It had been fifteen years since Jim Robertson had first stepped into the locker room of the Jacksonville Badgers. The experience never got old for him, however. He enjoyed the drive to the arena every morning. He enjoyed the camaraderie and closeness of the team atmosphere. And most of all, he enjoyed the winning.
Yes, that is why Jim has stayed around so long. He likes to win. He needs to win. That's why he is still the top scorer on his team. The desire to come out on top is what keeps him going. Although Jim was getting up in years -- he was thirty-six -- he was just two years removed from his latest MVP award, his fifth. He was making a strong bid to win a sixth this year. And he was widely known as the best leader and clutch performer in the league, possibly the best in history.
As Jim entered the room, the rubber floor mat felt soft under his feet. He went to his locker, which was in the center of the room. Being captain of the team, he got to pick his locker first. He chose the one in the center so that he could get the total feel of the team. And get the feel he did. On his left side, he heard two of the team's Russian players speaking in their native tongue, which sounded like gibberish to him. As long as they played good hockey he didn't care what language they spoke.
B He sat in his locker and removed his shoes and socks. He placed his feet on the floor, which felt much harder without his shoes on. Jim stood back up and took off his street clothes. Sitting back down, he felt how hard his locker seat really was. He stood back up to pick a splinter out of his ass.
From a distance, Jim heard Bob Jensen yelling. He turned over to Bill Rosedale, his assistant captain and linemate, and asked "We're winning, what does the coach have to bitch about?"
"Nothing. But," Bill responded, "I think he could use some deodorant." Coach Bob, as the team called him, only sweated like that when he was under a lot of stress. Though the team was winning, all of the presidents and vice presidents above him were still unhappy with the results Coach Bob was getting. There were rumors that his job was on the line.
B The television droned on in the background as Jim finished putting on his equipment. He laced up his skates and squished out the door to start his pregame warmups.
Tonight's game was an important one. The opponent was the Cleveland Ice Dogs, who were tied for second place, just two points behind the Badgers. The Ice Dogs played a very defensive style of hockey, which had been very successful for the past few years. This style was very effective against the high scoring offenses of the league, such as the Badgers. Jim knew that the most important piece of Cleveland's defensive scheme was their third-year winger, Pierre Lapointe. Pierre was born in Montreal, where hockey is only slightly less than a religion. He had won Defensive Player of the Year honors his first two seasons with the Ice Dogs, and was the favorite to win his third in a row this year. Jim had long since realized that his team would have to learn to beat Pierre long before they would beat the Ice Dogs as a team.
Jim started to skate around during warmups, talking briefly to his teammates as he skated. He looked around the ice and started to feel a little tense when the Ice Dogs came out for their pregame skate. He knew how important this game was, and just the anticipation of the action gave him butterflies in his stomach.
Jim ended his pregame skate early, and wandered back to the locker room. After opening the door, he looked to his left and saw Jack Travis, his right wing, getting his usual rubdown. Jack was a power forward, a guy who could score a goal as well as bust a face. "Jack! You ready to bust some heads out there tonight?" Jim asked with a smile.
"You damn straight," replied Jack. "We got a tough night ahead of us, ya know. I just know that we're gonna see plenty of Lapointe and his line tonight."
Jim also knew this. As the home team tonight in Cleveland, the Ice Dogs had the right to put their lines on the ice last, therefore getting the match-ups that they wanted. Jim knew that since they were the Badgers' best scoring line, the Ice Dogs' best defensive unit would be on the ice against them whenever possible.
"You know, it doesn't really matter who we play against," Jack said confidently. "We've got all the tools!"
"I hope you're right," Jack replied. "Just keep working hard, and we should be OK!"
"That's the ticket," said Jim. He walked away as Jack finished getting his rubdown.
