Lighting the Lamp
K.R. Collins © 2020
All Rights Reserved
The 2013 draft in Orlando, Florida marks the third one Sophie’s attended. She made history in 2011 when she was the first woman drafted into the North American Hockey League. Last year, she was given the honor of selecting Elsa Nyberg for her team, the Concord Condors.
This year, Sophie’s responsibilities are fewer, but she’s still here representing the League. Unlike other players, who watch the draft from their couches or receive alerts while on the beach or touring wine country, Sophie is here in a crisp black pantsuit, a red pocket square her only flash of color.
She’s here so the Commissioner can lay a heavy hand on her shoulder and lean in for pictures to prove how progressive his league is, as if one woman among hundreds of men is progress. Well, it is progress, but it isn’t nearly enough.
There will be more women drafted today and tomorrow, and Sophie’s confident at least one of them will play against her this season. She refuses to hope Elsa will keep her promise and make the jump from the Swedish Hockey League to the NAHL this year, but she has high expectations for Alexis Engelking.
The American is slated to be drafted high. Lenny Dernier, infamous for his rants on The National Sports Network, is already wringing his hands over her upcoming inclusion among hockey’s best. Once, forgetting she was mic’d up, Engelking dropped an f-bomb on live television. Dernier accused her of being “a terrible role model for our Canadian children” as if every Canadian who has played the game is an angel.
Indianapolis files on stage to make the first selection of the draft, a long procession of middle to upper-aged white men in suits. The TVs behind the stage show Engelking sit up straighter in her seat as if she’s anticipating her name being called. Her hair is chopped short, jagged angles as sharp as her cheekbones.
A different camera shows Chad Kensington, another American, slumped in his seat. His blond hair is parted to the side and slicked to stay there. His mother elbows him, and he makes a half-hearted attempt to sit up straight.
“Thank you, Orlando, for hosting us today,” Indy’s owner says. The crowd, predictably, cheers. When he thanks the Commissioner, the crowd boos, also predictable. Sophie doesn’t remember the Commissioner facing constant heckling when she was younger, but he’d made himself no friends when the League ground to halt during the 2010-2011 season.
Indy’s owner steps aside so his grandson, a cute kid with chubby cheeks and a Renegades ball cap on his head, can step up to the mic. They have to lower it for him, and the boy checks the cards in his hands before he looks over his shoulder. His grandfather smiles encouragingly. “Um, first overall, the Indianapolis Renegades select Chad Kensington.”
Kensington stands up and shoots the nearest camera a pair of finger guns. His smile is as greasy as his hair. Sophie’s seen enough tape to know he’s talented, but he struts up to the stage as if he thinks the League should be grateful to have him. His suit is too big in the shoulders and too long in the leg as if he expects to grow into it. He’s dwarfed by the men on stage; the only ones he’s taller than are the owner’s two grandkids. He taps the brim of the grandson’s hat. The owner’s granddaughter hides behind the man who Sophie assumes is her father.
Sophie discreetly checks her phone as she waits for all the hoopla to finish. Being at the draft always brings back memories of her own. She wasn’t sure she’d be invited until a few months before and, even once she was there, it wasn’t a guarantee a team would select her. In case being the first woman to try to play in the NAHL wasn’t enough of a barrier, the Commissioner required teams to apply to be co-ed.
The Concord Condors were the only team able to draft her, and she sat in the stands as they made selection after selection, never calling her name. It took two hundred and twenty-four names until hers was called. Instead of being drafted first, or even first round, she was dead last.
She shakes the memory aside as Seattle comes on stage. Sophie quits feeling sorry for herself. Barrett Corderman is the one who deserves her pity as Seattle drafts him. She’s making a name for herself in Concord, pulling her franchise from the depths of the League and turning them into a real contender. Seattle, on the other hand, is where players have their love of hockey sucked out of them.
Indianapolis makes another appearance for the fourth pick, gained in a trade last season. This time, the owner ushers his granddaughter on stage, and Sophie has a good idea of where this is headed. When the girl calls out Alexis Engelking’s name, Sophie allows herself a smile. Engelking marks the fourth woman drafted into the League, and the highest selected of them all. There’s a tightness around Engelking’s eyes as she accepts her jersey as if she felt she deserved to go higher.
Welcome to the club.
Concord drafts a defenseman with the first of their first-round picks. With their second, they select Tanner Bechtol. He’s small like Kensington, and his hair falls into his eyes, only for him to shake it back out of his face. He looks overwhelmed by everyone on the stage, and it takes two tries for him to pull his jersey over his head.
