What did Gordie Howe do the day the music died? Would Wayne Gretzky have set up his office behind the net if he couldn’t remember how the music made him smile? Where did you go Jean Beliveau? A washed up bum has turned his lonely eyes to you.
Management said: We need to get younger, faster. I heard: You’re getting older, slower. Played hard every game, every shift, and hoofed it every practice no matter how bad it felt. No excuses. Walk it off. And then what? Waive the duster making a career as an emergency call up whose contract comes up at year end. Go from first-class flights to twenty-hour bus rides to nothing.
Hockey is a business affected by perception. Forget nausea after an off day. Overlook headaches. Bounce between team physicians for meds. Ignore pulled muscles, strained tendons, torn ligaments, the bruising, the aches, the agony. Show off your best staggered strut in the locker room through it all. Return ahead of schedule. Do your job. Then get a best of luck or we’ll put in a good word for you on the way out.
Well God bless you please, Mr. Manager, hold a place for those of us who can play. Yeah, yeah right. The good, old hockey boys got their club with the whiskey and rye, and I’m wondering how long the money can last before the day that I die.
A guy once joked to me before we fought that if he had one dollar for every three game point streak in his career, he’d have exactly one dollar. See, streaks like that were rare because we went about our depth role and followed an unwritten code of conduct: stay in your weight class, no sucker punches, don’t hit anyone while they’re down, aim for a fair fight, and show respect.
So it went that way with Cat soon after she ambled onto the scene, a tucked away Pittsburgh bar off a main drag rife with them. She called herself Catherine the Great, but everyone else just called her Cat. She feathered between interests on a whim, like informing us how much she enjoyed big band music, moving through the decades with Buddy Holly before showing a silly fascination for The Beach Boys and eventually Led Zeppelin; ’80s stadium rock played in between, few concerned with her dismissals of yet another Def Leppard song until she tried to play who she said was A Tribe Called Quest. It only took a few seconds for that to stop. Though the boys had claimed to be fine with her, none wanted to hear that kind of music.
Still, Cat wormed her way in to the good graces of regulars and Stub, a one-armed Iraq war veteran turned bar owner who nicknamed herself. Like the rest of us, Cat came to know that one should not ask about the missing limb. Instead, she would talk about whatever caught her eye that week: the Warhol Museum downtown, the Post-Gazette crossword, The Graduate, the romance novels of Beverly Jenkins. Though Cat and I had acknowledged one another over a month or so, we hadn’t chatted much until she watched a game with me a third of the way into the season.
“I can’t see the puck,” she said.
“You get used to it.”
“Tell me something,” Cat said. “Why do they fight?”
Bobby Orr scored his iconic, airborne, winning goal in game seven of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Ray Bourque won it all after a twenty-plus year drive for a championship. During his rookie season, Mike Rupp’s first playoff goal was the title clincher. When you’re a kid with dreams of playing professional hockey, you imagine these moments. You think about a breakaway with just the goalie between you and glory. You score, of course, and teammates rush the ice to celebrate, all one-by-one raising the trophy afterward during a victory lap. Basically, you dream of being a superstar rather than a face-puncher for the superstars.
That was the gist of what I told Cat, adding, “You have to act a certain way out there.”
“Do you miss playing?”
“I worry more about the goalie who loses the final on a breakaway now. What happens to that guy, you know?”
“That’s perspective,” Cat said. “Warped a bit, but something.”
“I don’t know anything else,” I said. “I’ve done it my entire life.”
After the game ended, Cat led me several blocks to her studio apartment off Carson Street, jaywalking me through intersections and crowds in for the weekend. On our arrival, she unlocked two deadbolts and jumped into my arms. Caught off guard, I managed to catch her in a near picture perfect pose under the splintery arches of her threshold. It lasted an eternal several seconds before I banged her leg on the doorway and stumbled inside. Somehow, we managed to shut the door while clutching and grabbing at each other with frenzied aggression. We rolled around, cramping our muscles until we laughed about it to finish, climaxing to collapse and entangled limbs.
Afterward at some point, I asked if she planned on answering her phone. She didn’t have one. Must have been from another apartment. Maybe a television next door. A car alarm in the distance. The horn at the end of a game.
Cat unraveled our bodies for a record player and put on who she told me was Ella Fitzgerald. She leaned on a plastic countertop, her head bobbing as she pinched at a bit of flab near her hips between drinks of water from a glass with penguins on it. She caught me watching with a dumb grin and announced that it was time for me to leave.
The Masterton Trophy, named for the only player to ever die in an NHL game from injuries to the head, is awarded for exhibiting perseverance and dedication to hockey. It often goes to a player coming back from devastating injury.
“If I stay the night, we could have at it again.”
“I’ve got dildos,” she said. “And a harness for them.”
