K.R. Collins © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Sophie braves the Manchester airport, her ball cap pulled down low over her eyes so she won’t be recognized. On a different day, she wouldn’t mind being noticed by kids or even their parents. It would be a sign of how quickly hockey has caught on since she made her debut with the Concord Condors last season. Today, though, she’s on a mission.
Theodore Augereau, one of her teammates, is flying in, and she promised him a place to crash during the convention. Fan Fest is Concord’s first event of its kind, a weekend-long celebration of Condors hockey. They’ve planned autograph signings, player panels to answer questions, photo-ops, everything their PR team could think of to drum up support and excitement for the 2012-2013 season.
Sophie’s been in town for a few days helping to prepare, and her teammates are finally trickling in to join her. She spots a familiar figure in the crowd. Teddy has his hat tipped to hide his eyes, same as her, but she’d recognize those scrawny chicken legs anywhere. His goalie pads make him appear twice as large as he is, but in shorts and a T-shirt he looks small.
“You’re too skinny,” she tells him once they’re together. “Don’t you know the off-season is for bulking up?”
Teddy taps her shoulder where her shirt stretches thin to accommodate the breadth of her muscles. “You hit the weight room enough for both of us.”
She grins, pleased he noticed. She spent the summer training, determined to drag Concord into the playoffs this year. The last time she saw Teddy, his shoulders were hunched, the same misery in his eyes reflected in hers because it was locker room cleanout day, and their season ended too early. It’ll be different this year. They’ll have a postseason for the first time in franchise history.
“The guest room is made up for you,” she says as the baggage claim belt begins to move. “I even stocked the fridge.”
“You’ll spoil me.”
“You’re my goalie.” Goalies are meant to be protected—and spoiled—at all costs. Happy goalies make for happy teams. Jakub Lindholm—Lindy—is their starter, but he was Matty’s long before Sophie came to Concord. She knows better than to think she’ll separate their number one goalie from their captain. But she claimed Teddy last year, fair and square.
Teddy finds the black suitcase with a white 30 embroidered on it and hefts it off the belt. “Will you carry my bag?”
He grins as if he’s teasing. Sophie matches his smile. “Sure. I mean, it looks like I’m the only one who worked out this summer.”
“I tried!” Teddy slaps her hands away as she makes a grab for his bag. He lifts it up even though it has perfectly functioning wheels. His muscles flex, but where Sophie is thick and solid, he’s wiry like one of those Gumby figures she played with at her grandparents’ house.
“Men and their egos,” Sophie sighs.
“The summer didn’t make you any nicer.”
“I picked you up from the airport, I’m feeding you, and I’m giving you a place to stay.” She ticks each reason off on her fingers. “But you’re right. I’m not nice at all.”
“I’m not going to win this one.”
She laughs as she playfully bumps his shoulder. “I rarely lose.”
“Welcome to my apartment.” Sophie opens the door and ushers Teddy in. Last year, given her status as the first woman in the League, the Condors organization felt it was best for her to live with her general manager and his family rather than with one of her teammates. The Wilcoxes had been kind, but she’s ready for something different.
Sharing an apartment with Elsa will be new, but, more importantly, it’ll make her feel normal. Most players don’t eat dinner with their GM after practice or babysit his kids on their off days. They play video games with their teammates and eat too many tacos. She’s spent so much of her career set apart from what typical hockey players do. She’s excited to finally be like them.
She and Elsa haven’t talked much this summer which means Sophie’s done most of the decorating for their apartment on her own. The living room, the first thing anyone sees when they walk through the door, is all Sophie. The floors are hardwood, which is how the apartment came, but she picked out a slate-gray suede couch. It’s extra wide to accommodate hockey players, and she bought the matching love seat. The smaller couch won’t work for napping, but it’s somewhere for people to sit if they ever have company.
The coffee table is the same one displayed when she went furniture shopping. It’s square, with a glass inlay in the wood. The woman at the store said it’s ideal for displaying magazines without cluttering the top of the table. In deference to the saleswoman, she placed a few copies of After the Whistle inside. Carol Rogers, the reporter for the segment, also publishes weekly articles on the state of the League. At the end of each season, they compile her articles and interview transcripts into one large publication. It’s a look-back on the season, and Sophie can trace the history of the sport she loves by paging through the issues.
“Do you want a snack before your shower or after?” Sophie asks Teddy as she moves into the kitchen. It’s smaller than her parents’ kitchen, but it’s functional. There’s an oven with four cooktops and a fridge with a freezer big enough to store all the ice packs she and Elsa will need.
