Chapter 7: Steel City [Slapshot!]
Tuesday morning dawned too early. Luke laid silently in bed for a few moments more, staring up at the ceiling. The bed beside him was empty, cold. He wondered why Mason was even up. It wasn’t like he had practice. Wasn’t like he had a game. Wasn’t like he had anywhere to go or anyone to see or an angry coach to face.
Luke pinched the bridge of his nose. He hadn’t even called in sick the last couple of days. He’d completely fallen off the radar. He knew he had a ton of messages about his absence—his phone hadn’t stopped flashing in about thirty-six hours. He had voicemail from the front office, from Q, from the GM, from just about everyone in the organization. He had texts from his teammates, some of them increasingly irate or concerned.
He hadn’t thought of a good excuse yet. He hadn’t thought of what he was going to tell them, how he was going to explain a three-day absence. Well. He hadn’t thought of a good way to tell them yet. Sure, he could lie and tell them he’d gone on a three-day bender. He was sure that would impress the coaching staff. Or he could tell them the truth, that he’d been in heat and getting ruthlessly fucked by an alpha for the last three days because, oh yeah, he was omega, had he forgotten to mention that? Funny how those things slipped your mind …
He groaned. There was simply no way to get out of this looking good.
A bottle of Energaid was smashed down onto the nightstand, making everything jump. Luke looked up at Mason, who glared down at him. The alpha looked haggard, deep, dark rings circling his eyes; the blue of his gaze was startling contrast to those shadows. His cheeks were drawn and he looked pale. He looked like he’d been the one who was sick.
“Thanks,” Luke said, his voice cracking over the word. He held his throat.
“Drink that,” Mason ordered. “Then get your ass in the shower. Q is on his way over.”
“Fffff,” Luke said, sitting up slowly. He grabbed up the bottle and started chugging.
Mason stripped the sheets off the bed. Luke set the Energaid back down. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m gonna go to the laundromat,” the alpha replied breezily. “I’m gonna take this shit down there, so it’s not in here stinking up the joint.”
“Oh,” Luke said.
“I’ve opened the windows and started burning incense. Febreezed the shit out of the couch.”
Luke contemplated the bottle, turning it around a couple of times. “And?”
“And yeah, I’m leaving, so it looks like you’ve been here alone.” Mason stuffed the filthy sheets into a bag, shoving some dryer sheets in with them—a futile attempt to mask the scent of rut.
“Okay,” Luke said. Mason’s plan covered most of the bases; it probably wouldn’t work—Q was likely still going to pick hints up off Luke himself, if nothing else—but at least he was trying to help.
“Good luck,” Mason said, pulling the drawstrings on the bag, then slinging it over his shoulder.
“He sounds pissed.”
“Yeah,” Luke muttered as the alpha left the room, “he would be.”
The front door banged shut. Luke took another swig of the blue sports drink, then meandered into the shower. He spent about twenty minutes trying to scrub the scent of omega heat and rut and Mason from himself, before finally giving up. It wasn’t coming off.
He febreezed the bedroom and put an air freshener in the bathroom. He tossed out the remains of the incense and closed the windows a bit; it was getting chilly in the apartment.
Q arrived at five to eleven, wearing street clothes and a frown. “Mackinnon,” he said when Luke opened the door.
“Uh, hey Coach,” Luke said sheepishly, trying to hide behind the door. Mason had been understating the case when he said Q was pissed. He was livid.
He gestured for Q to come in, which the older man did. Luke closed the door behind him.
“Where the fuck have you been? We make it to the playoffs and you go on a three-day bender? That’s unprofessional. That’s completely unacceptable—you know better. You know I don’t put up with that kind of bullshit.”
Luke grimaced. “I … know,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. He refused to make eye contact with his coach.
“So? What have you got to say for yourself? This is pretty bad, you were late to practice, then missed morning skate, and now—”
“I know,” Luke said, “I know. It looks really bad, Coach, but I’m sorry, I really am, but sometimes …”
He glanced down, licked his lips. “I’m only human,” he said after a moment.
Q seemed to consider that, then said, “You know, they started the motion to suspend you for failing to report.”
Q’s mustached twitched. “I don’t want that, Lucas. Tremblay is out. I need guys like you on the bench—smart, slick, scorers with experience. The team needs guys like you—you’ve got such a hold on some of the rookies. The locker room is all messed up without you.”
Luke stared steadfastly down at his feet. It wasn’t just that he was in trouble—he was letting everyone down. Shame burned hot through his skin.
