Coach Bob Pankowski scowled and shook his head. His third season with the Vancouver Vice marked the team’s worst record ever, but this hockey game was a new low. It was like a fucking car crash in slow motion, and not a thing he said was getting through. Ryan Summers skated from behind the net with the puck, looking up the ice at God only knew what. The big d-man had zero game sense. Rico Aleppo circled the red line. That winger was a freaking prima donna who wanted to pad his stats.
“Lepper! Get back. Cover your fucking man,” the coach yelled, but Lepper didn’t hear him. Or more likely, he was ignoring him. Then Krill, the left winger from the San Antonio Rampage, drilled Summers and stole the puck. He fired it back to their streaking centreman who fired a hard slapper; Dom went down to block the shot, and the puck ricocheted off his shin pad and straight to Wolfson, the best player on the Rampage. No hesitation. The guy just shot. Fuck. The Vice goalie didn’t even move in the right direction before it was by him. Stupid fucking Bloc—the only time he concentrated was during contract negotiations. There was a low murmur of dissatisfaction in the arena, but it wasn’t like anyone expected anything else these days.
Welcome to the Vancouver Vice, folks: the shit show of the American Hockey League. And not one damn thing he did made a difference.
There was a numbing pain between his shoulders. Christ, now he was physically connected to this damn team. Like the mental pain of losing wasn’t enough. Pankowski rubbed the back of his neck.
Of course Wolfson was the guy Lepper was supposed to be on top of. The coach marched down to the end of the bench where Lepper was wiping off his face with a towel.
Pankowski grabbed the towel. “Towels are for the guys who actually sweat, Lepper. Guys who hustle back to their zone. What the fuck were you doing out there? Waiting in the neutral zone like the big fucking goal suck you are.”
The pain in his neck intensified. Was he ever going to get through to these idiots? They’d never make it to the NHL without a two-way game. Did they not understand that one basic fact? “Wolfson was your fucking check—so you need to fucking check him! You got that, asshole?”
Lepper ducked his head. “Yes, coach.” He muttered something else.
The coach inhaled. “What did you say?”
There was no answer. The player shook his head and apologized again, not even looking up.
“Be a fucking man, you fucking pussy. You got something to say, then say it!”
Lepper raised his eyes to meet Pankowski’s. “I thought we had a chance to score there. Summy had the puck, and he was going to send me.”
“Unless you’re a fucking psychic, stay in the fucking d-zone.”
The winger scowled. “But we can’t win games without scoring.”
Pankowski felt a flush rising up his chest—his neck and face felt hot. Raging hot. Defence first, then offence. Why was that simple principle so hard to understand? “We can’t win games—”
He couldn’t even finish the sentence before he began coughing. He tried to take a full breath, but failed. The pain from his neck began to embrace his whole body. It felt like a metal band tightening around his torso.
“Uggggh.” Suddenly, his legs gave way from under him. He collapsed back against the boards. Ian Lee, the assistant coach, rushed over. He grabbed Pankowski just before he hit the floor, staggered under his weight, then laid him down behind the players’ bench. Lee took a towel and made it into a makeshift pillow.
“Heddy, over here. Now.” The panic in Lee’s voice was clear as he yelled for the trainer, and the whole team turned and gawked. Lee stared down at him with wide eyes. That was how you knew you looked like hell, you saw it reflected in other people’s face. Worry. Fear. And sometimes something worse.
Audrey’s face flashed into his mind. How many times had she looked at him, her beautiful face creased with concern? “You’re working too hard, Bob. It’s not good for you to spend all this time on the team.” But eventually her worry turned to something else—not hate, because hate meant passion. It was indifference. And on the day she told him she was leaving, she barely looked at him at all. Like he was something she would step over on the sidewalk, and just carry on. Fifteen years of marriage, and he was nothing more to her than a piece of used-up chewing gum. The pain in his chest intensified.
Heddy was working on him now. He took charge. “Ian, call 911. Tell them we have a possible myocardial infarction in a male, aged sixty. Be sure to tell them which gate to enter at.”
“I’m only fifty-seven,” he thought. But that didn’t matter.
“Bob, can you hear me? Can you swallow?” Heddy asked him.
The coach opened his mouth slightly in response, and Heddy put a tiny pill on his tongue. “Pass me some water.”
Lepper was looming behind the trainer, and he passed a water bottle over.
Heddy raised the coach’s head and squirted a little water in his mouth. “See if you can swallow that.”
The pill went down easily. If only he could catch his breath, but the pressure in his chest continued. In fact, it was getting heavier. He closed his eyes.
“Jesus. Did I kill the coach?” Lepper’s voice was high-pitched and terrified.
“I’m not fucking dead yet,” Bob thought.
An image of his two daughters came to mind. It had been too long since he had seen Claire or Lucy, but they had their own lives. They understood that the hockey season was his time to focus. The summer was when he got to hang out with his girls and now his grandson. Grady was almost two now. Time to teach him to skate. He’d always wanted to teach his own kids, but neither of his girls were interested in hockey. But Grady… he’d be different. Bob imagined slipping tiny skates onto his grandson’s feet, lacing them up, and then guiding him onto the slick ice. Watching him take that first gliding step and picking him up after his first tumble. Seeing the expression on his round face when he finally learned the truth: that skating was as close to flying as man could get on his own power.
Then everything went black.