By: Roger A Wilbanks
“Dude! She doesn’t come to another game. That’s five in a row!”
Arthur threw his helmet against the wall and stomped his way over everyone’s gear bags to his seat in the room. He began ripping his pads off as if he were pulling leeches off of someone he greatly disliked.
“I’m sorry if I’m being a dick here but FUCK! Every game you’ve brought her to we got stomped. I ain’t saying it’s her fault…”
“Good!” Reggie shot back. “You better not go there! My girlfriend isn’t a Jinx!”
“…I ain’t saying it’s Her fault cause YOU’RE the one that brought her to the game in the first place!”
“That’s out of line Arthur.” Glenn said.
Glenn was the Captain of the Hawks and the people in this room paid attention to him when he spoke.
“Shelly ain’t the one that couldn’t catch a pass tonight. Shelly didn’t miss three empty nets. And Shelly didn’t fall on her ass at center ice and give up a 3 on 0 rush. Lay off the girl and focus on getting your game back on track.”
“I wasn’t having those problems until SHE started coming to the games, Glenn, and you know it! I went from 2 solid points per game to a frikkin pylon-shaped douche bag when her face started popping up in the stands and so did a lot of other people here.” Arthur looked around the room for agreement and was met with quiet noncommittal silence.
“You’ve always been a douche bag, Arthur.” Reggie said. “You can’t blame My girlfriend for Our losing streak. That’s insane!”
“Look Reg, I know you are a solid goaltender. Hell, you kept us in that asskicking contest right up till the end tonite. Your game hasn’t dropped off at all since she started coming to watch us but everyone else’s in here has.” Arthur pleaded.
This time, no one spoke up to defend Shelly and this statement was greeted with the same noncommittal silence as before. Reggie looked to Glenn who simply shrugged and began untying his skates. The silence overpowered Reggie and the Big Picture came into focus for him.
“Ok. She won’t be at the next game. I’m not gonna blame her though. She’s not wearing a sweater for Fuck’s sake, you guys are.” Reggie sat down at his place on the bench and pulled off his chest protector. “I will make sure she is not here all the same. Any of you call her a Jinx again though and I’ll break my stick across your fucking teeth.”
He started violently undoing the straps holding his goalie pads on and added, “You better win or I’m kicking EVERYONE’S ass after!”
“That’s it. Discussion over. Billy, pass out the game beers.” Glenn said. “Nothing leaves this room boys. Shelly gets one sniff of this conversation or what was said here and after Reggie pounds you, you’ll have to deal with me.”
This was unnecessary. Every man in this room knew the sacred bond that protected free speech within its walls. Everyone was able to say anything he wanted in here no matter the subject or details and it would never be spoken again on the outside without his expressed consent. This bond was the glue that held 14 men of varying social degree together into a cohesive unit and it was unbreakable. The repercussions were too severe for any of them to even contemplate. Doctors, lawyers and bricklayers alike all nodded in agreement. The King had spoken and in this room at least, his decision was final.
The Hawks were an adult men’s hockey team playing in what they called a beer league. Each of the men paid hundreds of dollars each season to play ice hockey one night per week. To the outsiders who giggled about their obsession, this was a glorified fantasy league where grown men lived out their daydreams of NHL stardom, but to the men on the ice it was something far greater. These men lived for their sport. Ice hockey and the weekly game gave them a purpose in life. It gave them a reason for living. The bonds these men formed with their teammates transcended those they had with their family or coworkers.
It was as close to war as any of them would ever see, but each of them would tell you that they understood the misery felt by a squad covering themselves in a foxhole while enemy artillery pounded their position.
That happened three games ago in the 12-0 loss to the Vikings.
They all felt the elation of victory pulled from the jaws of defeat.
The last game before the losing streak ended with them scoring 3 unanswered goals in the final 5 minutes of regulation to force overtime and an eventual shootout win.