“I need you on that bench tonight,” Q said, dragging on “need.” “You don’t do me any good if you’re sitting here in DC while we’re on the ice in Pittsburgh. I need you on the ice, winning face-offs, scoring goals, killing penalties.”
Luke bit his lip, nodded.
“But they wanna suspend you. Four games. That could be the rest of our season. Just because you decided not to show up. So I just gotta ask …”
There was a pause. They finally made eye contact, and Q held Luke’s gaze, steady and unwavering.
“Was it worth it?”
“Was your little bender worth it if we go to Pittsburgh tonight and get our asses handed to us? Was it worth it if you’re suspended for four games and have to watch the Rockets mop the floor with us, while you sit here helplessly and look on?”
“No,” Luke said at last, shaking his head. “No.”
Q patted him on the shoulder. “So stay off the fucking oxy, Macks, I need you—the team needs you.”
Luke’s head jerked up. Coach thought he’d been off for three days because he’d been high on Oxycontin?!
Q caught his look of indignation. “This isn’t the first time,” he said, and Luke bowed his head in shame again because no, no, it wasn’t the first time Q had leveled that accusation at him.
It was just the first time he’d been wrong about it. But really, why wouldn’t he think that? Luke had pulled shit like this before, so why wouldn’t Q just think it was second verse same as the first? Lather, rinse, repeat—same old, same old. It didn’t matter that Luke had tried so hard to kick the habit. It didn’t matter that he’d done so well, that he hadn’t pulled a stunt like this all season. It didn’t matter that he’d listened when Coach had told him to straighten up and fly right—or risk his whole career. Q had been quite serious last April—Luke either got clean or Q would make sure he never played hockey again.
“Look,” Q said, as though reading his mind, “we all have our vices. We all have our weaknesses. And no matter how strong we are, sometimes, we give in. That’s why I’m fighting this, Luke—I don’t want them to suspend you. I know you’re better than this. So prove me right, eh?”
“Yeah,” Luke said, nodding.
“Plane leaves at three, I expect you on the tarmac well before that.”
“Thanks,” Luke said.
Q clapped him on the shoulder again, then grabbed the door handle. “Three o’clock,” he said as he stepped out into the hall.
“Two-thirty,” Luke said.
“Atta boy,” Q said, then hint of a grin appearing below his mustache. He let the door close behind him.
“Fuck,” Luke spat, collapsing back against the wall. He couldn’t believe that Q thought he’d been high for three days, had relapsed and gone on a drug bender. That, he thought, was probably worse than the truth. He almost wished he’d had the balls to correct Q—to tell him the truth, tell him that he was an omega.
In some ways, though, being a drug addict was probably better than being an omega. At least he could overcome addiction. At least Q thought he could change. At least Q tried to fight for him, believed he was a better person than that.
There was no changing, no overcoming omega status. Once an omega, always an omega—or so the saying went. He would have been so fired after that; Q wouldn’t have to make sure he never played hockey again.
Nobody would want him. At least a drug addict could be weaned off drugs. Omegas never changed. They were what they were.
Luke chewed at his lip nervously, wondering what his teammates thought now. Jake knew, clearly, as did Brenden. Matt and Danny were both intimately aware of Luke’s omega status now—there was no way they could ignore it or deny it.
He couldn’t say for sure if anyone else knew. He had an inkling that some of the Falcons players, like Scottie Tucker and Craig Corbin, probably suspected; they’d at least gotten a good whiff of him, so there might have been suspicion.
Q didn’t seem to have any knowledge of it whatsoever; he either knew and was covering very well, or he had no freaking idea. If he had no idea, that meant the guys who did know were covering for him—he knew Matt and Danny would, and Brenden had so far seemed content to be quiet. He had no idea about Jake. Jake seemed like a threat.
He started packing. Heat still hadn’t worn off entirely, but he knew he needed to be on the tarmac no later than 2:45. If he was, Q would end his career. That much he was sure of—he knew his coach had a vindictive streak. If he broke Q’s faith, if he let him down, proved him wrong, Q would never, ever let him live it down. He knew that.
Mason arrived back shortly thereafter. “You guys are charging highway robbery here for laundry,” he said, “I’m going back to LA.”
“Then go,” Luke said, stuffing clothes in his duffle. They had to play two games in Pittsburgh.
Mason tossed the now-clean sheets in the closet, still in their bag. “It cost me well over ten bucks to do this load of laundry.”
“Does that include parking?”
“I wish! Highway robbery, I tell you. Nothing but crooks in this town.”
