Breaking the Ice
K.R. Collins © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Today, she makes history.
As Sophie Fournier takes her seat among the other prospects and their families in the Denver, Colorado stadium, soft boos reach her ears. A glance at the large screen behind the stage shows the cameras are trained on her.
She keeps her expression neutral. Many of the athletes here blame her for the lockout that ground last season to a halt. The North American Hockey League had other things to discuss than whether or not women should be permitted to play, but she makes an easy target.
The boos grow louder, and Sophie squares her shoulders to absorb the abuse. This time, however, the cameras are directed at the Commissioner as he steps up to the podium at center stage.
Someone they hate more than me, she thinks as the Commissioner approaches the microphone. He’s a stout man whose face is shiny under the bright lights. His hair is greased and styled like a hockey player but that’s as close as he’s ever come to being one. He spends his days behind a desk and tells the players how they should act, how much they’re allowed to be paid, how many years they’re allowed to sign for and then demands they be grateful for his interference.
It’s no wonder he isn’t popular.
Her only crime is daring to be good at hockey. There were other paths she could’ve taken—the burgeoning NAWHL, one of the European leagues which already accepts women—but she wants the NAHL.
And she’s too talented for them to keep her out.
If it weren’t for the stupid rules, she could be drafted first overall today. As it is, the Concord Condors are the only team eligible to draft women. As a concession to team owners who thought the Commissioner stretched the limits of his authority by granting women access to the League, teams had to apply for co-ed status.
And because hockey isn’t known for its risk-taking, only Concord applied for that status. The consensus is they don’t have anything to lose. Everyone’s attention will be on Concord this season and the Sophie Fournier Experiment. If it goes well, then other teams in the League will draft women.
If it doesn’t, then Sophie will have the dubious honor of being the first, and only, woman drafted into the NAHL.
Seattle’s management files on stage to make the first selection of the 2011 draft, and she’s forced to listen as they select Eldon Carruthers. He’s a center, same as her, selected by a team in desperate need of a franchise player.
It could’ve been me, she thinks as Carruthers pulls on the blue and green jersey of the Seattle Seafarers. It should’ve been me. But another woman will have the honor of being drafted first overall. All Sophie can be is the first.
As Seattle files off the stage, Sophie sits up straighter in her seat, because Concord has the second overall pick at the draft. They’re a team in need of someone to step in and turn them around. She’s been a difference maker all her life. They’ll select her, give her a chance at her dreams, and in return she’ll bring them the Maple Cup for the first time in franchise history.
Martin Pauling, the owner of the Condors, leads the procession onto the stage. When he steps up to the podium, Sophie’s breath catches in her throat. This is what years of hard work have come to. This is the moment which makes every bag skate, every bruise, and every nasty hit worth it.
“With the second pick of the draft, we proudly select, from the Weston School, Michael Hayes.”
Sophie’s expression freezes.
They’ve been rivals for the past four years while she played for Chilton Academy, and she’s beaten him every year in the scoring race and in the playoffs. She’s better than him.
And Concord picked him instead of her.
Next to her Colby, her brother, nudges her knee, reminding her to breathe. She claps politely in case there are any cameras on her and reminds herself the day is far from over. Concord has a pick in the second round and two picks in the third. There’s still time.
Concord doesn’t select her in the second round.
They don’t select her with their first third round pick.
They don’t select her with their second one either.
The first day of the draft ends without her making history. There’s still tomorrow, she tells herself. It should’ve been today. Doubt creeps in, insidious and poisoning her thoughts. What if she isn’t drafted at all?
What if the production made of this draft has been part of an elaborate setup? What if all the media attention and hype focused on her has been to make an example out of her? Don’t hope. Don’t dream. Women aren’t allowed.
“Hotel,” her dad says, gruff, once the draft is officially over for the day.
Tomorrow, rounds four through seven will take place for a total of two hundred twenty-four prospects selected. She’s no longer sure she’ll be one of them.
“I’ll meet you there,” Sophie says. She stands and smooths imaginary wrinkles out of her suit. As much as she wants to wash off her makeup and mess up her hair and hide out in her hotel room, her responsibilities aren’t over. There are cameras to smile for and reporters to talk to even if the conversation they’re about to have is far from the one she was hoping for this evening.
She hugs her parents and then her older brother, clinging to him for an extra moment. Colby is the reason she started playing hockey in the first place. He’s a goalie and, like any older sibling, drafted her into helping him be better. He was the one who taught her to skate, shoving her feet into a pair of his old skates when she could barely walk. A couple of years later, he taught her to shoot then made her practice on him over and over.