These men walked into battle every Tuesday night and it didn’t matter that no one died or that there was no end to the conflict. To them the battle was everything. They were gladiators with hockey sticks and ice skates instead of swords and shields. The Hawks were especially motivated by the fact they had won four consecutive league championships, never losing more than 5 games in a single 40 game season.
The current 5 game losing streak ate at their very cores.
Hockey players are superstitious people by their very nature, more so than any other athlete with the exception of the relief pitcher in baseball or the field goal kicker in football. Basketball players may have favorite shoes, but hockey players have lucky underwear and in some occasions, will only wash same articles of clothing when their luck takes a turn for the worse.
They tend to be quite obsessive about their individual game, often going to extremes of dedicated ritual to insure their peak performance in that night’s game. They react, often violently, to anything that disrupts their rhythm. They recognize dangers immediately and will not hesitate to take any action necessary to return their game back to its original state. Reggie’s new girlfriend Shelly started coming to watch him play over a month ago. She has watched a total of 5 games from the comfort of the stands and the results have all been the same. Dismal. The Hawks usual dominance was replaced by mediocrity as they went out of their way to find new ways to lose. Even the 7-2 lead they carried into the final period of tonight’s game wasn’t enough to stem the tide of darkness surrounding them. As the losses piled on, the guys had been searching for a reason why they were suddenly incapable of passing, shooting and skating with their normal skill level. They all agreed a dark cloud had settled over their bench and tonight, a face was put on the dark cloud, a face and a name.
Now this solemn group of men gathered in the eerie quiet of a usually boisterous locker room demanded her blood. Reggie was outnumbered and outvoted. He would have to ban Shelly from the game. Everyone in this room knew what that meant but it didn’t matter.
Reggie would take one for the team.
If his relationship survived this, it was meant to be. If Shelly understood, she was a gift from Heaven and worthy of praise as a true hockey girlfriend. As soon as a new win streak was started, she would be welcomed back. The odds of her starting another losing streak pretty much precluded a return however. Since this was Reggie’s team as much as it was any man’s, that spelled bad news for Shelly.
This was the commitment each man gave as his price of admission into this locker room. Every man in here was prepared to pay whatever price that was demanded of him for the good of the team. They even called it the Soul Tax in recognition of what it demanded. That attitude was a necessary ingredient for the success the Hawks had enjoyed lately and now it was Reggie’s turn to pay the tax for the team.
Anytime outsiders caught a glimpse of this side of hockey players, they tended to label the entire group as insane. “You don’t know the half of it, pal.” Was the unvoiced response that accompanied the shrug and chuckle.
“You want help?” Glenn asked.
It was a pointless offer of solidarity. Everyone knew Reggie had to handle this solo but that didn’t mean the boys weren’t behind him in spirit.
“No thanks. I got this. It ain’t going to be pretty though. I’ll catch up with you guys at the Goose later. I don’t want this to be a public show.”
The Goose was the bar and grill most of the players in the league visited after their games. The beer was cold and the food was hot. Its closeness to the rink meant that while the players all went home in different directions, they could all drive a mile together for a burger and a beer.
“I understand man and for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
“No need, but I do appreciate it. I just hope she takes it well. You all remember that story about the Moose Knuckle forward who banned his girlfriend from their games a while back? She cut up all four of his tires at their next game and smashed the window in every car in the lot that night.”
“You think Shelly’s got that in her?”
“Nah. She’ll cry a lot but no property damage. I hope.”
“Either way, good luck. She’s a sweet girl, but this is just the way it has to be.”
Reggie walked alone to the shower to plan his attack. No one joined him. His solitude now would be respected. When he returned and packed his gear, he walked out of the room without a word. None was needed. This was a dead man walking. The Hockey Gods demanded human sacrifice and Shelly was on the altar. Every man in the room knew this was the price they themselves might be called upon to pay some day.
Shelly was outside the rink when Reggie caught up with her. She was smoking a cigarette, something she only did when she was nervous. He kissed her on her cheek and walked to his Jeep to pack his gear for the drive home. When he returned, she was done with the cigarette. She looked at him expectantly, aware that by the look of defeat in his eyes something wasn’t right.
