Take Him to a Better Place by Chris Benjamin

Coach Henden is going to take a puck to the face. All the parents of the B-level kids agree it’s coming; it’s a favourite topic of conversation as we wait for our bitter canteen coffee before our little Hornets in their “gold” (yellow) jerseys stumble onto the ice for the first period. We’ve got a pool on which of the kids on Henden’s Triple-A team will be the culprit and how many months into the season it’ll happen. I say Rogan Flieger before the end of January; he’s got the hardest and most accurate wrist shot any of us has seen on a 12-year old. I saw him moping in the parking lot one time, hours after his practice had finished, when my son Kevin and I arrived at the rink for Kevin’s practice. When I asked Rogan where his mom was he pushed past me leaving a trail of little boy musk and fury. But he lives just down the road so I figured he’d be alright making his own way home. He isn’t a bad kid, just competitive. Fiery, Coach Henden called him, “like myself.”

If Henden is a bearish presence, sucking back lunchmeat sandwiches packed by his never-seen wife and spewing crumbs as he shouts orders at the kids, (who look deceptively like men atop their blades slicing between cones on the freshly Zambonied ice), Rogan is an alpha cub learning the art of the roar, how to intimidate with size and speed for the sake of an abstract yet pinpoint focus, snapping hard little round black disc past heavily padded goalies and across six-foot red lines. He is a favourite of the Coach’s and the recipient of his loudest orders. “Take him to a better place!” when he wants more aggression against the boards. The kids are technically a year away from being allowed full-body contact.

We’re all bad people for partaking in this ritual, hockey in general and hockey gossip especially. I’m the one who organized the pool, created a google calendar with the name of each kid on Coach Henden’s team and a check box next to it, all over a watermark image of a fat guy with a bloody forehead. Look, you can only take this kind of humiliation in life for so long. Forty-four years is enough for me. Finally I go to the Henden residence and his son, Oliver, answers the door, chewing a sandwich, crumbs falling from his mouth as he tells me his father can’t talk right now. Oliver is a tall, slight boy with wavy golden locks, more retriever than bear, and it’s the first time I notice any resemblance. “Just tell him to check his goddamn email, or answer a text!” I sputter, feeling the two shots of whiskey I steeled my nerves with more acutely than expected as they mix with an adrenaline rush. I want to high stick that kid.

That night I email him for the ninth and last time and I’m long past sparing details of the advantages given my competitors when I tried out for Triple A in 1989. I was the last kid cut and Dad still whispers to his friends, in the same reverent tones he uses when recounting the first time he heard the Rolling Stones, about the beauty of watching my long hair flow back from under my helmet, such was my speed and grace. But he wasn’t part of the local hockey royalty and he let my mother take me to practices; unlike the other parents she lacked the good sense to get to know the coaches and make my case for me. These are things my father says matter-of-factly and I embody my father in my final email begging Coach Henden to give Kevin a chance, which he does in fact answer: “Decisions already made but if we are ever short a goalie will text.”

________

When the text comes I’ve just cut my lip shaving. I have blood on my teeth and soaked into four pieces of tissue in blotchy polka dots. I jam a fifth against it and hold it tight with one hand, check the phone with the other.

“Can he practice tonight? 7:00. Stephen has mild concussion.”

The phone whistles again. “Empire rink.”

An hour from now. I’ve promised to take Adria door to door selling chocolates for Girl Guides. Kevin has to study for a math test. He’s excited for it. The teacher says he has a shot at repping the school in Toledo, Ohio at the Math Olympics. Ohio. Jeanine has a board meeting; she joined the board of the Riverkeepers now that the kids are older and a little more independent. She left me detailed instructions on how to heat up and assemble the components of a moussaka she mostly prepared this morning, before sunup. “You got to learn to roll with it.” Jeanine’s advice on surviving parenthood. I’d taken the same approach to childhood, enduring my father.

I answer Coach Henden. “He’ll be there.” We’ll do Girl Guide cookies another night.