She’s improved more than he has over the years, but he never resented her for it. He’s always been there for her, and he’s here for her now, steady and strong, lending her the support she needs to make it through the next hour.
“We could sneak you out,” Colby offers. “Just like old times, eh?”
More times than she can count, Sophie has put on a fake jersey and jammed a baseball cap over her French braid to avoid people after a game; the other team, pissed they’d lost, parents angry their sons were beaten by a girl, sometimes even parents of her own teammates who thought she was stealing the spotlight from their sons.
Sophie laughs and squeezes her brother’s shoulders as she steps back. “I thought we said no more of that.”
“Text me when you get back to your room, and we can watch shitty TV.”
It’s a sign of how rattled her mom is by the draft that she doesn’t scold Colby for his language. Sophie leaves her family to make their way back to the hotel before she takes them up on their offer to sneak her out.
She heads out to the concourse. During the season, this area will be full of fans looking to see the Denver Boulders play. Right now, it’s packed just as full but with prospects in suits and their parents and reporters being trailed by their cameramen and women.
The National Sports Network is the first to spot her. A man whose press credentials hang from a “NAHL DRAFT 2011” lanyard thrusts his microphone in her face. “Are you worried you won’t be drafted? In all the buildup, people forgot there’s no requirement for co-ed teams to have a girl on them.”
Sophie’s fingers hook in the pockets of her suit. She wants to shove them all the way in, to hide in whatever small way she can, but her mom’s voice echoes in her ears. Don’t slouch, sweetie. Stand tall and proud. You never back down on the ice, don’t back down off it either. And her mom is right. Sophie has faced guys trying to end her career with a big hit or a vicious slash to her wrists. A man with a microphone isn’t someone to cower from.
“I’ve presented my résumé to the NAHL. They’ve seen my video, my stats, and, like the other top prospects, I went to the Combine. There’s nothing for me to do but wait and see.”
“How do you feel about the Condors selecting your long-time rival Michael Hayes in the first round instead of you?”
“Hayes is a two-way forward who’s strong on the puck. He can contribute on the power play and the penalty kill.” Sophie leaves out how he always had an extra check or slash for her when they played each other. She doesn’t say she outscored him in all four years they competed against each other or that she won three Werner Cups to his zero while she played for Chilton Academy.
She doesn’t say how much it stings to see him picked ahead of her. She has the numbers to prove she’s the better player and she was still passed over. What more does she have to do to be taken seriously?
Carol Rogers from After the Whistle sees Sophie and hurries over, her cameraman in tow. After the Whistle is on following every Canadian broadcast to break down the game. Sophie grew up watching Carol interview players and dissect their games and point out how they could be better. She watched and she learned, adjusting her own game based on some of the things Carol saw.
And now Carol Rogers stands in front of her and asks, “Is it true Concord is exploiting how they’re the only co-ed team to draft you later than you were projected?”
Sophie, normally unfazed by the media, is caught off guard by the question. She flounders long enough that four other reporters flock to her, sensing a headline if not an entire story.
“I’m sorry, what?” Sophie asks.
Carol pushes closer, battling for space. “No other team is allowed to draft you. Can you comment on the speculation that Concord will use it to their advantage?”
Could they? Of course they could. Hockey is a business. Sophie’s thoughts threaten to spin away from her. She wants to cling to the hope being offered—they’re biding their time, she will be drafted even if wasn’t today—and she wants to stomp her feet at how unfair it is.
Instead, she smiles, bland and practiced, the expression giving nothing away. “I can’t comment on that. I’m not privy to the decisions made by Concord’s management.”
“You haven’t been assured of your place on the team?” another reporter asks. “It would be anti-climactic for the first draft with a woman to end without the first woman being drafted.”
“There are no guarantees in hockey. If you’ll excuse me, I need to head back to the hotel now. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
As soon as she’s safely in her hotel room, she turns the deadbolt and hooks the door chain. Only then does she allow her shoulders to slump. She wrestles her suit jacket off and tosses it on her bed. She kicks her shoes against the wall and feels a small spark of satisfaction when they hit. But it’s only a spark and it doesn’t catch, instead, fizzling and leaving her exhausted.
This isn’t how she’s supposed to feel after the first day of the draft.
She’s supposed to be elated, high off finally realizing her dream. She’s wanted to play in the NAHL since she was a girl watching the Montreal Mammoths play while visiting her mémé and pépé. As a special treat, she would be allowed to stay up late enough to watch a whole game. Sometimes, she would fall asleep during second intermission, but her mémé would always wake her up for the third period so she didn’t miss any of the action.