It isn’t exactly a promising start, and she expects a lot out of him. This is one of the picks which came from trading their captain, Matty, at the deadline last year. Bechtol stumbles off the stage. He would’ve tripped and face-planted in front of the cameras if Mr. Wilcox didn’t steady him. Sophie keeps her expression tranquil in case anyone is watching her, but inside, she scowls. This is who they gave Matty up for?
Day Two of the draft sees another two women drafted. Madison Plante, a Canadian defensewoman, goes to Santa Fe and Johanna Achenbach, a German goalie, is picked by Regina. Both women were selected low in the draft, and they’re young for the positions they play. Sophie doesn’t expect to see them in the League this year which means Engelking is still her only hope.
When the draft finishes, Sophie is summoned to meet the newest women and, of course, to take a picture with the Commissioner. Alexis Engelking stands next to the Commissioner, her hands shoved into her pockets, her elbows bent as if to ward anyone from getting too close. She eyes Sophie as if they’re already on the ice and about to take a faceoff against each other.
Sophie extends a hand, both because there are cameras watching to see how she’ll react to having new women in the League and because it’s the polite thing to do. “I’m looking forward to playing against you.”
Engelking squeezes too hard as they shake. “I hope you like losing.”
Next to her, Plante chokes as if she can’t believe what Engelking just said. Plante is tall like Engelking but solid like Sophie. She has the body of a defensewoman, someone who can play big minutes without growing tired. Her hair, thick and brown, is in a single French braid which barely contains it. She shakes Sophie’s hand, her grip too tight and then too lax as if she isn’t comfortable with her own strength yet.
“Welcome to the League,” Sophie tells her.
Achenbach is next. Her dark curls are gelled to keep their shape. It reminds Sophie of the old movie stars. Achenbach’s brown eyes catch her by surprise; she half-expected the woman to be in black and white. Her hand trembles in Sophie’s, and Sophie gives her a warm smile. “Regina will take good care of you. Canada’s a good country.”
“Thank you.” Her accent is thick and it grows thicker as the cameras press in tighter. “Scott Pearce plays for them.”
Achenbach’s eyes light up when she mentions the starting goaltender. Sophie’s all about hockey role models—she still has a poster of Mikhail Figuli in her childhood room—but Pearce isn’t someone she’d look up to. He was at the Stuttgart Winter Games, representing Canada like Sophie, but he has a notorious temper. One time, after a defensive breakdown led to a goal, he broke his d-men’s sticks, because it “wasn’t as if they were using them.”
Sophie settles for neutral. “He’s a good goalie, but so are you.”
Achenbach ducks her head, embarrassed, and then the Commissioner barges into their conversation, because the only good photo-op is one he’s front and center in.
After the draft, Sophie returns home to Thunder Bay and her poster of Mikhail Figuli. He’s the greatest NAHL player to never win a Cup. He says he won’t retire until he’s won but with each year, he creeps closer to being fifty, and he still doesn’t have the NAHL’s biggest prize.
Benoit Delacroix doesn’t have a Cup either, but after this season he will. X has been a Concord Condor since the latest expansion, when Concord and Seattle were added to the League. He’s given everything to this team and until last year, he’d never even seen the playoffs. They hit a major milestone last season, and now it’s time for the next.
Sophie trains under the strict guidance of her dad, learns from her mom how to cook her favorite meals, and drags Colby outside to play street hockey with the kids in their neighborhood. The free agent frenzy comes and goes without any major changes for Concord.
Rocky, a pickup at the trade deadline last year, signs with the LA Orcas rather than staying in Concord. It isn’t a surprise. In Concord’s history, only two players have ever re-signed with the team, X and Matty. Everyone else has left after their first taste. No one wants to be in Concord, and Rocky is only the latest proof of it.
Sophie can’t entirely blame him. He was traded from Toronto, a strong playoff contender, to Concord at the deadline. Then, after Concord was swept from the first round of the playoffs, he watched his former team win the Maple Cup without him.
Midway through July, Jeffrey McArthur becomes the third player to re-sign with Concord. He and the team agree to a five-year, thirty-million-dollar extension. She stares at the notification until it truly sinks in. Merlin is staying. And he wants to be here badly enough to sign a year ahead of his contract expiring.
Even though he must be flooded with well-wishes, she calls him.
He’s laughing as he picks up, his joy infectious. “Dude!”
“I guess we’re keeping that Merlin magic.”
“You fucking know it! What about you? When’s your extension getting done?”