The practice is a prelude to a weeknight game. The added events in our schedule require more shuffling, new spreadsheets from Jeanine. She’s the schedule master. The game in turn is a prelude to a weekend tournament in Dedmon. I’m nauseated, half from fear and half from way too much drive-thru.

Kevin looks bad in practice. He’s replacing an older, longer, quicker kid, Steve, who took a half-full coffee thermos, no lid, to the head. He is not only mildly concussed but also mildly burned on the cheek. The stainless steel missile was aimed at the ref. Steve had only flipped his mask up for a quick drink after allowing a power play goal. The parent who threw it is banned from the rink and is lucky Steve’s parents didn’t press charges. They shared the other guy’s outrage. In Steve’s stead, Kevin faces breakaways, 2-on-1 drills and slap shots. “I think Henden is pushing him to see if hell breaks,” I text Jeanine. My phone whistles response after response in rapid succession. I can only squeeze and shake the thing. I know it sympathizes with my contempt for Henden, but I’m fixated on Kevin’s every save attempt.

When the horn sounds Kevin out-skates them all to hustle off the ice, showing unusual speed for a goaltender. He stares me down in the dressing room. No one speaks to him, though the boys shout at and over each other, bragging about top-shelf shots and blue-line cannons, arguing about best NHL teams and players. Some of the cubs roll and wrestle, growling and biting playfully on the floor. Henden thanks Kevin for coming out.

“It’s too hard!” Kevin says in the car, his voice hiccupping. “Those kids, they shoot and it’s impossible to save. And when you do it hurts. They aim where it hurts. And they can hit their spots.”

“You made some nice saves.”

My phone whistles. Jeanine again. Her previous messages are all links to articles on the hyper-competition we subject boys to and the sociological weapons they become as a result. The last one a question: “How’d he do?”

________

Sixteen boys naked from the waist up, billowing black hockey pants below, long wool socks and under-armour sneakers all in a pileup, screeching at varied inharmonious pitches wailing playfully on one another. The sun on the backs at the top of the pile. One boy smiling silently off to the side, t-shirt on, sitting on his goalie pads and chewing at a hangnail, his sandwich unwrapped at his feet. After a 4-3 loss in Kevin’s first Triple-A game, they’ve managed a 7-3 win in the first tournament game. Henden ordered them to relax until their next game in three hours. “No swimming at the hotel. Eat a nice light lunch with chocolate milk and fruit. We’re playing Greatville tonight and they beat the guys we just played 12-0. A shutout.”

But Coach isn’t here. He’s at tomorrow’s opponents’ game. Scouting.

Other parents are nervous about the pileup. Some say my boy is so well behaved and others warn their sons of the danger, until one mother sees a limb sticking out and hauls her boy loose. Somehow the rest of the pile stays intact, fifteen boys left. I’m nervous about Kevin, how he’s handling all this. I whisper encouragement, that he should join the fray. “Jump on dude you can be at the top, king of the castle.”

He emits a high groan, shakes his head. “Rogan said it was my fault we didn’t get a shutout.”

______

Kevin got his first glimpse of hockey at Madison Square Garden on his fourth birthday. He had zero interest in any of the junk I bought him. Not for him the day-glo orange nacho cheese or salt-butter popcorn or jumbo pop or hotdog. The lights of the rink lit up against the ice, the pageantry of the anthem, the team lineups, that was what he ate, his face alive and eyes wide, scanning his horizon and missing nothing. He fell in love with the uniformity and order of it, six identically dressed men dancing on blades, knowing where all the others were and would be at all times, so the body beat the puck to the spot though the puck was faster. And at the end of every shot the goalie’s pad or mesh or leather. It was a 1-0 game and the man with the most elaborate equipment won the day and first star of the game.

At home Kevin tied a couple of Jeanine’s novels around his shins with my neckties, paisley and plain black. His chest protector an apron. On his head he wore Jeanine’s bike helmet and a colander as a mask, taped on with masking tape. I shot a rubber ball at him in the kitchen as Jeanine circled around making spaghetti, draining the noodles from the pot with an undersized lid while Adria shouted out random addition problems.