“The shower isn’t optional?” Teddy grins as he slides his shoes off near the door. “What’re you trying to say about me?”
“You smell like airport. You can’t take forever, we have places to be today.” Matty—Daniel Mathers—offered Lindy’s house for a team get-together before the convention. It’ll be a good opportunity to see everyone before they have to be on their best behavior for the fans. “The guest room is the one at the end of the hall. The bathroom’s the one with the toilet.”
Teddy laughs as he wheels his suitcase down the hall. Sophie pulls two bags of tortilla chips out of her pantry and takes out the salsa dip she made after a frantic Google search last night. It’s a layered dip with shredded buffalo chicken, and she hopes it tastes good. Cooking’s still new to her. At Chilton Academy, all their meals were provided to them and not much has changed since she made the jump to the North American Hockey League. Last year, Amber Wilcox and the team accounted for the majority of her meals.
When she asked Elsa if she has any hidden talents in the kitchen, Elsa sent back a picture of an open-face sandwich with either pickles or cucumbers on top. Sophie reapplied herself to finding easy, but trainer-approved recipes. At least if things become dire, she and Elsa can always order takeout.
“What are these?” Teddy pops back into the kitchen, holding a powder-blue hand towel with a seashell border.
“They came as a set; shower curtain, rug, towels. It means everything matches.”
Teddy stares at the towel. “Seriously?”
“It’s the guest bathroom. There are no seashells in mine.”
“Do they make towels with embroidered hockey pucks or do you have to custom order them?”
“Fuck off and shower.”
There are already cars lining the curb when Sophie and Teddy pull up. Music reaches the street from the backyard, and Sophie and Teddy exchange looks before they race each other around the side of the house. Teddy’s legs are longer, but Sophie’s more motivated. As soon as they round the corner, Sophie skids to a halt to avoid knocking into Theo and Kevlar.
Theodore Smith and Kevin Faulkner are a defensive pair, but their similarities end there. Theo’s over six and a half feet tall and pushing two hundred fifty pounds. When he smiles, there’s a gap where he’s missing two teeth. He lost them in a fight years ago and figured he’d wait to replace them until the end of his career. Kevlar’s a few inches shorter and almost fifty pounds lighter. He has a full set of teeth, and he shows them off as he smiles.
“Woah there,” Theo says. “Where’s the fire?”
Teddy crashes into Theo and they pop the bags of chips between them.
“I win,” Sophie says.
“You fucking did not!”
Kevlar laughs as he steps back, careful of the casserole dish Sophie’s holding. He pats her shoulders and then her biceps, and his eyebrows climb upwards. “Did you live in the gym this summer?”
“I wanted to make sure I was ready for the season. I’ve been watching some fighting videos.” Kevlar is the one who worked with her on the punching bags last season. He taught her to throw a punch, a skill she won’t ever use, because the NAHL has unofficially forbidden her from fighting.
“We can progress to sparring.”
“Don’t break our Sophie,” Theo says. He reaches an arm out and reels Sophie into a three-way hug.
She wriggles out of Theo’s hug so she can safely set her dip on one of the long tables in the backyard. Garfield, his shoulder length black hair tucked behind his ears, leans over to inspect her dip. Where Garfield is, Nelson isn’t far behind, and she’s unsurprised to see the other winger wander over, holding a plate of cookies.
Garfield plucks one off the plate and mumbles a thank-you through a mouthful of chocolate chip cookie.
“Once Zinger’s gotten his ass kicked by J-Rod, you’re up.”
Hockey players like their nicknames. Some, like José Rodriguez, have their names smushed together. Jeffrey McArthur told everyone he has magic hands and became Merlin. Nelson is called Odie because he’s always with Garfield. It’s from a comic she’s never read. Faulkner’s called Kevlar because of all the shots he blocks. Petrov was dubbed Marinara Man after face-planting in his spaghetti and meatballs last year. For brevity’s sake they mostly call him Peets unless they’re recounting the story or giving him a hard time.
“Mario Kart tourney,” Garfield tells Sophie as he scoops her dip into a paper bowl. “Do you want in?”
“I’m good but thank you.”
They take their food and head back inside, arguing over which one of them gets to be Princess Peach. Sophie shakes her head and inspects the table to see if anything catches her eye.
“Look who finally made it.”