“Or we can just cuddle.”
“Goodbye,” she said.
On the walk home in a kind of cold that stings, on long sections of cracked, uneven sidewalks, I sank into inches of wet snow. My head pounded to the beat of each shoe-drenching step. So much for getting a streak going.
As early as seventeen, after each practice, I was taking a shot or two of whatever liquor the older guys gave me. It helped with aching gums, swollen hands, and the brutal schedule. The pills came later.
I once heard somewhere about how people who quit something tend to feel happier after they do it. But consider that medical staff once removed teeth fragments from Duncan Keith’s gums so that he could return to a game in the Western Conference Finals. Bobby Baun broke his ankle during the Stanley Cup championship and returned to score an overtime goal. So many others make the comeback.
A night after being kicked out of Cat’s apartment, she found her way to me, flipping her curly, puffed out ponytail and prodding me with what she described as “ashy elbows.” To drop the rest of my defense, she then gestured to Stub for two bottles of beer, who yelled back in her gruff voice, “Don’t wave those meaty hands around like you’re better than me, honey.”
Stub had lost her arm from a roadside bomb during a supply run, but would rarely share that information. If anyone asked her about what happened, she feigned terror like the arm had been there earlier and had only just fallen off, going so far as to look for it all over, checking under the tight booths, the disarranged high stools jammed together at small tables, behind the Big Buck Hunter machine, and into the back room until that person left. On slower nights, when it was just us lingering, we would match shots, trade pills, and tell what we never called “war stories.”
“I like you,” Cat said, “but I just got out of something bad. I want to enjoy life right now.”
“Look,” I said, wondering if the rest of us were all purposely floating around to live out the worst parts. “We’re all just bumbling our way through this.”
Cat took the bottles from Stub and pulled me away, first playing Good Vibrations which annoyed everyone who had heard the song too much. We were throwing darts in the ’70s and, by the ’80s, we were a winning team despite her skipping along to the Safety Dance, the boys satisfied by its harmlessness.
We stumbled our way out to Alice in Chains, where plowed piles of snow had bunched along curbs fronting a contrasting mix of locally-owned diners and chain restaurants, of large commercial coffee shops or the smaller, independent cafes, and of vast gyms or smaller studios for yoga and dance instruction. A group of college-aged guys exiting one of the bars between it all recognized me outside of one as the hometown, late-round draftee who made it to the big league for a handful of short stints, plying his trade for various teams but the one in the city where he lived. They wanted pictures, and their phone cameras shot light like bright bolts of lightning. They wanted autographs but no one had pen and paper. Then they wanted war stories.
“Some other time fellas,” Cat said.
“Fuck her, man. Hang with us instead,” he said with an exaggerated wink.
“Wait,” another said. “Are you two, like, together? Does she even know what hockey is?”
In the 2010s alone, Wayne Simmonds had a banana thrown at him during a preseason game. After P.K Subban scored a game-winning goal in double overtime against the Bruins, one among many Boston fans posted to Twitter: Subban is a fucking porch monkey. Similar story for Joel Ward, who heard it after scoring the winning goal in game seven of a playoff round. When that kind of trash talk happened, like a lost high school boy desperate for friends, you laughed to fit in. You didn’t want to be on the outside, so let the people who don’t look like you be the easy target. We were an embarrassing bunch for it. And we still are.
At my place, Cat ditched the uneasy quiet of our retreat to check out the largely unfilled space of my home except for shelves containing memorabilia: sticks on walls and in corners, pucks and helmets on shelves, posters of legends, old plaques and trophies from when I was a kid, and pictures with players and teams over my career in frames hung about. “Not much in here,” she said.
“No different than your place, I think.”
“Don’t you have any interests beyond hockey?”
Henrik Lundqvist plays guitar. Carey Price participates in rodeo. Brent Burns raises exotic animals. All professionals and all-stars still playing the game with gusto. A lot of the boys seemed to have something. Families, mostly, but something. I envied those guys with kids, guys who could be fathers after a game, or even guys who could bring their fathers to a game.
“You’re here, now,” I said, still dizzy from the drinking, the walk, and the encounter.
“Think that’s enough?”
In a flash, I see a photo of Derek Boogard as a child with an article headline reading: Lethal Mix of Alcohol and Oxycodone Kills NHL Player. This bleeds into a fight. We flip away our gloves and helmets and circle one another, converging near the boards, where fans pound upon the Plexiglas, clattering and clacking a wall that separates legal and illegal violence. Then it isn’t him anymore. The crowd boos me as my punches land softer than baby shit against the few black players in the league during my time: Georges Laraque, Donald Brashear, Jarome Iginla, Ryan Reaves, Chris Stewart. After, I shovel loose teeth from my mouth with my tongue. I never even reach the bench. My legs get wobbly and I fall forward.