“It is full of politicians.”
“Point,” Mason said. “What are you doing?”
The alpha rolled his eyes. “I can see that. For what? Why?”
“Uh, for the playoffs? I’m going to Pittsburgh and playing with the rest of my team tonight?”
Mason considered him for a moment, then said, “Are you sure you’re up for that?”
Luke heaved a sigh. “Doesn’t matter,” he murmured, stuffing in another shirt. Pittsburgh was always colder than DC. He zipped up the duffle. “Q fought the front office for me, he argued against suspending me. I have to go. I can’t let him down.”
“Well, you could—”
“Not if I wanna play hockey ever again. Q will end me if I don’t. Q hates being wrong.”
“Well,” Mason said, and then they were both silent for a moment or two.
“Should I pack too?” the alpha asked at last.
“What the hell for?”
“For the trip to Shitsburgh.”
Luke frowned. “What? Why? No. You’re not coming to Pittsburgh.”
“You’re not out of heat just yet. And besides, I—”
“No, it’s bad enough that you’re here, you’re not coming to Pittsburgh. It’s the playoffs, I don’t need any distractions around, and besides, I’m gonna be holed up with my team and—”
“—you might need me, Luke, and—”
“You can just go back to LA.”
“I didn’t fly across the country just to go back to LA, I didn’t come out here for a weekend trip, asshole. I—”
“You came out here even though I told you no, and I’m in the playoffs now. Sorry, Mayday, it’s not working out the way you want.”
“So I can just come to Pittsburgh and—”
“No,” Luke said sharply. “No.”
“No. This is important to me, Jarhead. It’s the fucking playoffs. Just because your shitty team is never going to make it there, don’t take this away from me—”
“I’m not taking it away from you, Luke, I want to be there and—”
“Nobody brings wives or kids or girlfriends or whatever, so what makes you think you should be there? Besides, it would be weird, people would ask questions, why the fuck is Mason Green in Pittsburgh? You have no business being there, people would speculate.”
Mason scoffed. “Are you scared of rumors?” he asked, an incredulous grin spreading across his face. “Really? Luke, this is ridiculous. We can stay on the down-low, and we don’t have to fuck, we can just hang out, like, it’s fine.”
“I need to concentrate,” Luke said. “I told you, I don’t need any distractions.”
Mason shook his head a little. He laughed again, fleeting and angry. “So that’s it, is it? Is that what I am? I’m a distraction. That’s all I am to you, a distraction that you don’t need.”
Luke rolled his eyes. “Mason … ”
“Oh no, that’s fine. I’m really glad to know what our friendship means to you, Lucas. Here I was thinking we were like best friends or something, like y’know, bros, or whatever, but no, thank you. Thank you for putting me in my place. I’m a distraction, a good fuck toy when you’re in heat.”
“Mason, that’s not what I meant.”
“But it’s what you said. What did you mean then? If you didn’t mean that, why did you say it?”
“Mason, it’s the playoffs, do I really have to explain that to you of all people? It’s like you and the Olympics, superstition, why aren’t you getting this? I’m not saying we’re not friends, I’m just saying that, right now, there are more important things I need to worry about. I need to focus.”
“I’m not important.”
Luke gritted his teeth, clenched his fists. “Why are you twisting my words?! That’s not what I said, not at all!”
“You said playoffs are more important—a fucking game is more important to you than I am! That’s what twenty-three years of friendship gets you, eh, Mackinnon?! Your fucking job is more important, a stupid, goddamn game—”
“Asshole!” Luke snapped. “You’d be saying the same thing if you were going to playoffs, if it were you, not me, you’d be telling me to bugger off, to leave you alone—”
“I would never!”
“Liar! You did—at the Olympics, in juniors, how many times—”
“That was different!”
“How?! How was it any different, Mason?! Hockey is important to us, we both live it, breathe it! It’s in our blood, it’s more than just a game! I thought you of all people would understand that, that you’d get why I need you to just go away right now—”
“You want me to just go away, huh? Is that it, is that what you want?!”
“Just for right now, just during playoffs!” Luke stared at him for a second, then barked, “But if you keep it up, maybe it would be better if you went away forever, if I never saw your stupid fucking face ever again!”
“Now it all comes out!” Mason exclaimed, tossing his hands in the air. “Now we’re getting to the truth, now we’re getting exactly how Luke Mackinnon feels. Could’ve told me a little sooner, jackass, could’ve aired your dirty laundry a little earlier.”