Jim made his way to the ice. He would be starting the game in his customary center spot. His wings would be the same as they had been for the last two and a half years: Bill Rosedale on his left, and Jack Travis on his right. This unit had been the first to start an all-star game as a complete line. They were one of the best lines in the history of the league. With a combination of Travis' power forward skills, Rosedale's pure scoring ability, and Jim's playmaking and goal-scoring, this was a line that was hard to beat.
But, Pierre Lapointe's line was going to try. Thought of as the best defensive line in the league, Lapointe's line could score goals as well. Jim watched Pierre skate over to the right wing, then switch with his centerman to take the opening faceoff.
"I thought you were a winger," said Jim. He was a little puzzled about why Pierre would be playing center tonight.
"Well, we want to stop you. We're not as concerned about your linemates. We want you. So, to stop the best," reasoned Pierre smugly, "we have to use the best."
Jim smiled at this weak attempt at a compliment. He was the best, it was true. Still, he was quite annoyed at the cockiness and confidence of the young man in front of him. "Well, I guess we'll just see about that, now won't we, tough guy," he said curtly as he prepared for the faceoff.
The referee dropped the puck, and Jim, the more experienced center, easily drew the puck back to his defense. Bill Ash, part of the Badgers' top defensive pairing, carried the puck up the ice. He brought it into the zone and tried to find an open man. Rosedale took his spot along the high boards and Travis started to take his beating in the slot, just in front of the net. Jim could not get open as Pierre was constantly all over him, hanging on his back, chopping at his ankles, cross-checking him in the kidneys. He couldn't shake the younger, quicker Pierre.
Jim went to the bench at the end of his shift, trying to figure out how to shake Pierre. Everything he had tried had failed. He still had more tricks up his sleeve, but he had tried his best stuff already.
The rest of the period went much the same way. Everytime Jim went on the ice, Pierre followed. Everywhere Jim went, Pierre went. Jim tried to push Pierre away, but he couldn't. He tried to skate faster than him, but the younger Pierre was just faster than Jim. Nothing worked.
Jim went into the locker room perplexed. Not sure of what he would try next, he felt defeated, though his team remained in a scoreless tie. Although his line was being held in check, so were the other lines on the ice. He was contemplating his options for the second period when he heard Coach Bob call him into his office.
Jim walked into the coach's office, closed the door, and looked around the room. It overflowed with the idea of the team. Coach Bob was into teamwork. There were no pictures of the coach as a player, none of him with any one person. There were no individual awards on the wall to speak of. The only decorations on the walls were pictures of each team he had ever been a part of in the league, from his rookie year to the current team he was coaching, the Badgers.
Jim took a seat on the leather couch that sat across the room from Coach Bob's desk. "What's up coach? Tough period out there, but I think I have some..."
"Not now, Jim," interrupted Bob. He was troubled; Jim could see it in his eyes. "So, you had a tough period against Lapointe's line, huh?"
"No buts, Jim." The coach did not seem to be in the mood for idle chatter. "This game is really important to us. These guys are only two points behind us in the standings, and if they win tonight, they get those two points and move into a tie. We don't need that right now. We absolutely need to win this game. Do you hear what I'm saying, Jim?"
"Yes. I know this game is important," Jim responded, "and I have some ideas that may help us beat these little problems we're having."
Bob looked down at his desk, then back up at Jim. "Do know how many shots you had last period?"
Jim thought for a moment, then replied, "No. How many?"
"None. You had zero shots. Your line had zero shots." Bob looked Jim in the eyes. "I'm taking you off the top line, and dropping you away from Lapointe. Maybe we'll get something going that way."
"You must be kidding," said Jim. "I can take care of this guy. I just need to get going a little better. Like I said before, I have some ideas..."
"I don't care how many ideas you have. You look tired. And you can't beat Lapointe. Not tonight. I was watching close; you tried everything in your arsenal. It's just not your night."
Jim stood up and repeated "You must be kidding." He then opened the door and walked back out to the locker room. He strolled to his locker to put his equipment back on.