“The other girlfriends and wives won’t talk to me anymore.” She began. “They think I am to blame for you guys losing!”
“Yeah…about that..” Reggie started.
“Oh GOD! You think that too! I don’t believe this! Are all of you people Completely Insane? You treat this game like it’s...like it’s some kind of holy mission, like it’s life or death, when it’s just-a-fucking-game! I thought you were different, Reg. I thought you had a head on your shoulders that wasn't filled with pudding.”
“I don’t blame you Shelly. I know why we’ve been losing and none of it is your fault. You don’t score goals, you don’t play defense and you don’t let in goals from the red line. We do. But if these guys get it into their heads that something needs to change, nothing and no one’s going to stop them. You are right about that, though. When it comes to the game we are all insane. That’s the price we all pay to do what we do. We have all stared into the abyss for so long that we have become it.”
“So what now? Did your teammates send you outside to break up with me? Are you going to toss me over a cliff like some Vestal Virgin?”
“No. I’m not going to break up with you over hockey, are YOU insane? I just have to ask you to not come to the game next week. Hockey doesn’t control my entire life, just the 2 hours a week I spend here. That’s the only part these guys have any say over.”
“Sounds to me like you need to grow a pair, Reg. You mean to tell me that just because your team can’t skate well you are willing to put me on the chopping block? I’m not the reason you can’t win, THEY are! Yet I don’t see you telling them to play better. I don’t see you joining a new team that CAN win with me in the stands. If you go along with this you are as much to blame as they are. If you ban me from the game you might as well break up with me because if you don’t I’m going to dump your gutless ass right here and right now.”
“Come on now Shelly, be reasonable here. I’m not blaming you for anything. I know none of this is your fault. If anyone here is to blame it’s me for dragging you out to these games in the first place. I knew the risks involved when I did that but I invited you out anyway. It’s eaten me up every day since then that we haven’t won because deep down, I knew the guys would have this reaction. But the fact is they asked me to ask you to stay away, knowing full well what that meant and what your reaction would be.”
“So you’re going to be a good little boy and do just like you are told then?”
“Now that isn’t fair. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here and trying to do this as painlessly as possible.”
“No. You’re feeding me a load of horseshit and hoping I sprout flowers on top of my head. Look Reg, I’ll make this easy on you. I’ll leave now and never come back to this rink again. No matter what. I’ll even do you one better. I’ll lose your number. I suggest you do the same with mine. Don’t come calling me when you finally do win.”
Shelly turned to walk away and stopped to turn back.
“If you ever win again, that is.”
“Ooooooh man that was harsh!” Arthur said as he filled Reggie’s glass from the fresh pitcher. “She went there?”
“Yeah, well…what are you gonna do?” Reggie replied.
Shelly wasn’t the first casualty in the battle for the League Championship and she certainly would not be the last.
“Think she’s gone for good?” Glenn asked as he passed the Chips and Salsa Reggie’s way.
“Prolly. Nobody likes to be called a Jinx. She took it pretty bad.”
The table remained silent with the exception of minimal chitchat. In tone, it resembled a wake but in reality it was a display of solidarity for the sacrifice made by one of their own. Each man would fall on that sword in a similar manner for the betterment of the team and each of them knew this. This was democracy at its purest form. The majority had spoken and Reggie had followed the will of the group even though it cost him something dear. That didn’t make it any easier for him to accept the loss, but it did make it bearable.
“Alls I’m saying is we better not lose another frikkin game all season. Because if we do…”
That thought was left unspoken but every man knew that it was up to him to step up his individual game to insure that Reggie’s sacrifice was not in vain. He had just paid the Soul Tax for his teammates, and nothing short of their complete effort would be acceptable payment for that debt.
At this thought, every man at the table raised his glass unbidden and said, “To Shelly.”
Glenn added, “To Reggie.”
“To that goddamn trophy.” Reggie said.
“To that goddamn trophy.” Every man at the table replied.
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