“Oh, fuck you!” Luke snapped, shoving Mason into the closet. The alpha stumbled, then crashed into a couple of boxes. “Just go home and fuck some models, you whore!”
“You’re the whore!” Mason growled, slowly extricating himself from the rubble of his crash. “You’re the one who had a threesome, you’re the one who was begging me to fuck you, until you couldn’t breathe, oh Mason, oh oh—”
“Go to hell, cocksucker!”
“You’re the cocksucker, I’ll make you suck my cock—”
They came to blows, Mason catching Luke just below the eye, Luke smashing his fist into Mason’s stupid mouth. There was blood. They both stumbled back, clutching at their respective wounds.
Mason spat. Luke stared at the bloody spot on the carpet, then glowered up at Mason.
“You,” he panted, “are not coming to Pittsburgh. You are staying put and getting the carpet fucking steam-cleaned.”
Mason stared at him for a moment, then started laughing. “Oh my god,” he chortled, “only you, Luke, only you would be so concerned about your fucking carpet—”
Luke swung at him again. His fist slammed into the wall as Mason ducked. “I have to go,” he snarled.
Mason said nothing.
Luke stared at him for a minute more, then grabbed his duffle and headed out of the room. He had a plane to catch after all.
Mason trailed him into the hall, then to the entryway. Neither of them said anything as Luke put on his shoes, grabbed his gloves and jacket. He pointed to the key rings near the closet. The house key was hanging there.
Silently, he made his way into the hall, toward the elevators, still stewing. Seriously, what the hell was wrong with Mason? He of all people should have understood hockey; they’d both been playing since before they knew each other, they’d both been skating since before they could walk. He knew how important hockey was. He loved the game. He understood how deep it went, understood how consuming it was.
So Luke didn’t know why he’d be so insistent, why he’d try to fuck this up. It was an unspoken rule that they needed no distractions during playoffs—and that sex was clearly off the table. So for Mason to even suggest he would follow Luke to Pittsburgh …
Luke couldn’t fathom it, couldn’t fathom how Mason was offended about it. He, of all people, should have understood. He should have known, he should have been with Luke every step of the way, respecting his decisions and wishes. It was hard to get someone outside of hockey to understand just how vital this was to playoff success, but Mason should have known.
Why he’d pick a fight, why he’d be so upset, why’d he’d make such a fuss, was beyond Luke. It made no sense. Why would Mason argue with him about his importance versus the game? About their friendship? Competition had never hindered it before. Both of them knew hockey came first—and Mason had put it first many, many times.
Luke ground his teeth. Mason was such a hypocritical ass sometimes. If he’d been standing in Luke’s shoes, if he’d been the one in the playoffs, this wouldn’t have been an issue. Luke would have been told in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t welcome, and he would have been told to respect that. No ifs, ands, or buts.
He drove to the airport, still gritting his teeth, still grinding.
He sort of anticipated being pissed all the way to Pittsburgh, but his anger evaporated the second he boarded that plane and saw his teammates. The color drained out of his face when he saw Matt and Danny, who looked back at him with similarly shocked expressions.
He sat near the front, avoiding them. What was he supposed to say to them? He had no idea about protocol; he’d never been in a situation where he was amicable with the guys he’d fucked. He’d never been in a situation where he was still expected to work side by side with them, day in and day out.
For their part, Matt and Danny seemed equally unsure, equally awkward. They didn’t say anything to Luke; they didn’t make their way up the aisle to switch seats or talk to him.
Maybe that was all it had been: a night induced by the simple instinctual rhythms of heat. Maybe they’d never talk about it again. Maybe it was better that way.
He paled when Jake arrived. The defenseman just gave him a cold look, then made his way further back. Luke was almost relieved by that; not only did he not know what to say to Jake, Jake’s behavior also likely meant Luke’s hormones had settled down—he didn’t smell like a bitch in heat any longer.
That was a relief, in so many ways. The last thing he wanted to do was face a team like the Rockets in a state of heat. The Rockets were formidable foes, franchise rivals, and he needed his wits about him for every tilt they partook of.
Brenden gave him a nod, and Sebby grinned. Mike flopped down in the seat beside him, saying, “Everything all right now? Got your shit worked out?”
“Yeah,” Luke said, bobbing his head. “I did.”
“Good,” the blond said, settling back in his seat, closing his eyes. Luke could have sighed in relief; his secret was apparently safe with the few teammates who had managed to discern it.
Mike opened an eye and looked at him. “Q said you were into the stuff again. That true?”