Jim trudged out to the ice for the start of the second period. As he skated around his half of the ice, he pondered the 'discussion' he just had with Coach Bob. There's no way he was serious about taking me off my line, he thought. Under most circumstances, he would be correct.
This, however, was not a normal time. As the rest of the players started to go to the benches, Jim went to his normal place at center ice. Once he got there, he found Pete Zantos, the second line center, standing there already. "Pete," he said "you should get back to the bench. The period's about to start."
Pete looked down at the ice. He didn't seem to want to look into his captain's eyes. Pete spoke quietly as he motioned over to the bench. "Coach Bob said he wanted me out here. This wasn't my idea, trust me." He spoke with respect, almost fear, in his voice.
Jim grimaced. "I know it's not your fault," he said as he skated away. "I have no beef with you."
Jim skated slowly back to the bench, where he glared at Coach Bob. Many a player had been frightened by that glare. Some said it was the meanest look in league history. When Jim gave you 'The Look,' you knew he meant business.
Jim started to ask Coach Bob what he though he was doing, but Bob stopped him. "I told you what was going to happen not ten minutes ago," said Bob. "You knew that you would not be on the same line for the rest of the game. You've been here fifteen years, and have been very important to this team. Still are. But, for this game, right now, you need to forget all that and take care of the task at hand. Play for the team, Jim."
For the first time in a while Jim was speechless. He felt that what the coach was doing was wrong, dead wrong. He sat and watched as 'his' line was out on the ice. Jim saw something missing and knew what that something was. It was missing him, plain and simple. The unit wasn't a unit anymore; without Jim's passing the line wasn't doing as well. Bill couldn't get off a good shot and Jack was being double and triple teamed. Without Jim on the ice, the defenders could concentrate on his ex-linemates a little closer.
The line came off the ice and it was Jim's turn. He jumped on with his new linemates; Joe Hall, a scrappy young winger with a short fuse, and Sam Tantrellos, the team's defensive whiz. Jim knew before he stepped on the ice that this was not his type of line. He needed guys who could score to take full advantage of his playmaking abilities. He silently cursed Coach Bob as he went out for a faceoff.
Jim had one comfort as he stepped up to take a faceoff. Pierre was not on the ice against him. He was kept on the Ice Dogs' top line. Jim figured that Cleveland's coach knew it wasn't worth defending him now that he was on a line that would be less effective. And Jim knew it also.
Jim won the faceoff cleanly, and recovered the puck himself. As he skated in the zone he passed the puck ahead to Joe Hall. The pass was too far ahead of Joe and Jim cursed himself. He needed to adjust to his linemates. He did not have the explosively fast Bill Rosedale on his wing now, just the average Joe Hall.
Jim dug his skates into the ice, stopped abruptly, and turned to pursue the puck carrier. He was quite a skater for his age and easily beat his two teammates back to the defensive zone. As he went to attack the puck carrier, he was blindsided! He crumpled heavily down to the ice as the Cleveland winger smartly pushed the puck across the ice to a wide-open Ice Dog, who nudged the puck into the open net. As he was down, Jim could see the play develop and thought he could have stopped it, had he been able to. He would have loved to find the guy that hit him and clean his clock, but he knew that was just the frustration talking.
Jim went back to the bench and took a swig of Gatorade from one of the many bottles in front of him. After drinking his fill, he slammed the bottle down in anger. "C'mon, guys," he yelled, "let's pick it up out there!"
By this time, the crowd had noticed that Jim had been taken off the top line and began to cheer louder, even louder than the goal had made them scream. Jim sensed the crowd's enthusiasm, and was slightly unnerved by the screaming. He had never been one to let a crowd's reaction get to him, but in his present state of mind, it was impossible not to. Only seven minutes were left in this period, seven minutes too long for Jim.
Staring out at the ice, Jim watched helplessly as Pete played in his spot on the first line. He saw how many great passing opportunities passed by, and he felt that Pete seemed oblivious to them. Jim had nothing against Pete, but felt that they each worked better with their respective lines.
