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Authors: Eric Walters

Power Play

BOOK: Power Play
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POWER PLAY
BY ERIC WALTERS

For those with the strength to speak up—and those who are willing to help.

CHAPTER ONE

T
he big gate at the end of the rink opened up and the Zamboni slowed down and then exited. I jumped on the ice and felt an instant jolt of joy. My skates felt like they were gliding
above
it, like I was flying on a cloud, and for a brief second the ice was all mine. A perfect surface, unmarked, ready for me, just for me. It felt as wonderful now as it did when I was a kid playing for fun. It was still fun, but it was more than just playing around now.

Of course, that feeling didn’t last more than a split second as my teammates piled on behind me, and coming from the other side, our opponents. Our enemies. I couldn’t make out their faces beneath the helmets and cages. That was probably better. If you could see faces, you might mistake them for
people
. I couldn’t afford to
see them that way. Until the game was done, I actually
hated
them, and really, the final buzzer didn’t soften the hate that much. They were standing in my way, in the way of my teammates and what we wanted, and I was prepared to do whatever was necessary to get it.

I took my turn extra wide, drifting well over centre ice into their end of the rink. I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but I did it anyway. As I made my pass through their territory, a couple of them got out of my way. Cowards. They knew that if any opponent dared to drift over to our side, I’d hit him so hard his head would spin.

The refs wouldn’t have even noticed. They were standing off to the side, too busy chatting and trying to impress each other. There was no one else in the whole arena they could even hope to impress. People who
couldn’t
play hockey became refs so they could take it out on all those players who were better than them.

I hated refs almost as much as I hated the players on the other side. Except for the uniforms, there often wasn’t much to tell one from the other. Was there ever a game when the refs didn’t have it in for me and my team?

I scanned the stands for my mother. There wasn’t much of a crowd so it was easy enough to pick her out, in the corner, by herself, away from the other parents, where she usually sat. My father was nowhere to be seen. No surprise there either. When he did come, it was never for the warm-ups and seldom for the first period. That would have cut seriously into his pre-game drinking
time. There was a legion hall next door to this arena where you could get a drink. I could even picture the table he was sitting at, talking to the veterans, slapping backs, shaking hands, and even buying the occasional beer for somebody. He was the life of the party. Unfortunately, life with him was no party. Well, at least he couldn’t embarrass me as long as he was sitting in a bar. But the later he arrived, the more time he’d had to drink, the more likely there’d be trouble when he did show up.

His voice could cut through the arena like a knife. Rough and raw and loud and laced with enough swear words to get everybody’s attention. My father would take aim at anybody. He would ride the refs, the guys on the other team, a parent, even my teammates. And me. Lots of times it was me.

The way they reacted, it was clear that a lot of people in the stands were more than a little afraid of him. And I heard some parent once mutter something about “fruit not falling far from the tree.” Screw them. I was
nothing
like him.

The year before, he’d got into it with another parent in the stands, and he was banned from the arena for two months. That was the easiest two months of hockey I ever played.

No time to worry about him now, though. I had to warm up and think about the game. I took a pass on the tape, right in the sweet spot, pumped my legs a few strides, then glided toward our goalie. His five-hole was open, as
always. No matter how many times he’d been told that was his weakness, he didn’t seem to be able to fix it. It would have been too easy to just shoot there so I picked a corner—glove side. I put a small fake to my left then snapped it up, the mesh popping out as the puck hit the back.

“Nice try,” I mumbled as I skated by. That was a better thing to say to your goalie than “Can’t you stop anything?” which is what I really felt like yelling.

Despite the fact that our goalie couldn’t stop a bowling ball, I still felt a little rush of adrenalin and happiness when the puck hit the twine. It didn’t matter if it was in the warm-ups, a game, or just shooting into a net in my driveway by myself—scoring still gave me that rush. I was addicted to that feeling.

That first shot was for
my
warm-up. The next few I’d deliberately shoot into his pads. It was more important to pump up his confidence than it was for me to score. I
knew
I could score—he
didn’t
know if he could stop. Confidence was important, especially for a goalie. They were strange guys, and you had to make sure they didn’t get too down on themselves before the game even started. I hated to admit it, but we needed him. It wouldn’t matter how much rubber I got by the other goalie if ours couldn’t stop their shots.