Sophie’s smile falters, and she’s glad he can’t see it. Like Merlin, her contract is up next summer but unlike him, the front office hasn’t contacted her or her agent to talk about an extension. It isn’t as urgent with her as she’ll still be a restricted free agent rather than unrestricted like Merlin would’ve been, but it can be interpreted as a sign they don’t believe in her.
She forces a laugh and almost sounds genuine. “I’m a sure thing. They don’t need to worry about locking me up.”
He sounds as if he’s coming down from cloud nine, and Sophie won’t be responsible for it. “Look, it’s a show-me year. I need to put on a good performance. This means you can’t slack even though you have this fancy new contract.”
It’s always a show-me year for her. In her first season, she proved she was worth drafting and keeping around for a second year. Once the second year came, she proved her rookie season wasn’t a fluke. Now, going into her third season, she has to prove she’s worth an extension.
When is the Fournier Experiment proved a success? She won the Maddow Trophy her rookie season for being the League’s top point scorer. Last season, she led Concord to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. If they win the Cup this season will it be enough? Will she finally have proved women belong in the League, not as a bet or a chance but as a guarantee?
“Slack?” Merlin squawks, outraged, and it pulls her out of the downward spiral of her thoughts. “I have never slacked a moment in my life.”
“What’s that? I think I hear Marissa saying your dirty dishes are sitting in the sink.”
“Fuck you!” Merlin laughs and catches her up on his summer before he has to go, because he promised Marissa he’d take her to the beach while the weather is warm.
After she hangs up, Sophie changes into her workout clothes and grabs a water bottle. Her least favorite hill is waiting for her.
The shine hasn’t worn off Merlin’s re-signing when Sophie receives another alert, this time telling her Concord has traded Lindy and Witzer to Phoenix. She sits down at the base of her hill, under the shade of a tree, and looks at the notification as if the words will change if she stares long enough.
Merlin declares to the whole hockey world Concord is a team worth playing for, and management turns around and trades their starting goalie and one of Merlin’s linemates? Anger builds, frustration right on its heels. She wants to throw her phone or maybe take another run at the hill, but her phone buzzes. It’s Lindy.
She answers with a sharp, “You can’t leave.”
“I already tried that one, kid. It didn’t work.”
“The ice is always soft in Phoenix.”
“It’ll be nice to get away from the cold winters. I’m too old for them.”
“You and X—you’re not old. You can play forever.” They’re supposed to play forever with her. “I don’t get it. Why doesn’t management believe in us? First Matty, now you. They’re trading away everyone we need.”
Jakub Lindholm is their goalie. Like X and Matty, he was a pillar of the franchise. But management traded Matty at the deadline last season and now they’ve traded Lindy. It’s only X left and, as he keeps reminding Sophie, he’s on the brink of retirement. Who are the Condors without their franchise players? Eli Aronowitz, the other piece in the trade, isn’t as critical to the team’s identity, but he was Sophie and Merlin’s left winger. How is she supposed to have a show-me year when everything is upended?
“They believe in you.” Lindy sounds tired, as if his age is catching up to him. “Matty traded, me traded… Once X retires, you’ll be a team of young guns. They’re building a team which will contend for years.”
“X isn’t retiring. He’s finally healthy again.”
“I’ll leave that fight to you. It was a pleasure playing with you.”
Shit. This is real. Lindy’s gone. An alert on her phone, a call, and next time she sees him he’ll be in the wrong uniform, protecting the wrong net. She swallows past the lump in her throat. “Send me a cactus or something, yeah?”
“Your apartment could use a few more decorations.”
It’s a weak chirp, but she laughs anyway.
After she hangs up with Lindy, she calls Witzer. Then she calls her new teammates, Freddie Kolmonen, Mitchell Evans, and Samuel Graves. Concord acquired a backup goalie, a center, and a right wing. It isn’t a bad haul even if none of them are star players. She rolls onto her stomach and makes another phone call, the hardest one of them yet.
As soon as she hears the click which means X picked up, she says, “I can’t lose you too,” instead of hello or I hope your summer’s treating you well.
X sighs, heavy and tired, as if it’s something he’s considering.
“Please.” She can’t do this without Matty and Lindy and X. “One more season. We’ll win it for you. I promise.”
“This is a young man’s team now. I’m the last of the old guys.”
“You have another season in you. This is your team; you’ve been here from the beginning. Now be here for our first Cup.”
“Hockey’s going to break your heart more than any boy will.”
“Is that a yes? One more season?”