Luke gritted his teeth. “Q should keep his fucking mouth shut,” he snapped.
“Truth,” Mike said.
“Your teammates have a right to know what’s going on with you, Lucas.” Q glowered down at him, and Luke wished he could disappear into his seat. Instead, he just narrowed his gaze and glared back.
“Privacy,” he retorted.
Mike shrugged. “You need help man, you just let us know. You know we got your back in this.”
Luke stared at the defenseman and wished, for a moment, that they really, really did. He knew Mike was referring to the drugs though—and he knew his teammates. They would have his back in that situation. They would be there for him if he needed help kicking the habit, if he relapsed. They’d be nothing but supportive.
He couldn’t say the same if they all knew he was omega. He had no guarantees on that. There’d been a few cases of guys overdosing on drugs, getting put up on charges, going into rehab recently, for substance abuse. But there were almost no cases of omegas playing in the league, coming out, and having their teams support them. There was one or two, here or there, in the minor leagues, but nothing in the IHA or its immediate affiliates. The league took no official stance, had no written policy, but everyone knew that they frowned on omegas, that omegas weren’t welcome within the ranks of the elite hockey world.
Luke hadn’t even known Danny was omega, and he’d been playing on the same team as the guy for five years. It was a testament to how deeply they hid. Rationally, Luke had always known that he couldn’t be the only omega in the league—there simply had to be others. There was no way in hell he was the only omega talented enough to make the league. There had to be others. It was just that league culture—hockey culture, culture at large, society—forced them down, forced them to hide, even from each other.
There was shame in addiction, there was shame in using drugs, but the guys understood that. Alpha or beta or omega or whatever, they all understood pain and they all understood how easy it was to get hooked on the stuff. Hit to the head, prescribe painkillers; have surgery, prescribe painkillers; hurting after a game, prescribe painkillers. They had to grind through, they got hurt so often that the painkillers were just as much part of their equipment as helmets and gloves and sticks. There was scarcely a guy in the league who hadn’t been prescribed something pretty strong—Vicodin or Oxycontin or methadone or something—at some point during his career. They were even seeing it with the rookies, the guys in the lower leagues. It was pretty rampant, even if it wasn’t entirely out in the open. They knew. They understood. They were sympathetic and supportive, because they knew that could have just as easily been them.
Not so with omega status. Alphas and betas would never understand omegas, and it was impossible to make them understand because they could never live it, never taste it or feel it—what it was like to be an omega. They had a vague idea, but they couldn’t know.
He studied Mike as the blond lay there, his arms stretched above his head, his lids over his pale, blue eyes, his crooked nose—one too many breaks—jutting into the air. And he wished that Mike would be supportive, wished he knew his team would be sympathetic if he came out and told them, “by the way, I’m an omega.”
But he’d seen it too many times—someone found out you were an omega and their attitude toward you changed. Maybe they started trying to dominate you, subdue you. Maybe they got aggressive. Or maybe they just stopped associating with you altogether.
It was little wonder omegas went to great lengths to hide who they were. It was little wonder that Luke didn’t feel safe telling even his closest confidants, his friends.
He was just about to turn his phone off before take-off when he noticed he had a message.
Mason had sent him a picture of himself at the airport, flipping the camera the bird. He was standing in front of a commercial flight, bound for …
Luke shut the phone down. That fucking asshole. After Luke had told him no, after Luke had told him not to follow him, he’d gone and booked himself on a flight to fucking Pittsburgh.
Mike opened an eye again. “Everything okay?”
“Fine,” Luke grunted, shoving the phone back into his pocket. He’d deal with Mason’s stupidity once he was on the ground—he’d have to. He had no doubt he was going to encounter the idiot in Steel City. Mason was nothing if not persistent.
He tried not to think about how awkward it would be to run into him, to have to introduce him to his teammates. To try and explain why Mason was there. There was absolutely no reason for Mason to be in Pittsburgh. None at all. He didn’t live there, he didn’t play there, he wasn’t born there, and his family lived in Thunder Bay still. Hell, most of his friends lived on the West Coast, and Luke lived in DC. Luke didn’t think Mason was all that close with anyone on the Pittsburgh team, really, although he might have been wrong.
He looked straight ahead as the plane started taxiing. He tried to put all thoughts of Mason out of his head. He’d just have to deal with it later. Right now, he was stuck on a plane.
The flight was a bit rough; they hit turbulence in a few places, but they made good time and landed in Pittsburgh about an hour later. From the airport, they were shuttled to the hotel, where Q doled out their room assignments.