I skated right up to centre and stopped, looking over our opposition. They were good. Second in the league. We were in fifth, on the bubble of making the playoffs. We needed this win more than they did. I didn’t think they
had that much more talent than we did, but they seemed to be getting all the breaks. And having the “C” on my sweater meant that I had to make those breaks happen for us. It was up to me to carry the team on my back.

I scowled at each guy on the other team as they skated by. Most of them looked away, not meeting my eyes. The game started long before the puck was dropped and didn’t end when the whistle blew. Just like I had to boost up my teammates, I had to get under the skin of the guys on the other side. There was a saying: “If you can’t beat ‘em in the alley, you can’t beat ‘em on the ice.” I wasn’t the biggest guy, but everybody knew that I was ready to drop my gloves with anybody, any time, and even if I didn’t come out the winner, the other guy would for sure know he’d been in a fight. Sometimes it was worth the automatic suspension.

The warm-ups continued until Coach called us over. Most of the guys climbed onto the bench along with him while six of us—our goalie and the starting five—stood on the ice along with a few other skaters. There was no need for Coach to tell us who were the starters—we all knew.

“This is an important game,” Coach began, “not just for us as a team, but for specific members of the team too.”

What exactly did that mean?

“I’ve been told that there is going to be a very important scout in the crowd. He’s come here to look at a number of players in this game who might be drafted into Junior A next year.”

There was a buzz as everybody started talking at once. They all thought the scout would be looking at only four or five players. And each of them—no matter how bad they really were—figured they were one of those four or five players. And if they weren’t, it didn’t matter—if they had the game of their lives, they figured it might be just enough to get them on his radar and drafted. Idiots. Did they really think one game would be enough?

I
was
one of those players he’d come to look at. Everybody knew that.

“And while I want you to play extra hard, I want you all to pretend he isn’t here,” Coach continued.

Wouldn’t it have been easier if he just hadn’t said anything to begin with? Now every player would try to impress the scout by doing things that he really wasn’t capable of doing. And worst of all, those with the least talent would be working the hardest to impress him. Instead, they’d just screw up.

The ref blew his whistle.

“Go out and get ‘em!” Coach yelled.

I skated toward centre ice. My mom gave me a little wave from the bleachers and I nodded back. There was no point even looking for the scout. It didn’t matter if I could see him or not. The important thing was that he saw me, and I was going to make it impossible for him to miss me. I didn’t care if he’d come here to see ten players. He was only going to notice one for sure. Me.

CHAPTER TWO

I
smashed my stick against the boards as our goalie dug the puck out of our net—again. With less than two minutes left in the game that pretty well sealed our loss. They were up by three—5–2. I’d done my best, scoring one goal and setting up the second. And I’d delivered hits on anything that moved, except the officials. But even though we’d outshot them, I couldn’t stop the puck from going in our net. Why didn’t we have a
real
goalie?

I skated toward centre and looked to where my mother and father were sitting. My father had arrived just before the end of the second period, his voice cutting through the noise of the rink and lodging right in my head. It sounded like he was only half in the bag, and at least his anger was directed toward the refs tonight and not me. I had to
be grateful for the small stuff, although I was still going to catch it from him on the ride home for the dozens of things I’d either done wrong or failed to do to begin with. My father always droned on about how hockey was a team game—unless we lost, and then it was all my fault.

I lined up for the face-off. The player opposite me was from their fourth line—probably the worst player on their team. No skills, but lots of size. He towered over me. Their coach putting him out against me in the final minutes of a game that was already decided could mean only one thing. This was payback for a couple of hits I’d put on his star players.

“You’ve lost another one,” he said with a scowl plastered on his face. “Your team sucks.”

No argument there—especially if he was referring to our goalie.

“How does it feel to be a loser?” he asked.

Again, I didn’t answer.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “You spend the whole game mouthing off and now you got nothing to say?”

“You’re right,” I said.

He looked surprised. I guess being right was a new experience for him.

“The game
must
be over if they put a
goon
like you out here.”

“What did you say?” he demanded.

“I’m agreeing with you. The game
is
over.” I pointed toward the scoreboard.

He glanced up, and in that split second, I dropped my stick and gloves and landed two blows to his jaw! He went down like he’d been shot, and then I was bowled over by another player and everybody on the ice was pairing off!