Suddenly, a roar went up from the crowd. Pierre, still playing against the top line, skated past Pete with amazing ease and came in on a breakaway. Pierre deked to his left, drew the puck to his right, and shot the puck almost straight in the air into the top corner of the Badgers' goal. This made the score two to nothing, and Jim felt the burning inside.
Jim stood up after the goal to take his next shift. His heart wanted to go score a few goals to even up this game, but his brain thought a little more realistically. He knew that he would not learn his new linemates well enough to be effective enough that quickly. He yearned for a chance to be back on his regular line where he was more comfortable. Jim got angrier by the moment.
He stepped out on the ice and skated to center ice with his head down. He stopped and started to position himself for the ensuing faceoff. Looking up, he saw Pierre again standing in front of him. Oh shit, he thought, like things weren't going bad enough.
"Well, looks like somebody got a demotion, eh?" taunted Pierre. He wore a grin on his face that only made Jim angrier. "What's the matter, getting old? Weren't good enough to play against me? Well, that's what we thought too, so here I am."
Everybody has a point when they just can't handle any more abuse, and Jim reached his after hearing Pierre's remarks. He leaned over to take the faceoff, again beating Pierre easily. He then skated up ice to the Ice Dogs' blue line. He let Joe carry the puck into the zone, and crossed behind him hoping for a pass. He didn't get one, however; Joe shot the puck wide. The frustration started to show on Jim's face, and he looked around for something, or someone, to take it out on.
He looked toward the boards, and saw Pierre grabbing the loose puck. How perfect is this? thought Jim as he skated full speed toward Pierre. As he got closer he, lowered his shoulder and, still in full stride, crashed into Pierre full force. For good measure, Jim planted his elbow into Pierre's jaw.
Pierre crumpled down to the ice. Jim stood over him, screaming. "Come on, you cocksucker, get the fuck up! You want a piece of me, this is your chance!"
Pierre got up slowly, the pain showing through the grimace on his face. "Sure, you old has-been. You think that you're so great, but you're too old to play this game anymore. I'd love to help guide you to the rocking chair."
With that, Pierre threw a hook at Jim's face. Jim ducked quickly and connected with an uppercut to Pierre's chin. Then they grappled into the classic hockey fighting position: each fighter grabbed the other's right arm with their left and tried to fight with their right arm. Jim was never any good at fights, but the rage and anger inside made him fight like a lunatic. He tugged at Pierre's jersey and flung his fist back and forth with no constraint whatsoever.
The fight went on for a few minutes, but ended abruptly when the two combatants fell to the ice. The referees then jumped into the pile and broke up the fighters. Jim and Pierre were both given five-minute penalties and were sent to their respective locker rooms.
Jim walked through the large double doors, a small stream of blood trickling from his nose, another from his upper lip. He felt a little better now that he had let out some of his frustrations on one of the causes. He was a little disappointed that he was out for five minutes, but it's not like he was helping the team much anyway. He heard some cheering, and turned on the television in time to see a replay of Joe Hall scoring a goal. He took some satisfaction in the fact that his actions sparked his team, but they were still down by a goal going into the third period. And he still had another person to let frustrations out on.
Coach Bob walked into the office and Jim slammed the door behind him. Bob jumped at the loud crash and turned to see a quite unhappy Jim.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing out there! I think it's about time you stopped dicking around and let me and my line do the jobs we are here to do!" Jim shook with rage as he screamed at his coach.
Bob looked shell shocked at his captain's tirade. He started to come back with an answer, but Jim started again.
"Ya know, you really want to get this team to win, don't fuck with the lines, don't screw with what works! You can't coach this team like you're scared to take a chance. You can't coach like you're afraid to lose your job. Coach to win, not to stay!"