“I won’t announce my retirement this summer, but Sophie, no matter what happens, I’m done after this season. It’s been a good run, but everyone has to hang their skates up sometime.”
“One more season,” she repeats. “I won’t let you down.”
Concord’s second ever Fan Fest is quickly approaching, but Sophie heads back to Concord even earlier, at the request of Martin Pauling, the owner of the Condors. He invites her to dinner at his house, and she dresses in a pair of game day slacks and a blouse.
Mr. Pauling, an older man with more white hair than gray, opens his door for her with a smile. “Welcome back to Concord, Sophie.”
“Thank you, sir.” She takes her shoes off by the door and follows him into the kitchen where Mr. Wilcox lifts a beer in greeting. He’s their general manager. He’s younger than Mr. Pauling by almost three decades, but his hair is thinning around his ears and the first few grays are coming in. He and his family opened their home to Sophie in her rookie season.
Now, he offers her an unopened beer.
“Water is fine for me, thank you.”
He smiles and taps the beer against his forehead. “You still have another year before you’re legal.”
“Next summer.” She accepts the bottle of water he hands her instead. “How are the girls?”
“Begging for another trip to Whale’s Tail. You’d think they’ve had a boring summer.” He looks over at Sophie, considering. “What are your thoughts on water parks?”
She laughs, hoping he’s joking. Mr. Wilcox laughs as well, but she has the feeling if she offered to take Kaylee and Jessica for the day, he’d eagerly accept. Sophie was grateful to have a family to live with her first year, and she likes his kids, but having them for an entire day on her own sounds like nightmare fodder. She doesn’t know what to do with kids. Her childhood was spent outside on the driveway or inside on a rink. She played hockey for hours, until she was dragged inside. Kaylee and Jessi want to play with the hamster, build with Legos, have a snack, watch a movie, and then turn the movie off so they can play whiffle ball in the backyard. They’re exhausting.
“I’m sure you know why we asked you here,” Mr. Pauling says. He uncovers an aluminum pan to reveal a chicken caprese salad. The second pan contains seafood risotto.
“Is this from Angelina’s?” Mr. Wilcox asks.
“Where else would I pick up Italian around here?” Mr. Pauling hands out plates. “Food first, then we’ll talk.”
Sophie loads her plate with more salad than risotto, because while she knows from experience that the risotto from Angelina’s is delicious, it’s too heavy for her to have too much of it. As they eat, Mr. Wilcox talks more about his summer. He took the girls hiking in the White Mountains, the whole family went to Disney World and SeaWorld and now, instead of a hamster, Jessi wants a dolphin for a pet.
“I told her we didn’t have the space, and she told me we should buy a house with a bigger yard.” Mr. Wilcox shakes his head, but he’s smiling fondly, and Sophie makes a mental note to stop by before the season starts so she can see the girls.
Dinner winds down, and Sophie clears the dishes to give herself another few minutes before she has to face this conversation. Last season, they expected Sophie to slot into the space Matty left behind. She stepped up and played as the first line center, and she shouldered the responsibility of her team, but she didn’t accept the captaincy when they offered it to her.
All she’d done was win a scoring title and be the first woman drafted into the League. She wasn’t deserving of the C on her sweater. Honestly, she’s still not sure she is. She led her team to their first playoff appearance, but they were promptly swept by Montreal.
“We’re giving you the captaincy,” Mr. Pauling tells her.
She notices he doesn’t offer it this time. “People will say I don’t deserve it.”
Mr. Pauling chuckles as if she’s being silly. “Since when do you listen to them?”
You’ll give me the captaincy but you won’t talk a long-term extension? You drafted me, the first woman in the League, but you drafted me last. Do you want me or don’t you? It’s the same thing. If she succeeds as their captain, they’ll re-sign her next summer. And if she crashes and burns, they’ll cut her loose.
Show-me season, indeed.
Sophie smiles, the reaction they’re looking for. “Thank you. I’m honored to be the next captain of the Concord Condors. We’ll be better this year than we were last year.”
“When’s Nyberg flying in?” Mr. Wilcox asks.
“Two days. I’m picking her up from the airport.”
Sophie ups her smile even though she feels even less like smiling now. Last year, she got her hopes up, excited for a female teammate, someone to share a locker room and an apartment with. But Elsa stayed in Sweden for another year, playing for her hometown team. Sophie can’t blame her for the choice, but she won’t pour her hopes into Elsa again. Until she sees Elsa at the airport, she won’t believe she’s here and playing with Sophie this season.
“Good, we want to make sure she feels welcome.”
“I’ll bring her over to meet Amber and the girls.”