smile and stood where he was, silently, while the rest of us continued conversing. And there we were, more than five years ago. Five teammates, the veterans of the Kildare Kougars. We thought we were readying for hockey, we would get a heavy dose of life.
“This is the beginning of the new Kildare Kougars, lads,” Tyler Raycliffe said before wrapping up practice. “This town wants a winner. It deserves a winner. And you can give it to them. Each and every one of you.”
But what would Kildare give us? Indeed, what would it take?
Raycliffe blew his whistle and we filed off the ice. One by one, our group of teenaged boys disappeared into the dark of Leroux Arena, some of us innocent. Each of us full of hope.
Thus began my final season of junior hockey and the most tumultuous year of my life.
[You can purchase “50 Mission Cap” online at most bookstores.]