“Hey,” Matt said, leaning over his shoulder, “looks like our rooms are right together.”
“I think we have an adjoining suite,” Danny said, and the three of them glanced at each other, frowning. Did Q know something?
“Ah,” Matt said, his cheeks turning red.
“Q said you went on a bit of a blitz,” Danny said, and both the alpha and omega visibly relaxed. Luke felt his own body go slack, relief flooding through him.
“Yeaaaaah,” he drawled.
Danny nodded, then patted his duffle. Things made sense again; Q didn’t know anything, other than that Danny was the keeper of Luke’s emergency supply, and Q suspected Luke was going to go into withdrawal.
“Who’s your roommate?” Danny asked.
“I dunno,” Luke replied, frowning at the key card in his hand. Ty and Jake had been paired up—maybe Q did know some things after all. Luke didn’t like it, but it was pretty clear that the rookie and the sophomore had a bit of a thing for each other.
Well, when Jake wasn’t making moves on Luke, at least.
“Brenden’s rooming with Mike,” Matt said, glancing around.
“Oddly enough, Nicky and Leo are rooming.”
“That is an odd couple.”
“Timmo and Jonas are together,” Danny said, and Matt giggled. Danny rolled his eyes.
“Well,” Matt said.
“I think you’re rooming with Dima,” Danny said after a moment.
The dark-haired Russian perked up the second he heard his name. “Yes?” he asked, strolling up to them.
“You rooming with Macks?” Matt asked, taking a look at Dima’s key card.
“I think,” the other forward said, glancing at Luke.
“Yeah,” Luke said, “that’s cool.”
“Think Coach is playing with his lines again?”
Dima and Luke frowned at each other. “Maybe,” Luke said after a moment.
“Maybe Macks got demoted!”
“Shut the fuck up, Sebby!”
“Maybe Coach’ll put you on the fourth line, Montclair!”
“It is where he belongs,” Dima said softly.
“Now, now,” Nicky said, patting Dima and Sebby on the head, “play nice. Save this for the game, we’ll show this Shitsburgh team.” He grinned broadly, and no one could help but grin back—the Swede’s quiet humor was nothing short of infectious.
They fell silent, feeling the tension in the room. They were laughing, they were smiling, sure, but there was anxiety there, pulling every muscle taut. It was in their eyes when they looked at each other. Their smiles faltered a little.
Tonight was a big night for them. It had been years since the Stars had made the playoffs—too many seasons had gone by since they’d made it to the post-season. The fans were hungry for playoff success, starving for post-season action.
And, truth be told, so was everyone on their team. Some guys had come from other teams over the years; some of them had been to the post-season more recently. Luke had only been once, in his rookie year, and he remembered it fondly, the dizzying lights, the sudden breathlessness that came with realizing that each and every game might be your last. Everyone said playoff hockey was different, and it was. It was scrappy, rough, do-or-die—it wasn’t like the regular season, where you knew there’d be another game tomorrow night, or the night after, or that you were going to play eighty-two matches in total. There were no guarantees in the playoffs, and you had to play like your life was on the line every night.
So the tension was there, the anxiety. They knew this was big. They knew they had to go out there and perform. The fans back in DC wanted them to deliver. They wanted more than another two or three games; they wanted the hardware.
But there was also excitement, anticipation. They were nervous, but excited too, knowing that this could be their time to shine. The playoffs were a time for big damn heroes, Cinderella stories, the tales of unlikely underdogs propelling themselves from the bottom to the top of the heap through grinding and determination, true grit.
They just had to make sure they didn’t get distracted by those fanciful tales, didn’t get swept up in the idea of maybe, just maybe, tasting ultimate glory.
Their first step was winning tonight’s game. The Rockets were a tough team, the powerhouse of the East, which made tonight’s game all the more important. If they could go out there and win this one on Rockets home ice, they’d have confidence. And they needed confidence; they couldn’t let themselves get down or disheartened, and a loss would be a serious blow to their belief that they could do it, that they could win this series and move on to the next. A win tonight was crucial for team morale.
That was why Q had insisted Luke needed to be there. Luke was no Symon Tremblay—he never would be, he never could be—but he was an experienced centerman, a guy with five seasons under his belt and a good track record. He put up the numbers—he wasn’t a goal-scorer, not like Sy was, but he had good vision, knew almost instinctively what plays to make, where to pass. And, most of the time, he was a calm and reasonable voice in the locker room, grounding the hotheads and supporting the younger players. Q wasn’t lying when he’d said that the atmosphere of the locker room was different without Luke there.
