A Goalie’s Grumpy Love Story

The left winger skates toward the net and slapshots the puck at me. There’s a thwap of the puck in my glove, and my blood flares with competition and satisfaction. “Streicher shut out,” my new teammate calls as he breezes past, and I toss the puck onto the ice with a quick nod.

The fans back in New York used to chant that during games. When I won the Vezina Trophy last year, awarded to the best goalie in the NHL, they referenced it in the speech about my performance. Near the bench, the coaches watch, make notes, and discuss the team’s performance. A puck gets past me and my gut tightens.

The head coach’s gaze flicks to me, expression indiscernible. Two weeks ago, I signed as a free agent below my value so that I could play for the Vancouver Storm. After the panic attack that caused her car accident, my mom insisted she was fine, but I know that if she kept them from me, it must be getting worse.

Now that the team has signed me for a lower price, I’m an asset. They could trade me for more money and I wouldn’t have any say in the matter. I’m like a house they just got a deal on, and if they decide to buy something better, they’ll sell me.

Worry flows through me. My mom’s dealt with depression and anxiety for years, ever since my dad passed in a self-inflicted drunk driving incident when I was a baby, but while I wasn’t looking, it turned into something so much worse. Leaving Vancouver isn’t an option, and I’m not giving up the sport I love, so this season needs to go well.

I need to play my best and maintain my top status so they don’t trade me. This year, I need to focus. The players run drills as practice continues, and I reference what I know about them from previous games. I’ve played against the Vancouver Storm in the past, and I recognize their faces, but I don’t know these guys like my old team. I played for New York for seven years, since I was nineteen.

I don’t know these coaches, and this city hasn’t felt like home since I left for the juniors, but Vancouver is where I need to be right now. Something strains in my chest. It’s only the first day of training camp, but I’ve never felt more pressure to play my best. The whistle blows, and I skate toward the bench with the other players.

“Looking sharp out there, boys,” the coach says as we gather around the bench. At the end of last season, one of the worst in the Storm’s history, Tate Ward made headlines after he was announced as the new head coach. The guy’s in his late thirties, not much older than some of Vancouver’s players, and he had a promising career as a forward in the league until a knee injury ended it.

He coached college hockey until last year, and from what I’ve read in hockey news, the fans are skeptical. Head coaches are normally older, with more experience coaching at the pro level. Ward glances at me, and under my goalie mask, my jaw tightens. “We have a lot of work to do over the next few seasons,” he says, surveying the group of players.

“We finished last year near the bottom of the league.” The air feels heavy as players shift on their skates, bracing themselves. This is the part where a lot of coaches would point out players’ flaws and weaknesses. What the team fucked up on last year. This is where he’ll tell us that losing is not an option. And don’t I fucking know it.

“Nowhere to go but up,” Ward says instead, crooking a grin at us. “Hit the showers and rest up. See you tomorrow.” The players head off the ice, and I pull my mask off with a frown. I’m sure this pleasant, supportive facade of Ward’s will end as soon as the season starts in a few weeks and the pressure becomes real.

“Streicher,” Ward calls as I head down the hall to the dressing room. He heads over to me and waits as the remaining players shuffle down the hall, giving them nods of acknowledgment. “How are you settling in?” I nod. “Fine.” My apartment is filled with boxes that I don’t have time to unpack. “Thank you, uh, for setting up the apartment. And the movers.” Tension gathers in my shoulder muscles and I drag a hand through my hair. I hate accepting help from others.

Ward waves me off. “It’s our job to help players settle in. A lot of players ask for an assistant, actually.

They can help you unpack, get you set up with meals, get your car serviced, walk your dog, whatever.” “I don’t have a dog.” He chuckles. “You know what I mean. We’re here to provide you with whatever you need so you can focus on the ice. Anything you need, just let us know.” I don’t need help focusing on the ice. I’ve refined my life down to the two things that matter—hockey and my mom.

“You bet,” I say, knowing full well I’m not going to ask for anything. I’ve always been the guy who takes care of himself. That’s not about to change. Ward lowers his voice. “If your mom needs any help, we can provide that, too.”

When I requested a trade to Vancouver, he was the one who called me to ask why. I told him everything. He’s the only one who knows about my mom.

Anxiety spikes in me, and this is why I shouldn’t have opened my fucking mouth. Now people want to get involved. Every instinct in my body revolts, and my shoulders hitch. My schedule this year will be grueling. Eighty-two games, half at home in Vancouver and half away, with team practices, training with the goalie coach, and my own workouts.

On top of that, I’ll have sessions with my physio, massage therapist, sports psychologist, and personal trainer. Something flares in my chest, a mix of competition and anticipation. I’ve been competing at hockey since I was five years old, and I thrive on a challenge.

Pressure fuels me. Years of training have made me into a person who loves to push my limits and win. This year? Between how stubborn my mom is and how intense my schedule will be? It’s going to be a fucking challenge.

Nothing I can’t handle, though, as long as I stay focused. “We’re good.” My words are clipped. “Thank you.” It’s always just been me and my mom. I’ve got it handled. I always have.

After I shower and change, I leave the arena to grab lunch and head home for a nap before hitting the gym. I’m walking through an alley from the arena to the street when a noise by the dumpsters stops me. A fluffy brown dog’s butt is sticking out of a box. As I walk past, the dog lifts its head out of the box and looks at me.

There’s macaroni and cheese all over its snout. The dog wags its tail at me, and I stare back. Her eyes are a deep brown, bright with excitement. Her breed is hard to tell. She’s forty or fifty pounds, maybe a mix between a Lab and a spaniel.

One of her ears is shorter than the other. The dog takes a step forward, and I take a step back. “No way,” I tell it. The dog flops to the ground, rolls over to expose her belly, and waits, tail sweeping back and forth over the pavement as she asks for belly rubs. Where’s her owner? I glance up and down the alley, but we’re alone.

My nose wrinkles as I study her. No collar, and among the macaroni, her snout is dirty and greasy.

Her fur is too long, falling into her eyes, and even though she needs a haircut, I can see how skinny she is. There’s a twisting feeling in my chest that I don’t like. “Don’t eat that,” I tell her, frowning as I nod at the garbage. “You’ll get sick.”

Her pink tongue flops out the side of her mouth. “Go home.” My words come out stern, but she’s still waiting for belly rubs. My heart strains, but I shove the feelings away. No. This isn’t my problem. I don’t do distractions. I don’t even date, for fuck’s sake, because I know from experience that people want more than I can give them.

I can’t leave her here, though. She could get hit by a car or injured by a coyote. She could eat something that could make her sick. The SPCA will take her. I pull my phone out and, after some Googling, call the nearest location. “There’s a dog behind the arena downtown,” I tell the woman when she answers. There’s only one arena in downtown Vancouver, so she’ll know where I mean.

There are dogs barking in the background on her end. “Can someone come pick her up?” The woman laughs. “Honey, we are so understaffed. You’ll have to drop her off at one of our locations.” She lists the locations that are accepting dogs before hanging up. The ones nearby are all full, so I’ll have to drive a couple hours outside the city to drop her off.

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