Here’s the second half of my fictional, hockey-themed short story. We pick up in a locker room in Chicago.
For the next three hours, we have more fun. It’s a repeat of yesterday’s pond adventure.
We beat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, in their building, snapping a five-game losing streak. We win our next game, and the one after that, the first time this team has had a hat trick of wins since I was in high school and watching on television. And Dmitry has turned into a fan and media favorite. He’s still the fun loving, “Look at me I’m a Russian bear” guy in the locker room, but on the ice he’s a point producing machine. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s scoring, maybe it’s the fans in the stands wearing his jersey completing the virtuous circle. One possibility is the t-shirts that are an allusion to his Lokomotiv days, rather loudly proclaiming “D-Train coming through,” but I find the image of a train with arms, legs, hockey stick and helmet on top of Dmitry’s smiling mug more frightening than inspiring. It’s Thomas the Tank Engine as drawn by Salvador Dali on a bad acid day. But it’s working, so once again I’ll shut my rookie mouth and remain thankful my road roommate doesn’t snore like the Russian bear he purports to be.
The next three weeks are a blur, as our expected outcome for the year – a high draft pick – has officially been replaced by dreams of a second season. We’re only a few points out of the last playoff spot, and selling out every game down to the wire. Game 82 is really a Game 7 for us: win and we were in the playoffs for the first time in a long time, lose and we can all keep our early April tee times.
The last night of the regular season is what you dream about as a kid. It’s 16,840 people screaming for an hour before the puck drops, wearing anything with a logo on it, first-time fans dragged to the game by significant others and parents in the hopes that they’d bear witness to a small piece of sports history. I’ve never seen people so excited when faced with the opportunity to spend another $500 on playoff tickets, but there they are, part of something larger for one night. You can’t study this; you only experience it first hand.
We nurse a 2-1 lead into the third period, and every shot, every clearing attempt, every hit has the fans up from their seats. Dmitry slid to block a shot from the point with under two minutes to go, and misjudged the release. Instead of deflecting the puck off of his shinguards or pants, he caught it in the face, the pool of blood on the ice immediately silencing the fans. A towel pressed to his bloodied face, he leaves the ice wobbling, but waving. The place goes nuts, and that wall of sound alone was enough to carry us to a 3-1 win on an empty net goal.
Our GM comes to see us in the locker room, and tells us a story that I imagine is supposed to be inspiring. Seems he knew about the shinny game we played in the tundra called Chicago, and wailed that it was just an invitation to an injury. But nobody got hurt then, and he saw Dmitry walk off the ice a local hero after suffering an injury tonight, and that turn of events had changed his perspective. He was dispensing with superstition and hunches and going to follow our example of hard work and belief in positive outcomes. I’m not sure if he was channeling too much Phil Jackson on his way in, or if his belief system really was shaken by the last two months of hockey. The D-train t-shirts didn’t seem so weird at that point.
We get the playoff pairings early that evening, knowing already we’ll be going to Boston for a first round matchup. It doesn’t really matter, as we’ve accomplished the Rocky-esque ending simply by going the distance to another set of games. We lose to Boston in five games, but we had declared success before the series started. We accomplished something as a team.
Five months go by.
As a high school student I grew to hate Labor Day. It meant that I was going from a flexible, rule-free summer at the beach to more school, more rules, and more shoes that didn’t feel like flip-flops. This past summer was the first one in a decade that I appreciated in its entirety, despite – well, because of – its shortened duration due to an extended hockey season.
That season ended five months ago, as summer waxed stronger and Labor Day was half a calendar away. Summer’s gone; today it’s crisp and you can smell the hint of winter in the air. Snow is around the corner. I shudder, not because of the chill but because I’m wearing a new uniform today. Custom suit, dark grey, not a Reebok jersey with a name and number on the back. No longer “team in front, name in back”, it’s just my face without a hockey card to prompt recognition. I’ve traded in my hockey career for something in the real world, working for an agency that represents athletes, arenas and other public people and places. Buoyed by draft picks and making trades on the appeal of joining a playoff contender, the Devils didn’t need the services of a fourth liner called up from the AHL. Rather than going back to my Jersey shore hockey life, I crossed that Labor Day line one more time and said goodbye to both the beach and bench. Coach’s final bit of advice to me was to do one thing well. I solve puzzles, and that just doesn’t come up a lot on the ice.
Today’s brain teaser, however, takes me back to the rink I called my office earlier this year. Dmitry and I have some unfinished business that involves two gallons of blue paint.
Dmitry was killed in a car accident exiting the New Jersey Turnpike, probably racing to the airport and missing his intended exit while running late the whole time. His agent insisted that what passed for a will put me in charge of his remains, and that I’d know what to do. The fact that all of those late nights in strange hotels had revealed the answer didn’t make me feel any better about it.
Dmitry’s real heart-felt wish was to “play for long time with this team.” And so I have his cremated remains in a small canister, and while the ice engineers keep careful watch, I sprinkle a little bit of Dmitry’s ashes onto the blue lines between coats, then mix the rest into several gallons of paint in storage. He’ll be with the guys for another season, and I’ll come to visit as often as I can, which I expect and hope to be often. When I’m working through a client problem involving promotional rights or contract clauses, my eyes glaze, my mouth hangs open, and I swear I hear Dmitry yelling “To open! To open!” I haven’t yet learned how not to mouth an answer to him. My work game face gives me away, and I’m not sure I want to practice to improve on it.