There was no skate before the game; they’d got in too late for that. Instead, they settled into their rooms; they were here for the next three nights, at least. There was a game tonight and then the second match was on Thursday. They didn’t know yet if they were flying back to DC Thursday night or sometime Friday; it might depend on how the first two matches of the best-of-seven series went. Saturday night, they’d be back in the Telefira Center, playing before their home crowd.
But that was days away yet, and they needed to focus on the here and now. Luke smiled tightly at Dima, who considered him for a moment, then shrugged and went back to putting clothes in drawers. Luke turned back to his own duffle, unpacking his clothes.
“You ready for tonight?” he asked Dima, hoping his voice didn’t belay how nervous he was.
“I think,” Dima replied. “Though, it is always tough to play Pittsburgh.”
“Yeah, they’re a good team,” Luke agreed, running through their stats in his head. “Top of the heap this year, best record in the East, that’s for sure.”
“That does not matter,” Dima said breezily. “I am saying it is hard to play Volkov and Fedya.”
Luke paused. “Right,” he said, turning to look at Dima. “The Russians.”
Dima bristled a bit; Luke held up his hands. “Sorry—not like that, just. Y’know.”
Dima sighed and nodded. He did know, of course—how could he not? Aleksandr Volkov and Fyodor Nabokov were two of the most talented Russian forwards in the league—in the last generation, really. Both of them had played juniors just ahead of Dima, then come to the IHA. Both of them had captained Team Russia at various World Juniors and World Championships, and Volkov had headed up the Russian team at the Olympics. Volkov was a prolific scorer, explosive and unpredictable. A true superstar in a league of stars. The only person who even came close to matching him was Sy; they were both destined for greatness, to land in Halls of Fame and on lists of the greatest hockey players ever. They were already semi-legendary.
Nabokov was a bit of a different story. He wasn’t superstar material—mysterious, anti-social, aggressive, he was something of the prototypical Soviet-era player. He had a reputation as being a bit of a whiner; he often drew penalties, but he got called just as often for diving, and he took his own share of penalties. But the guy had an amazing set of hands, incredibly soft—when he was on, he was on. It was unfortunate he was so streaky and had a bad attitude toward teamwork; his talent was immense, probably more immense than Volkov and Sy combined, if only he’d try. He just didn’t see the point, didn’t want to put forth the effort for whatever reason. He’d been labeled as a bit difficult, obstinate, and he got benched more frequently than not.
But he was a danger when he was on the ice, and never moreso than when he was playing with Volkov. The two of them were a force to be reckoned with. Almost the same age, they’d played together on almost every national team from the time they were fifteen, all the way up. They knew each other’s style of play intimately, always knew where to find the other on the ice.
Of course Dima knew them. He’d grown up admiring them, hearing all about their accomplishments, their records. He’d grown up idolizing them, much as the Russian sports media had—Dima had shown Luke and the others some of the clips they got in the news.
Volkov and Nabokov were big news. If Volkov was a superstar in the IHA, in America, he was out of this world across the world, in his hometown of Moscow.
Dima himself was no slouch; he’d captained a gold medal-winning World Juniors team and he’d joined Volkov and Nabokov on the Worlds’ team for Russia last year. He hadn’t been to the Olympics yet, but it was almost undisputed that he would go. Now in his sophomore season in the IHA, he’d put up forty-four points for the Stars in a half-season last year, and sixty-five this year—twenty-five goals and forty assists. It didn’t match Volkov’s league-leading goals—fifty goals, the guy was insane—or Sy’s trophy-winning points (mostly assists, but quite a few highlight-reel goals), but it was still better than Luke or anyone else on the team, really. He was ranked fifth in the league overall.
But it was still nerve-wracking for him to play with guys like Volkov and Nabokov, to play against his idols, and that showed in his record against the Rockets. He had yet to score a goal against them, and he was a minus seven against them in eight games over his two seasons—he’d been on the ice for almost one goal scored by the Rockets in each game. And most of those had come off the stick of either Volkov or Nabokov. Dima just didn’t know how to play against them, really. He was so used to playing with them, being awestruck and admiring them that he just … sort of forgot to play, it seemed.
It didn’t bode well for this series, of course, but it was a much-needed chance for the sophomore to get his head on straight. It might do him some good, Luke reasoned. Maybe this series would let Dima overcome his admiration, really learn to play against his idols. They’d respect him more for it; they’d finally see him as a true competitor, an equal.
