Strictly for Now by Carrie Elks
“Damn it!” Our center forward throws his helmet at the wall. We lost our first game. And yeah, it’s only a pre-season match but that doesn’t matter.
The atmosphere in the locker room is pretty much at rock bottom right now. The loss wasn’t Carter’s fault but he’s taking it personally. He’s a demon in front of the goal but nobody was feeding him the puck.
And I’m pissed because we’ve been practicing those set moves daily. They should know better.
“Sit down,” I say, looking around the room at the youthful faces screwed up in disappointment and anger. I like that they’re annoyed. They should be. They played like a bunch of amateurs out there.
And they’re not amateurs. They might be in the American Hockey League and not the NHL but they get paid for what they do.
Now and then, that’s supposed to include winning.
Everybody ignores my instruction. Which pisses me off even more.
“SIT THE FUCK DOWN!” I don’t like shouting but I’ll do it when I have to.
And it works. They all slump on the benches in front of their lockers, their expressions’ murderous.
“And shut the hell up,” I add for good measure, even though none of them are talking anymore. I take a deep breath and pinch my nose, trying to calm myself down.
This isn’t their fault. They’re still getting to know each other. Some of them have come straight from high school. I can’t expect NHL standards, even if that’s what I want. What I’m used to.
“Thank you,” I say when the last of them is seated. They’re all staring at me as though I’m about to deliver a sermon. Give them some insight that will make it all better.
Last season that was me sitting in front of my locker. It feels like a lifetime ago.
My eyes scan the locker room. It’s a nice set up, especially for the AHL. The room is lined with mahogany cabinets, each one with a team player’s name etched into it and a hook for their uniform below. Above them our team motto is painted along the space between the lockers and the ceiling.
HARD WORK BEATS TALENT.
Every one of these kids wants to make it to the NHL. They didn’t get drafted but they still have a chance. We’re a development team for the Boston Razors – the team I used to play for until one final knee injury pushed me out of the top leagues for good.
The development team system means that the Boston Razors can draft any of our players into the NHL at any time. And they can also trade down any of their players to Morgantown. We’re like a reserve squad, but hundreds of miles away. Somehow it works.
“Okay,” I exhale heavily. “Let’s get this over with because I’m pretty sure none of you will listen to what I have to say. But luckily for you I’m going to say it all again tomorrow when you arrive at the rink at six-thirty a.m., fresh and ready to practice.”
“But we don’t have six-thirty practices the day after a game,” Goran Olssen, our center half complains.
“We do tomorrow.” I fix my gaze on him. “And every morning after a loss.”
“Tonight I want you all to take a bath. And when you’re in that bath – alone,” I say for the benefit of Max, our goalie who’s known for using his large, sunken bath, for group activities, “I want you to think about every wrong move you made tonight. Tomorrow you’re going to recite them to me because we’re going to replay that match in the morning with all the right moves. Because this was just a practice run, gentlemen. The next time you lose it’s going to count. The season starts in two weeks. You need to be ready.”
Somebody groans. I don’t respond because if they want to make it they need me to be harsh. To be the asshole. To call them out for playing like they don’t care about the result.
Nice doesn’t win games. That doesn’t mean I’m not kind. When everybody else leaves I’ll be here another two hours watching each move myself, then working out how I can improve every member of the team’s game.
But for now they need nasty. They need to feel the pain. They need to want to win like they want to breathe.
I talk for another two minutes. I call them out by name, the way I was called out as a rookie all those years ago. My job is to pull them apart then put them together again and that’s what I’ll do.
And maybe one day they’ll thank me for it.
Once they’ve all left, I let the janitorial staff know that the room is ready to clean. There are no jerseys on the floor or skates hanging around because the team knows I demand a tidy locker room. It’s not the cleaning staff’s job to pick up after them. Then I close the door and let out a long, frustrated breath because I’m just as pissed as the rest of them about the loss.
“Oh, ah, Eli?”
I look up to see Brian standing in the hallway, a clipboard clutched to his chest. He’s the stand in office manager after the old one got fired. Since his temporary promotion he’s been found frozen in the hallways like a deer staring at headlamps more than once.
