Alex, p.1part #1 of Cold Fury Hockey Series by Sawyer Bennett / Romance & Love
Flexing my jaw back and forth, it moves with a resounding pop but there’s no pain. That’s either because there truly is no pain or I’ve blocked it out. Regardless, I push back from the boards, even as that douche Talbot tries to push my face back into them again. The puck is between our legs and we scrabble to kick it loose.
There’s less than forty seconds left in the game to break this tie, and I want to get it done. Although I have no desire for the spotlight that will come with making the game-winning goal, it’s absolutely preferable than being stuck in overtime or a potential shootout. I’m ready for this f**king game to be over.
Giving a particularly hard push back, I’m able to free my stick from the boards and put the blade to ice. Because we’re playing on home ice here in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I know its speed and consistency like the back of my hand, it takes nothing but a short tap on the puck and it shoots back between both of our legs. I juke left and when I feel Talbot follow, I spin back right to skate around him, grabbing the puck just as it clears his blades, and take off for the goal.
One of my natural talents is to freeze-frame the entire ice in my mind, analyze my best course of action and dump the puck as quickly as possible to the guy with the best scoring chance on our team. But now with only thirty-five seconds left in the period—and yes, I saw the clock winding down in my freeze-frame—I don’t want to leave it up to one of my teammates to seal the deal. I fake a pass to the nearside, then slip a quick wrist shot toward the goal, watching as it sails cleanly into the net, just between the upper post and the goalie’s left shoulder.
Way too f**king easy!
The red light behind the net burns bright and the arena erupts, nineteen thousand fans rocketing to their feet to scream in rapture that Alexander Crossman has broken the tie and most likely won the game. Of course, there’s still thirty-one seconds left for my team to screw the pooch.
My teammates throw their hands up in the air, skating toward me to celebrate the goal. I make a half-assed attempt to look pleased with myself, which basically means I let my teammates rub the top of my helmet or tap my legs with their sticks. But that’s about as excited as I get when I score a goal.
I hate this f**king shit…the adulation, the limelight…all of it.
Skating back to the bench, I step up through the open gate and take a seat. Some of the guys shout down a congrats and a few nod at me; others ignore me point-blank. I’m not a well-liked guy by most.
Grabbing the water bottle, I squirt a bit in my mouth, swish it around and spit it back out. The crowd goes crazy again, their cheers rising in crescendo as the replay of my goal is shown on the Jumbotron. I glance up at it, my brow furrowing. It’s a pretty sweet play and I totally smoked Talbot, but as I watch it I know without a doubt my dad will be calling tonight because he’ll find something to criticize. It’s physically impossible for him to do anything but.
The announcer’s voice comes over the PA system, Carolina Cold Fury goal, scored by Number Sixty-Seven, Alexander Crossman, unassisted…
And the crowd erupts into more cheers, drowning out the stats as they are relayed. I do a quick glance around the arena, knowing that the fans are happy as shit I just scored the game winner but also very much aware they can’t stand me. I even snicker as I see a sign across the ice proclaiming, Crossman for MVP, Most Valuable Prick.
Classic! I’m the player they love to hate, and I could give a f**k.
I come out, do my duty, score my goals and get my assists, collect my paycheck and past that, just leave me the f**k alone.
If only life were that simple.
For the remainder of the game, I don’t even watch the action on the ice. I sit on the bench and lean my head back against the glass, watching the time slowly tick down so I can be free of this shit for the night.
“Crossman…in my office before you leave,” I hear Dan Pretore call out. He’s the head coach for the Cold Fury, and while he’s probably one of the best coaches I’ve ever played under, he’s a hard-ass as well. I know, without a doubt, that even with two goals and three assists on the night, I’m going to get my ass handed to me.
Slipping on my suit jacket, I zip up my equipment bag and make my way back to the staffing area under the arena. None of my teammates say goodbye, none of them congratulate me. They know it wouldn’t do any good, because I won’t respond. Some of the newer guys think that’s just me being reflective, but the ones who have been here awhile know it’s because I’m a mean son of a bitch after a game, regardless of whether we win or lose. In fact, the better I do, the crustier I become, which I get…that’s some whacked shit and I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with me.
I rap my knuckles softly on the coach’s door, and he immediately calls out for me to enter. I don’t close the door behind me, only because I could care less if anyone hears my ass-reaming. Taking a seat across from his desk, I casually prop an ankle over my knee and look around his office with no real interest. It’s a mess…piles of papers, binders and fast-food wrappers litter his desk. He has several framed awards, but they’re all sitting on his floor, leaning up against the wall. I’ve been with the Carolina Cold Fury for almost six years now, and his office looks the same now as it did when I had my first meeting with him those many years ago.
“Great game tonight,” he says, looking up from the iPhone that he had been texting on when I entered. “Your plus-minus went to forty-seven. I believe that means you’re leading the league right now. ”
I stare at him, offering no “thank you” for the praise. I don’t need it or want it and statistics never meant much to me. Kind of like all those awards Coach has on his floor…don’t mean shit to me. I respect his coaching skills for what they are, not what other people say about them.