“You’ve got seven games to figure it out,” Luke said, closing a drawer.
“Yes,” Dima said, even though they both knew it might not be a seven-game series. There was no guarantee they could hold on that long.
They had dinner at five, then went and got changed into their suits. They drove over to the rink, and then they were in warm-ups. Some of the guys played soccer in the hall, kicking the ball back and forth between them. Others were doing stretches. Timmo was meditating; he was starting in net for them.
“Feeling okay?” Danny asked Luke, almost cautiously.
“Yeah, pretty good,” Luke replied, dumping his stuff in his stall. “You?”
Danny nodded, exhaling. “Yeah,” he breathed, “pretty good. Pretty good.”
Puck-drop was seven. They changed into their gear. Sebby turned on the iPod, blasting tunes into the locker room. It was something of a ritual now; the bass line vibrated through them, into their blood, pumping them up. Luke found himself bobbing his head along to the beat as he laced up his skates. He felt like he was in a movie or something, getting ready to go out and maybe triumph.
They’d never make a movie about him or the Stars or anyone else, really; hockey just wasn’t that popular in America. Maybe they’d get a made-for-TV movie on the CBC back home or something, but that would be it, and it would be horribly underfunded and cheesy and they’d only ever air it once, and then it would go back into the vault, never to see the light of day again.
Sometimes, Luke hated being Canadian.
They headed into the tunnel, rocking on their skates, standing in the dark. The horn sounded, and they headed down the tunnel, out onto the ice, landing on their blades, warming up.
The lights dazzled, spinning around on the ice, black and gold—Pittsburgh’s colors. The stands were full; the game was sold out. The Rockets skated by them, some of them nodding, some smiling, others glaring, and still others steadfastly ignoring the competition. They were here to play.
Luke crouched down on the ice, stretching out.
He looked up as Beau Savard landed on the ice next to him, launching into his stretches.
“Hey Savvy, how’s it going?”
“Good,” Savvy replied, giving him a sideways glance as he leaned forward on his fists, stretching deep into his right leg.
“How’s the knee?”
“Good good,” Savvy replied easily, then glanced quizzically at him. “Um.”
“What?” Luke asked, hoping to hell Savvy wasn’t going to say something about him smelling. He’d checked before they left, and he was pretty sure his heat had dissipated; he didn’t think he smelled.
Then again, it was almost impossible to scent yourself.
The brown-eyed man glanced up into the crowd, then said, “I just thought you should know …”
“Know what?” Luke asked, trying to follow his gaze into the stands, but he didn’t know where he was looking. He scanned the crowd for familiar faces, but saw none. There was the flicker of TV screens in the private suites, but that was all he could see. He looked back at Beau.
Savvy was studying him, his expression unreadable. He looked almost nervous, almost worried. He looked tired too; it had been a long season for him, just getting back from a concussion at the beginning, a scoring slump, then the birth of his first child, and then a torn ACL that had kept him out for most of the season. Luke could scarcely imagine all that happening within the span of a year.
He inhaled sharply, then glanced over his shoulder again. “Flanagan is here.”
“What?” Luke asked, nearly tipping over. Almost immediately, he felt eyes on him. He looked about, but he didn’t know where, didn’t see him anywhere in the crowd.
He leaned forward into his knee.
“Yeah,” Savvy said, dropping his head down toward the ice, “just thought you’d want to know.”
“Why?” Luke asked.
The other player shook his head. “I dunno, man, he hasn’t been here all season. I just heard it through management—maybe they’re trying to get him in our front office or something. But he’s here and I thought you should know.”
“Thanks,” Luke said slowly, getting back to his feet. “I appreciate it.”
Savvy nodded, and Luke patted his rear with the end of his twig, murmuring, “Good luck.” He skated toward their end of the net, where Ty and Nicky were lining up shots and firing them at the net.
Luke did a couple of laps of the rink, still glancing into the dark sea of faces, wondering where Flanny was, wondering where he was watching him from. He knew the reason Sean Flanagan was there in the Mellon had nothing to do with Rockets management trying to woo him into a job. There was only one reason Sean Flanagan would come to a tilt between the Rockets and the Stars, and it had nothing to do with the Rockets.
He grabbed up a puck and took a few shots at the net, joining the line of players skating around the net, Nicky passing pucks to them—so neat and precise. Nicky’s passes were something to be admired.
The horn sounded again and they headed back down the tunnel. They had five minutes before they’d be called out again, this time to start the game.
Luke shook his head. He had no time to worry about Sean Flanagan. He had a game to play.