“Can I have a word?” he asks, his eyes shifting but not reaching mine. He’s in his twenties, but he dresses like he’s in his fifties. Or in the nineteen-fifties. I like his shirt and sleeveless sweater combination, but some of the team used to rip into him about it.
They don’t since I ripped them a new one. We don’t treat the backroom staff badly. If they weren’t here to make everything run smoothly, we wouldn’t be able to play hockey.
“Sure,” I say. “Here or in your office?”
“Here is fine.” He looks down at his clipboard as though he’s trying to remember what he wants to talk about. “I got a message from Greg.”
“Gauthier?” I ask.
“Yep. Wayne’s son.”
Wayne owns the Mavericks. He’s one of the main reasons I came here once I busted my knee for good. When he heard I was out of action, he flew to Boston to talk with the Razors owner before offering me the coaching job.
I thought about it for a long time before saying yes. It took me a while to get my head around the fact that I’d never play in the NHL again. My doctor cleared me to play up to one period per game in the AHL, but my principal job is to coach these rookies into some kind of order.
To make them good enough for the big time.
Wayne’s been injured for the past few weeks. His hip has finally given out and he needs a replacement. He’s also fired most of the staff, which leaves poor Brian in charge until there’s a replacement hired.
“What did Greg want?” I ask him.
“He wanted to let me know about the management consultant they’ve engaged.”
“A consultant?” Why do I need to know this? I manage the players, I don’t run the business. “When are they coming?”
Brian looks at his clipboard again and frowns. “Um, I don’t know. They’re called Mackenzie or Power or something. Anyway, when I hear more, I’ll let you know.”
“You do that.” And it’ll change precisely nothing. I’m just here to make sure the team wins and that’s it. “Did Greg say how Wayne is doing?”
“His surgery is next week. Hopefully things will get better after that. For all of us.”
“That’s good.” I nod. I have a lot of respect for Wayne Gauthier. And now we have something else in common. I had surgery a few months ago for my career ending knee injury and was just as annoyed as he was, but for different reasons.
“Was there anything else you needed?” I ask Brian, because he’s still looking at me as though I’m supposed to do something.
Do a dance. Win a game. I’m not sure what.
“Ah, I just…” He frowns. “What will they do?” he asks.
“Yeah. I Googled it and I still have no idea.”
I start to laugh, because I need to tell this to Myles and Liam. My older brothers run a consultancy and investment business out of Charleston, about an hour down the road.
“I think they boss everybody about, change everything, then waltz off into the night while we pick up the pieces,” I tell him. “But don’t quote me on that.” I shrug. “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and so should you.”
“Okay.” Brian presses his lips together. “I think I might have some shredding to do.”
“Shredding?” I ask.
“And I need to tidy Wayne’s office. It’s a mess. We don’t want them to find something…”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “It’ll be fine. Try not to worry. Greg’s probably worried about that bill Wayne hasn’t paid.” I can’t help but feel sorry for Brian. Since most of the management got fired, he’s been trying to run the place with a skeleton staff. But this really isn’t my problem. Not unless they interfere with the team.
And Wayne wouldn’t let that happen.
“Go home, Brian,” I tell him, because like me he’s been here all day getting ready for the first game. “Nothing bad is going to happen.”
Finally, he smiles. “You’re right. Thank you. I’ll do that.”
* * *
The mood on the rink the next morning is intense. Everybody’s pissy because I made them arrive at the center at six-thirty sharp and not one of them is a morning person.
Two of the players are in the rehab room getting therapy for injuries they got from the game last night. But as for the rest, I put them through the usual drills, letting them warm up their muscles and joints by skating around the rink, followed by long rushes – skating from end to end as fast as possible, before I break them into three groups and have them doing short rushes.
They get competitive, trying to beat each other with each rush, and I start to relax. When I sense they’re getting bored, I tell them to grab their sticks and we go through some set plays.
“What was that?” Carter asks.
“What?” I say, slamming my stick into the puck to show the impact I want them to use.