The players seemed larger than life on the small TV. They delivered booming hits and clutch goals. Her mémé talked about the players as if they were part of the family. Oh, Bobby? He had a good game last night, but he looks tired tonight. Someone needs to feed the boy better. Or, If Gabriel doesn’t score in this period, then I will call up his coach and have him benched for the third. Don’t think I won’t.
Her pépé passed away a couple years ago, but she bets her mémé watched the draft tonight. Is she as disappointed as Sophie is? Did she shake her fist at the TV and threaten to send Concord’s management to their rooms?
She opens the mini-fridge and surveys its contents. There are tiny bottles of alcohol and an assortment of candy bars. Snickers are her favorite and there are even two of them, but she closes the fridge without taking either one out. There are too many reporters here this weekend. Someone will get their hands on the bill for her room, and she doesn’t need an article written on how the Condors passed on her because she doesn’t have the diet of an elite athlete.
The collar of her shirt presses against her throat as if it’s trying to choke her. She undoes the top few buttons, but it doesn’t make it any easier to breathe.
Two seasons ago, Chilton beat The Weston School in a five game playoff series 3-2. The series started nasty and grew nastier with each game. The next season, their first game was against The Weston School, and they picked up where they left off, playing as if it was Game Six of last year’s series.
Hayes crunched Sophie into the boards behind the goal less than three minutes into the game, and she fell to the ice and struggled to breathe as the away crowd cheered and hoped she wouldn’t get back to her feet.
She feels the same way now, knocked off balance and gasping for air while everyone around her hopes she stays down.
She hangs her suit up in the small closet next to her second suit, the one she brought in case she spilled something on this one.
Now, she’ll need it for tomorrow.
She closes the closet door so she doesn’t have to look at the suit. She digs her Chilton sweatpants out of the dresser drawer. They’re from her first year on the team, almost worn through at the knees after so many years of wearing them. They’re tight across her ass, because she got them when she was fourteen, and she’s spent the past four years putting on the muscle she’d need to succeed in a professional hockey league.
They’re comfortable, though, and she pairs them with a tank top and a shirt with sleeves so long she can pull them over her hands. She flops down on her bed with her phone and, against her better judgement, checks the NAHL Twitter.
A picture of Carruthers, Hayes, and Almonte pops up. They’re in their new jerseys, Seattle, Concord, and Boston, and they’re all wearing giant smiles. And they should be. They’re the top three draft picks for this year.
She should’ve been one of them.
A knock at her door makes her turn her head, but she doesn’t move from her bed.
A moment later, her phone buzzes.
Colby: Open your door.
She rolls out of bed and undoes all the locks to let her brother in. He’s changed into sweats too, green with large white letters that say UND. He’s been a steady goalie for North Dakota, but he’s entering his senior year of college and there’s been no professional interest. In all likelihood, his hockey career will end after this season.
A wave of guilt hits her as she realizes she’s been wallowing because she wasn’t drafted on the first day when her brother was never even invited.
“Stop that,” Colby says, because all goalies have freaky mind-reading abilities. He ducks under her arm to slip into the room. “Dad wanted to come, but I figured you didn’t want him here right now.”
It’s a betrayal of the worst kind, because Dad’s the one who has believed in her this whole time. He’s the one who relentlessly campaigned for her to play with the boys. He’s the one who worked overtime to make sure she had the hockey equipment she needed to be successful, then stayed up late to put her through drill after drill so she’d be able to play at any level she wanted.
But he’s also the one who doesn’t like it when she cries, because hockey players are supposed to be tough.
She sits down next to her brother on her bed and pulls her knees up to her chest. Tears well up in her eyes, but she doesn’t fight them. “I don’t understand. I’m good, Colb.”
“You’re the best,” he tells her.
If you’re not the best, then you don’t get to play. She was five the first time her dad told her that. It was as true then as it is now. She has had to battle every step of the way as she carved out a play for herself in this sport. It’s bullshit that being a woman is what kept her from being drafted first. And it’s bullshit that it’s kept her from being drafted so far. If she was a man, then she’d be a Seafarer right now. She wants to scream or maybe punch something.
Instead, she leans against her brother. “I wish Concord believed it.”
“Maybe they do. I heard they might be using the rules to their advantage. No one else can draft you so there’s no pressure on them and hockey—”
“Is a business,” she finishes with him. She sighs.
Colby pulls a Snickers out of his pocket. “I figured you weren’t going to touch anything in your room.”
“You’re the best,” she says as she takes the chocolate bar from him.
“And don’t you forget it.” He takes the piece she offers him. “They’re going to draft you, and you’re going to tear up this fucking League.”