The near impact of my face slamming the ice forced me awake. My body radiated cold sweat. Cat slept curled in a recliner—dragged from another room—near the bed with a blanket stretched to her chin, the flickering light of the flat-screen bouncing shadows of game highlights against the room.
The next day we visited stores along Carson Street where Cat purchased a straw hat for me to wear. I figured if eventual General Manager Marc Bergevin could survive throwing the puck behind his own goalie, or if Chris Phillips, after scoring the wraparound, winning goal in his own net of game seven of the Finals, could continue playing, I could move on from any humiliation. Besides, I wanted to be more remarkable to keep Cat around for a while, so I wore the hat.
We stopped for coffee at one of the small shops to warm our freezing hands. We tabled against a window that overlooked an intersection, both of us amused by a man whose chin blended into his neck swaying near a traffic light. He poked at buttons on the pole and kept a cell phone to his ear. When the light changed over, the man remained, wobbling as people crossed. Within seconds though, he collapsed, falling backward and thumping his head on the curb. A stream of blood trickled along a groove in the sidewalk.
“Well,” Cat said, “that’s going to make things interesting.”
A beat cop ordered a gathering crowd to back off as my head throbbed. Another officer arrived and barked at bystanders taking pictures. I heard ringing when one more partitioned off a section of the sidewalk and road. The chatter around us increased as paramedics arrived.
“Would they have showed up as fast—hey, are you okay?”
The question almost always seemed a loaded one. It sounded like an explosive device set to blow apart the social order that would reveal some harsh truth.
“Sure,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“You look white,” she said. “Like, really pale. Are you going to pass out on me again?”
“I’ve got meds,” I said. “We’ll be fine. Just waiting on ordering.”
Cat grabbed my hand and said, “Yeah, no, not happening here. We’re leaving.”
“What’s the problem?”
“You’d get away with it,” Cat said. “I wouldn’t.”
“No one cares.”
An ambulance siren muzzled all sound, keeping Cat from continuing whatever she intended to say. After two of the responding officers entered the shop, she took my hand and helped me deliver my best staggered strut passed them and the remaining officers outside, lumbering another two blocks away from the commotion so that we could hail a cab.
We didn’t have to wait long and, once inside, Cat asked, “Did you ever feel like you were destined for something more in life?”
Gilles “Grattoony the Loony” Gratton skated practice naked. He wore a tiger mask and growled at opposing players. He also believed that he had once been an executioner and fated to a career in goaltending because he had stoned people to death in a previous life. Imagine a goalie—who takes the brunt of pucks from players and heckles from fans—leaving the game and dedicating his life to transcendental meditation and yoga. I spent a lifetime dreaming about it only to fail at fully making it. But Cat had directed her question to the flummoxed driver anyway, a man whose rebel flag air freshener swayed from the rear view mirror.
Craig MacTavish, the last player in the league to play without a helmet, killed a woman driving drunk and served a year in prison during his playing career. Pelle Lindbergh, the first goaltender to bring a water bottle with him to the ice to combat severe dehydration, drove drunkenly to his death after a team party. Wade Belak, often smiling and playing practical jokes, hanged himself five months after the Nashville Predators waived him. Rick Rypien, suffering from a lifetime of clinical depression, also killed himself the same offseason after signing a one-year contract with the expansion Winnipeg Jets.
Act invincible to mask the pain. Prove to everyone that you still got it. Show no weakness. Walk it off.
Cat paced the house, popping the caps of my plastic bottles and rattling Percocet and Ambien into a sink. “You’re not doing this anymore,” she said.
“You’re overreacting,” I said, speaking horizontally from a pleather couch and with the straw hat over my face.
“I didn’t come here to watch some has-been kill himself.”
The Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore incident, where a cheap shot blow from behind ended Moore’s career. But there was his questionable hit on Markus Naslund in the game prior, the non-call by referees, and a media scrum. So many more intricate details before the actual incident, a black-eye on a sport filled with black-eyes.
“Look,” I said, sitting up. “There’s a code—”
“Aren’t you exhausted by all of that yet?”
“I don’t know,” I said, pausing for time. “I worked too hard to just let it go.”
“You see where someone like me might feel uncomfortable having to act in certain ways to keep people happy, right? We’ve got it hard enough as it is, so this isn’t going to work if you can’t see that.”
A long, long time ago, Mark Messier guaranteed victory on the way to a championship. He won it all, but he later regretted making the statement, intending instead to lift the team’s confidence. Still, it worked out well for him in the end, and it seems to me like fans love him more than he will ever know.
If you liked this story, please consider purchasing a pdf or print copy of issue 8. Purchase options are in the sidebar at right.