Now it was Bob's turn to yell. "Don't you ever tell me I'm not coaching this team to win! I put myself on the damn line, day in and day out, for you guys. I take all the shit from the media. I take crap from the owners. I take it all to give you guys an opportunity to play without distractions!" Bob took a drink of water. "Yes, my job may be on the line. The only way I keep my job is if we win. So, yes, I am coaching for my job. You don't like the way I do it, tough shit. I'm the coach, and you are one of the players I coach. I value your opinion very much, but in the end, the decision is mine. That's what I get a check every other week for."
"Yes, the decision is yours," reasoned Jim, "but if that decision is hurting the team, I feel that is my responsibility as captain to say something about it. You have the best fucking line in the league, and you break it up. The results speak for themselves. That was a horrible period we played. Just admit you're wrong."
"I am not wrong. I do what I do for a reason. I do what I do for the team," said Bob.
"The team. The team." Jim was disgusted what he was hearing. "The team did not play much like a team last period, or were you too damn blind to see that? We sucked, plain and simple."
"Fuck you Jim, ok? I had a good basis to do what I did." Coach Bob was sweating beyond belief at this point. "If you think you can do better, fine. Go out there, play with your line. You have this third period. But, I make no guarantees to what I am gonna do after that."
Jim stormed out of the coach's office with a scowl on his face. With one look around the room he saw many different attitudes on the faces of his teammates. Some looked despondent, some looked confused. Some just seemed to stare at Jim in shock and disbelief as he made his way to Bill's locker. He guessed that they had heard his screaming through the walls and closed door.
"Jesus Christ, Jim, what the hell was that all about?" asked Bill quietly.
"Well, I didn't feel that breaking our line up was in the best interests of the team, that's all." Jim chose his words deliberately and carefully, a total contrast to his demeanor a moment ago.
Bill contemplated this for a moment, and joked "Maybe you could have been just a little bit quieter about it, eh?"
"Come on Bill, you know me better than that. That's not my style." Jim smirked as he walked to the middle of the room to grab a cup of fruit juice. As he walked back, he said "Well, since we are reunited, let's show those guys what we're made of, huh?"
"Yeah," said Bill with a smile, "let's take it to 'em."
"No, not to 'em," said Bill with a sneer, "through 'em. We're gonna hit 'em until they can't take it anymore. Then, we hit 'em even more."
With that, Jim went to his locker and put his equipment back on. He had twenty minutes to back up his words. He had twenty minutes to redeem himself.
The beginning of the third period started like the first had ended: Pierre's line defensively dominating Jim's line. But, the beatings that Jim and Bill talked about started at the opening faceoff, and took their toll on the Ice Dogs' defensive wizards. Finally, they broke through.
With about seven minutes left in the game, Jim caused a turnover at center ice, and came away with the puck. He sped away toward the offensive zone while Jack sped down the opposite side. There was nobody in their way, just the two of them against the goalie. Still, Jim sensed someone behind him, and he quickly passed the puck across the ice to Jack. Just as the puck left the blade of his stick, he got decked from behind.
A short moment later, Jim felt the cold glass against his face as he was checked into the boards. A few seconds later the siren went off, and Jim got up off the ice with a huge smile on his face. Jim skated over to congratulate Jack on his goal and they skated back to the bench together.
As Jim sat down, he peered up at the clock. Six minutes and twelve seconds remained for him and his team to rescue this game from defeat.
Jim had five shifts in those six minutes. Again, Pierre's line stymied Jim and his linemates. However, the reverse was also true; Pierre was also unable to score.
Jim's line was not on the ice with thirty-two seconds left, though. Watching helplessly from the bench, he saw Cleveland score the game deciding goal on a flip shot from just in front of the net. The home crowd exploded, and the Badgers' bench collectively turned their gaze downwards.
As the clock counted down the last seconds, Jim contemplated the game. He thought about the second period, and if 'his' line would have made a difference. He wondered about the future. This was one loss he could not take lightly.