Slade Rockers scrubbed his hand over his face and pulled in a deep breath of the musty locker room air. It was all over. His hopes and dreams were swirling down the proverbial drain, along with a lifetime of training. Years—wasted.
He untied his second skate and, piece by piece, removed his hockey gear. Trying to give the outward appearance of professionalism, just in case the team happened to change its mind, Slade folded his practice jersey and placed it in his bag. Thirty minutes had passed since the last guy had slammed a fist against a locker on his way out. There hadn’t been a last-minute visit from a coach or owner.
“Well…fuck.” Slade sighed and grabbed his bag, heading for the exit.
The dark clouds and cool air echoed his mood as he made his way to his rental car. Once inside, he lay his head on the steering wheel and ran through every drill in his mind. What could he have done differently?
The truth hurt like hell. There wasn’t a damn thing he could point a finger at and know it had been the deciding factor. He just didn’t cut it, there was no way around it. And not being good enough…anymore, stung like a mother.
Slade sat up, reaching for his phone. Before he called his father, there had to be a plan in place, a fallback. After facing the wrath of his dad, after telling him that his only child was now a washed up has-been, there had to be somewhere else to turn. The phone rang twice before it was answered.
“Pat’s Pub, Tris here.”
“Hey stranger! How’s it going, bud? What’s the verdict? Don’t forget I already spoke up for the best seats available when you’re playing locally, okay?”
Slade felt the disappointment seep further into his system. “There are no seats to give you, sir. It’s over. For good this time.”
“Ah, Slade, I’m sorry, son. I know you were counting on this tryout. There’s always the Preds. How’d your old man take the news?”
“No. Predators are out. I mean it, I’m done. This was my last-ditch effort to get back to the only thing I know how to do. And as far as my dad—I called you first.”
“Well, the offer still stands. Told you that when you left for the airport, you’d always have a job waiting back here. Did they say anything at all? Give you any reason for passing?”
“No. They didn’t have to. I’m not good enough, plain and simple.”
“Slade Rockers, just you wait one damn minute. You’re one hell of a player, you had a lot of amazing years in the pros, I’ve seen you. Multiple times, remember? You told me before you left you were worried about your medical records.”
He sighed, staring off across the empty parking lot. Dots of sleet started to speckle his windshield. “I know. You’re right. It just sucks. My head feels fine. My vision is fine, hearing is impeccable. I can’t help the past. I can’t help it that the guy they had me against…was younger. And apparently his head isn’t going to turn to mush soon. Ah hell, I seriously didn’t feel old—until today. I swear, I’ve sat here racking my brain trying to think of how I fucked up, what that kid did that I didn’t. I’ve got nothing. I’m not trying to be conceited, just—”
“You’re upset, you’re the most humble person I know in pro sports. And age, for shit’s sake, Slade, you’re not old. If you are, what’s that make me? Just come on home, back here where you belong. You know the women in this family were worried about you getting hurt again, and doing permanent damage this time. No one was going to stand in your way, but they’ve been worried sick. You’ll have multiple hugs of relief waiting on you I’m sure.”
“Tris, you have no idea how much that means to me. Especially now. I’ve spent my entire life focused on hockey. I only went to college to stay on the radar, I barely went to class, and left completely when I was picked up the first time. I’ve got no education to fall back on, nothing else. God, Tris, I’m thirty years old, I have wasted my life. I can’t believe I was stupid enough to think I’d never be cut.”
“It took us all by surprise, Slade. You are that good.”
“Obviously. So good I’m out on my ass.”
“Son, head injuries are not something to mess around with. You know what Pop would say, right?”
Slade smiled, thinking of the older man he admired more than any other. “That the Irish would say to believe in fate and destiny and all that stuff?” he answered.
“That’s right, young man—”
“Young man?” Slade snorted after mouthing off his retort. Then the depressing thoughts moved in again. Age. Age and concussions, they were his nemeses. Both added up too fast, slashing his hopes and dreams, smashing his entire plans for his future.
“Hey. This is my sage advice, so shut it and listen.”
“Yes, sir,” Slade mumbled, despite the humor in Tris’s voice.
“Sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you work, there are times when what you have planned isn’t what destiny had in mind. Don’t look at this as a pitfall, look at it as—what’s next?”
“I have a feeling my old man isn’t going to be quite that optimistic. I’m preparing for…pissed.” Slade had heard the lecture before, one too many times, and was sure this one would be a doozy.
From the time he was little, Slade had grown used to the painful critiques. His father had a reason for every penalty, every mistake he made on the ice and every hit Slade had taken. His father blamed him, said he deserved every concussion he ever received. Said if he’d been doing his job, he’d have avoided every one of them.
Everything had always been his fault, and his father pointed out what he could have done to avoid it every time. Knowing he’d finally blown his last chance at trying to please his asshole father was both a blessing and a curse. It’d be the final wedge between them, but Slade was over trying to please a man who’d lived out his own dream through him.
He’d been shipped off to a handful of host families during middle school and high school, playing for the best teams. It wasn’t until he landed in Baltimore that he met Colm and Padraig, whro turned out to be his saving grace from a life he couldn’t take a break from.
Until working for the Collinses at the pub during high school and anytime he had between seasons, he’d never known what being part of a large family was like. Right now, he’d give anything to have a few siblings around to avoid being the sole focus of his parents. Tris’s twin sons had become Slade’s best friends over the years, and they let him be himself around their family. He didn’t have to play the part of a star hockey player.
“Sorry about that, too. But hey, I’ll have a pint waiting for you, if that makes you feel any better?” Tris asked.
“I was praying like hell for the job, but I’ll take you up on the beer, too. Thank you, Tris. I’m serious. I don’t know what I’d do without you and your family.”
“Slade, you have always been loyal to us, and we take care of our own.”