The lineman steered me off to the gate leading to the dressing room. I struggled with him, but only a little. Going too easily would have shown that I wanted to leave the ice, and fighting too hard would have got me a suspension. Besides, I was busy yelling at the last guy I’d exchanged blows with. I could taste the damage that he’d done to me. I spat, and red stained the ice.

I’d got two minutes for instigating, a five-minute fighting major, and a ten-minute misconduct because I wouldn’t stop trying to get at one of their players. With so little time left in the game, the automatic ejection didn’t mean much, but I knew there’d be at least a one-game suspension to go with it.

“Don’t come back on!” the ref said as I stepped off the ice. “If you do, I’ll make it my personal business to make sure you get a five-game suspension.”

I mumbled a couple of swear words at him, but he didn’t need to threaten me. I was just as glad to spend the last few minutes of the game in the dressing room instead of watching the other team congratulate each other as we skated off with our tails between our legs.

One of my teammates brought over my stick and gloves and helmet.

“Way to handle yourself, Cody,” he said.

“You did okay too, man.”

He gave me a big smile. He hadn’t done badly. He had my back when a third guy jumped me, pulling him off. I wouldn’t forget that. I’d have his back the next time something exploded.

“We’ll get ‘em the next time,” he said.

“Unless we win the next few games, we won’t get to play them again.”

“Maybe not, but even if we didn’t win the game, they’ll remember who won the fight.”

He was right about that.

I started down the tunnel toward the dressing room—then hesitated. Disappearing into the dressing room would be like hiding, like they’d scared me off or chased me away. That wasn’t going to happen.

I turned around and went back out to where I could see the game, standing in the passageway. I wanted everybody to be able to see me, to know that they could toss me out of the game but they couldn’t toss me very far. I’d be watching, taking names and numbers for the next time we met, even if it was next season.

The play was down in our end—they had a power play because I’d gotten the instigator penalty. I just hoped they wouldn’t score, although, really, what did it matter? Lose by three or lose by thirty, it was still a loss.

I looked up toward my parents. A man had walked over to where they were sitting. He was wearing a suit—which meant he wasn’t a friend of my father’s. Was he the scout? I’d tried to put him out of my mind, but it would have been better for him to see a win instead of a loss. It was my team, and I was the captain. A real leader would have dragged his team to victory.

Mercifully, the power play ended, and then the game, without any more scoring. I opened up the gate, and as my teammates came over, I gave each a tap on the butt and told him “Good game,” “Way to play,” “Sometimes the best team doesn’t win,” or whatever I thought he needed to hear.

Some of the guys looked like their dog had died. Others were joking and acting like a hot girl had invited them over when her parents weren’t home. I had to fight the urge to reach out and smack those smiles off their faces. If losing didn’t matter, then neither did winning, so why even show up to begin with? They kept score for a reason. My father had once said to me, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” I hated being a loser.

Coach was the last one off, slipping along the ice.

“You played a good game, Cody,” he said.

“Not good enough.”

“It’s a team sport and you did more than your part.” He paused. “Come on, nobody died out there, although that one guy you decked at the end might feel like he’s close to it. Somebody might want to check to see if there’s a toe tag attached!”

“Maybe he’ll keep his mouth shut the next time.”

Coach gave me a slap on the back. “Maybe we would have done better if you’d smacked somebody earlier.”

I nodded. “I’ll remember that for next game.”

I
had
done well, and it
was
a team sport, and I knew that nobody had died out there … but still, shouldn’t the coach have been a bit more upset about losing? He was a nice guy, but he wasn’t really much of a coach. After our goalie, he was the second-biggest liability on the team. Nice guys finished last … or at least in fifth place.

I trod down the rubber mat, following him to the dressing room. I knew he’d give us a cheery little speech and then release us to our waiting parents. Then, on the drive home, I’d be exposed to my father’s not-so-cheery, not-so-little speech. If I was lucky, he’d be gone already, either back at the bar or driving home without me. He did that sometimes when he thought I hadn’t played very well. Some punishment. Being away from him was a reward. Besides, it wasn’t that long a walk from home games. And if it was an away game, a bus ride or even a very, very long walk was worth not having to listen to his half-baked, half-drunk ranting. Sometimes he took my mother along. Other times she stayed and walked with me or took the bus.

I thought back to that man sitting with my parents at the end of the game. It had to be the scout. I just hoped that my father hadn’t said anything to him that would screw things up … assuming losing the game hadn’t been bad enough.

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