He waits for me to say something…an acknowledgment, an eye flicker, an I could give a flying f**k. He gets nothing, so he sighs and continues on.
“That little stunt at the end of the game was uncalled for,” he tells me.
He’s referring to the fact that I was named the game’s most valuable player—or most valuable prick if you go by what some fans say—which is an honor commemorated at the end of the game by having the player skate out on the ice for acknowledgment. At the time they were calling my name, I was halfway back to the locker room, refusing to come out for my stupid f**king lap around the ice. The fans’ boos followed me all the way back.
“Sorry…had an upset stomach…diarrhea. Had to hit the can,” I tell him, my face a study of genuine truth even though he knows I’m lying through my teeth.
Pretore leans forward across his desk, flashing his teeth at me in a snarl. “Do you think I’m f**king stupid, Crossman? You thumbed your nose at the crowd and this team because you’re an ass**le and no other reason. I’m fining you a thousand dollars for that stunt. ”
I pick an imaginary piece of lint off my slacks and look at him blandly. “Fine. Anything else?”
Leaning back in his chair, Pretore studies me for a moment. Steepling his hands in front of his face, he regards me with interest. “You know…I don’t get you. You were the best player in the Quebec Juniors by the time you were sixteen, the number one NHL draft pick six years ago, and you have the potential to win the Art Ross Trophy every f**king year if you actually decide to start caring about this game. Instead, you do the bare minimum to get by, which, lucky for you and your career, still makes you pretty f**king good. You have the talent and ability to captain this team, yet you have the emotional maturity of the arena’s janitor. You’re a f**k-up by most standards, yet you’ll continue to get your pay and bonuses because you have more talent in your pinky than most players have in their entire body. I guess what I don’t understand is…how do you look at yourself in the mirror every day knowing that you’re wasting your life?”
I know where the coach is coming from. I get it…his little speech is supposed to be a slap-down plus a build-up. He knows I don’t respond well to ass-kissing and lofty praise, but rather I respond to the challenge of proving myself. Unfortunately, his words tonight are absolutely wasted lung capacity on me, because I’ve heard this speech a dozen times already from my dad.
“I look in the mirror same way you do, Coach…every day to shave or brush my teeth. I’m comfortable with the guy staring back at me. ”
Pretore snorts at my response and although he’s pissed at me, I also know that answer amuses him somewhat, because he too is a smart-ass by nature.
“Yeah, well, you may be comfortable with that reflection but the suits upstairs aren’t. They’re mandating an immediate cleanup of your attitude. ”
Boring! Had this conversation too…many times before.
“I see the look on your face,” Pretore says with a sigh. “They’re not joking this time. ”
“Let me guess…they’re going to demand I go to the children’s ward of Raleigh Community Hospital and sign autographs or something. Show that I’m really a teddy bear inside. ”
“That’s not a bad idea, but no. They want you a little more involved. ”
For the first time in this conversation, I feel a tiny thread of apprehension move through me, and only because Pretore’s voice has gone from tired and frustrated with me to actually a bit fearful. Whatever the suits want me to do, Pretore doesn’t think I’ll agree to do it, so I’m guessing he’s getting ready for there to be a big fight on his hands.
“Spill it,” I say quietly.
“They want you to be the team spokesman for an anti-drug-abuse campaign. ”
“I can do that,” I say cautiously, because I can. I have no problem with supporting worthy causes and even though I’m an ass**le, I know how to put a smile on my face when I want to…for the greater good, you know.
“Specifically, they want you to work closely with the Wake County Drug Crisis Center and implement a program to talk to at-risk youth throughout the state. ”
“That’s fine,” I say, but the apprehension increases because this is sounding a little too easy.
“They have very specific requirements,” Pretore says firmly.
I just c**k an eyebrow at him, urging him to just lay it the f**k out. He’s killing me here.
Taking a piece of paper from a folder on his desk, he hands it over to me. I take it and scan it, noting an itemized list of stuff, but I just look back up at him.
“Essentially, they want you committing at least five hours a week during the season, on non–game days, of course. Off-season, twenty hours a week. ”
“Jesus f**king Christ,” I curse, because I just became the equivalent of a felon who came out on parole.
“That’s not all. They are going to have your liaison report to them weekly on your progress and your attitude. They’ll give him or her a list of criteria you must meet. ”
“No f**king way,” I snarl but Pretore ignores me.
“If you don’t agree, I’ve been told that you are to be benched indefinitely and all bonuses forfeit. ”
“Do I have to wear an ankle monitor too?” I growl.
“Finally,” he says, his voice even stronger, “at any time they deem you to have made an ass of yourself to the public or to our fans—and the ‘ass’ is their word, not mine—they are going to fine you five thousand dollars per infraction. ”
I open my mouth to curse again, but nothing comes out. Coldness washes through me as I realize my employer has just drawn a pretty deep line in the sand. I have two choices—do what they tell me or kiss my career goodbye.
And the f**ked-up thing about it—the kissing my career goodbye seems like the better choice for me at this very moment.