I blink. “Nobody’s screaming.”
“Yes, they are.” We both go silent. And then I hear it. The scream is so high pitched it makes me wince. I frown because all but two of us are out here on the ice, so it has to be Goran or Max coming back from rehabilitation.
Please God, don’t let the therapist have made their injuries worse. I can’t afford to have either of them out for months.
“Keep playing,” I tell the team. “I’ll see what’s going on.”
I take less than thirty seconds to make it through the tunnel and into the locker room. The first thing I see is Max, naked as the day he was born, one hand holding his shorts, the other shielding his genitals.
His eyes are wide and staring at the locker room door. I follow their direction and get a ringside view of Goran’s bare ass, his legs straddled as he stands over…
Is that a woman?
She’s on the floor, flat on her back, her legs splayed out as she stares up at Goran. He’s saying something to her that I can’t hear, but then she groans and touches her cheek.
“What the hell is happening?” I ask Max, who’s trying to put his shorts on while still covering himself. He has to hop on one leg to do it.
“She walked through the door and then stopped dead when she saw us,” he tells me, finally decent. “The door swung back on her and hit her in the face. She kind of fell. It’s not our fault.”
“Who is she?” Everybody knows not to come into the locker room without knocking. “Somebody’s girlfriend?”
The woman groans and sits up, her hand still cupping her cheek. I get a closer look at her. Her dark hair falls over her shoulders. Her silk blouse is unbuttoned far enough for me to see the swell of her breasts.
Not that I’m looking.
She’s also wearing a skirt and the kind of shoes that everybody knows not to wear near an ice rink. The kind that make your legs look good but are bound to cause some kind of accident.
And yeah, her legs do look good. I drag my eyes away and grunt, because this isn’t what I need right now.
Somebody sneaked their girlfriend in and they’re gonna get it from me.
“What? Oh!” She blinks when she sees Goran’s genitalia right in front of her face.
“Are you okay?” he asks her. “Can I get you something?”
“Get a fucking towel, Goran,” I growl at him. Because seriously? Her eyes are wide as she stares at his balls perilously close to her face.
He shrugs and gestures at Max who grabs a fresh one from the pile and throws it over. Goran catches it easily, but the movement makes him… ah… swing in this woman’s direction.
She lets out another scream.
I put my hand on my face and groan internally. “Goran, move. Go take a shower or something.”
“I just did.”
“Then get dressed.” I widen my eyes at him. He takes the hint and moves away.
I walk over to the woman who’s trying to stand up and gently put my hand on her shoulder. “Is anything broken?” I ask.
She shakes her head.
“Did you bang your head when you fell?” I ask. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had a concussion, but it’s no laughing matter.
“No. Just my cheek.” Her voice is soft. “I’m sorry. I thought this room would be empty.” She runs her tongue along her bottom lip. “I was just looking around.”
“Okay, whose are you?” I ask her.
She blinks. She has really long eyelashes. “Whose?” she repeats.
“Whose girlfriend?” Or one night stand. We’ve seen them all. I’ve chased more than my fair share of women out of the locker room.
“Nobody’s.” She frowns. “I’m single.”
Well okay then. I look at her face again. She looks familiar but I can’t place it. “An ex?” I ask because that’s even more trouble than a current partner.
She pulls her hand away from her cheek. It’s bright red. I’m pretty sure there’ll be a sweet bruise there by morning. If she’s an ex that could be an issue, because the local press will take that kind of shit and run with it.
And here’s the thing about AHL teams. We don’t have a PR rep like the NHL teams do. Wayne is it. He deals with the press. They love him.
But he’s not here.
She finally stands. I reach out to steady her arm, but she pulls it away from me. Whatever. I’m not going to fight her.
“Is she a stalker?” Max calls out. “We should check her phone.”
“I’m not a stalker,” she mutters. “And I’m not giving you my phone.” Her eyes catch mine. They’re hazel with green flecks and for a moment I’m kind of taken with them.
Until she talks again.
“I’m a management consultant,” she says, her unusually pretty eyes not quite focused. “And I’m here to turn this team around.”