Kevin didn’t save a thing, not even the soft knucklers; even the little rollers along the floor squeaked between his legs, five hole. I’ve never seen him happier.

_______

The bloody face is mine. Coach Henden’s face is still fat and flawless.

I was right about one thing. Rogan Flieger fired the puck. It was my fault. I was leaning in from behind the net, not expecting the kid to shoot yet, telling Kevin to move out, challenge the shooter. His reaction time wasn’t quick enough to stop the bullets these kids were firing so he had to give them less space, force them to be more accurate. The word “accurate” was in my mouth when Rogan let a shot go that just missed the glove side, top shelf and ended my first session as an assistant coach.

Henden had asked me to fill in for Andy, the regular goalie’s dad. I’d told him so much about my minor league career, he figured I was qualified enough to sub in for a last-minute practice. He’d learned no one had the ice booked for the hour preceding our game and he jumped at the chance to work out a few bugs. “Give Kevin the protection he needs. Get the kids in a defense-first frame of thinking.”

Rogan was never supposed to get any kind of decent shot of anyway. The drill was all about taking away angles. The defense let us down.

_______

We’re all prisoners to the destiny these boys make manifest in 45 minutes of game time. Even the coaches can only yell instructions from the bench—half of which are lost in the cavernous echo of last century’s hockey architecture—or play with the lines a little. Kevin has no backup.

The rest of us, me with fresh stitches and a wad of super-absorbent surgical fabric—blue soaked in red—stuffed in my mouth, can only shout our encouragement to the boys, our disgust at the antics of the opposing boys, our criticism of the teenaged referees, all of which is lost to the ancient rafters under a din of cowbells and air horns. We’ve been warned, no more objects to be thrown on the ice.

After the second period, the Zamboni run prolongs our agony. Due to the gauze in my mouth I can’t even soothe mine with shit coffee. The Greatville Miners score another two in the third. It’s not quite a blowout and the moms say, “Kevin held his own in there” and “he made some good saves” and “kept us in the game for a while.” The dads don’t look at me. I’m about to make an excuse to go to the car when Henden invites me into the room to join the players-and-coaches-only meeting, because I had that 15 minutes as an assistant coach.

I follow him in, dodging and hurdling boys wrestling on the floor with their equipment and each other, and find Kevin in the corner, still fully geared up, skates, pads, chest protector and mask. I put my forehead against his and search out his eyes. Forlorn or scared, I can’t tell. “Good game.” But through my swollen lips it sounds like “Goo gah,” and he bursts into an all-too-brief fit of laughter before poising himself.

Henden bellows orders for everyone to sit down and shut the hell up. The kids snap into reverent silence, backs against concrete. Eyes on Coach. The assistant coaches do the same and I follow their lead.

“How’d we do?” Henden says.

“Bad bad-baad.” Their voices almost synched.

“Be specific. What did we learn?”

One by one, starting with Rogan, the boys go around the room. “I wish I’d back checked harder.”

“We weren’t careful with the puck. Except Jonas. He did a good job.”

“Thanks.”

“It’s true.”

“Yeah you were our best player.”

“We didn’t protect Kevin enough.”

“Our offense was good.”

“Yeah we took advantage of our opportunities.”

“Jonas was player of the game.”

“But also Kevin.”

“Kevin?”

“Yeah Kevin made a couple big saves.”

On it goes, 15 boys with specific observations. Kevin in silence. But at least, when Oliver nominates him for player of the game, he takes his helmet and mask off.

Coach Henden raises his hand and they stop. “Player of the game is Kevin. You can’t play without a goalie.”

The kids and assistant coaches dutifully clap. I pat Kevin on the back. He smiles at the floor but it’s meant for me, an inside joke I don’t get.

“So, obviously we learned our lessons today. I expect we’ll kill Saint Gordon tomorrow.”

_________

The numbers aren’t right. I can’t focus. The facial wound has affected my brain. No, my phone is stubbornly focused on an impossible time.

“Kevin. What are you doing up at 5:00 AM?”

“Cops.” He’s peering out the motel picture window, holding back a stained mauve curtain with his blocker hand.

He jumps back when I approach, like he’s sliding across the crease, as if I’m winding up to shoot. I give him a quizzical look.

“You look like garbage, Dad.” He points at my face.

I rub the dry blood caked in my stubble, overnight leakage from my mouth. I pull back the curtain again and see a local police cruiser, lights off, and two uniformed officers chatting with Henden. The discussion is animated, at least on Henden’s side of it. Hands gesticulating wildly. His forehead glistens under the parking lot lights. Could be sweat or the light snowfall.

The cops are calm, hands open at their hips, a professional position surely picked up in basic training or whatever the Mounties do. If it were a yoga pose it’d be called, “I’m listening.” One of them nods and the other gives a little smile, the kind enablers give assholes who say hateful things.

Henden sees me, waves me out. I put my hand to my chest and shrug, a cartoon gesture. “Who moi?!”

“Go, Dad. See what he wants.”

When Coach calls…

The air outside is frigid. My ears tingle with it the moment I open the door. They are stinging by the time I reach Henden and zip up my coat, nodding to the officers but with my eyes locked on Henden’s.

“You look like shit,” he says.

“What happened to you?” an officer asks.

Before I can answer the officer, Henden tells me what’s going on. “Little incident with the wife back home and they call these local guys to get in touch with me here. Since cops don’t know how to deal with mental illness I got to head back.” He glances sideways at Exhibits A and B, then reaches out to me. For an awkward split second I think he’s going to hug me. I brace myself for it. He clasps my hand, squeezes it like a vice and shakes it to pulp. “You can take the bench today. Rob’s certified. Johnny knows the lines. You, you get them to say good things about the weakest player. Otherwise they’ll turn on him like fuckin’ hyenas.”

He holds onto my hand, eyes locked with mine like a championship staring match. I start to stutter my condolences about his situation, his wife, when he lets my hand go and struts to his car. The officers chuckle, doff their caps, shuffle to their cruiser with me trying to come up with some smartass remark.

Henden rolls by slow, his passenger-side window down, and I notice for the first time that his tall skinny son, Oliver, is sitting in the backseat, waving stoically to Kevin in our motel window. I catch Henden’s voice in the air, trailing off as he accelerates, “…good as your weakest guy.”

Yep. Only as good as your weakest player. The coaching clichés haven’t changed since 1989. And who might that be, I wonder, strolling back toward my son, hand on my face finding fresh blood.

Chris Benjamin.

Image by RoboMichalec from Pixabay

 

10 thoughts on “Take Him to a Better Place by Chris Benjamin

  1. Interesting portrait of a suburban hockey Dad’s life, and I like the description of the parent audience, the game is very serious these days. Coach Hendon’s character is very well delineated, he’s doing his best, coaching is his main focus, and he has a dark side .A musical track to this would be the Tragically Hip’s song “At The Lonely End of the Rink.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What I mean by the dark side of Coach Hendron is the wife with mental illness who is at home. What happened? Did she try suicide? The way this mystery of the coach’s life is kept in the background yet figures prominently in everything the coach does is very well done. Hendon’s the hero here.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I know a dude who got hauled away by the Law because he beaned a Little League umpire with a partially eaten apple. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for. If your old man embarrasses you in public you aren’t likely to do the same later. Love your story. Fear hockey players. Each one looks like a cross between an SS officer and a Borg drone.
    LA

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Chris,
    This touched on so much.
    One thing I did think on and that is our countries insistence on not being negative to a kid. They get trophies for everything. They are not allowed to feel like losers and therefore they grow up with unrealistic expectations. Learning that failure happens is surely a very natural life lesson?
    Just a thought and that is the thing about your story. There is something in this for everyone to think on. Sometimes when we get a sport based story, the sport takes over. You don’t allow this to happen. This is a very human story set within the backdrop of a sport.
    The balance of this was perfectly judged!
    Hugh

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.