She turns to spot Merlin opening one of the drink coolers. Merlin was her right winger last season, and they played good hockey together. This season, they’ll be even better. His copper beard is trimmed short, but as soon as he starts a point-streak, he’ll grow it out until his streak is snapped. For the sake of the team she’s almost grown to like the scraggly mess he calls a beard.
He snags a second beer from the cooler he stands guard over. “Want one?”
She holds up her car keys. “I’m in charge of driving home.” It’s an easy excuse not to drink. Plenty of her teammates do, even when they’re underage, but she refuses to give the League an excuse to drop her. Besides, years of playing hockey have taught her she can’t always trust her team. Being the only sober one means she’s often accused of being boring but it’s better than the alternatives.
“Are you sticking around until the start of the season?” Sophie asks.
Merlin tosses her a purple Gatorade and she catches it and twists the cap off. He shakes his head as he sips his beer. “Marissa and I are visiting her parents before the season begins. What about you?”
“I’m making sure the apartment’s ready for Elsa.”
“Am I being replaced as your favorite winger?”
“I don’t have favorites.”
“Liar!” Teddy calls from the snack table. He has a bowl full of her buffalo chicken dip. “I’m your favorite.”
And, well, he’s not wrong. But goalies are different.
“He’s your favorite goalie,” Merlin says, stubborn. “I can still be your favorite winger.”
“I’m her favorite winger.” Witzer—Eli Aronowitz—her left winger from last season, comes over to argue his case. His brown hair floofs today without the usual product slicking it down.
Sophie holds her hands up. “I am not stepping in the middle of this.”
“You’re my favorite center,” Merlin says.
“One might even say, you’re the center of our universe,” Witzer adds.
They glance at each other before they squish her between them in a hug. She laughs, happy to be back and surrounded by her team.
Teddy stumbles into her kitchen the next morning, bleary-eyed and adorably miserable. His Condors T-shirt is loose, baring a bony collarbone. “Coffee?” he asks, hopeful and longing.
Sophie takes the scrambled eggs off the burner and pushes half of them onto Teddy’s plate and half of them onto her own. “Elsa’s picking out the coffeemaker, because I don’t drink it.”
“No coffee?” He sinks onto one of the island chairs, looking lost.
“I have tea?”
“We’re stopping at Dunkin.”
When they arrive at the hotel for Fan Fest, Teddy’s still clutching his large coffee in both hands. He breathes in the scent of it as if he can get caffeinated this way until it’s cool enough to drink.
“Go find a chair to curl up in,” she tells him. She has a cup of coffee too but it’s for Mary Beth Doyle, their PR manager. She’s in the middle of the room, giving instructions to the six eager men and women crowded around her. She’s wearing a smart business suit, her hair pulled up in a tight, professional bun. Her ever-present phone is in her hand, and she glances at it a few times as she speaks.
Once she sends her underlings on their way, she spots Sophie and smiles, or maybe it’s the coffee which brings out her smile. “For me?”
Sophie hands the coffee over. “Your day is longer than mine.”
“Easier too.” Mary Beth takes a cautious sip followed by a longer one. “You’re starting with the media. It isn’t the fun part of the weekend, but it’s how we grow the game.”
As the first woman in the League, Sophie stood in front of more cameras last season than some guys will over their entire careers. She knows why media exposure is important, but she still wishes she had a panel to kick-start her day. The fans are who she cares about, and she’ll answer what her favorite color is fifteen times if fifteen kids come up to a microphone and ask.
She wants to know how many young girls have shown up to see her. She doesn’t play only for them—first and foremost she plays for herself—but inspiring girls was a big factor in why she’s playing here in the NAHL and not overseas. She has vivid memories of lying on her grandparents’ rug and watching Bobby Brindle lift the Maple Cup for Montreal. She knew the first time she saw him do it she wanted to lift the Cup one day. Now, she hopes, when she does, there will be a girl on her grandparents’ living room floor who sees her and thinks I can do it too.
But Sophie doesn’t start with a panel and kids who ask her who on the team has the best pranks and whose gear stinks the worst. Instead, Carol Rogers from After the Whistle says, “You were focused on making a place for yourself last season. Will we see a better balance of hockey and a social life this one?”
Sophie’s brain screeches to a halt. This is her first question of Fan Fest? As a rookie she broke a hundred points to notch 101 and earn herself the Maddow Trophy. She lost out on the Clayton, the trophy awarded to the best rookie, but she’d rather talk about her disappointment than—
“You must be on the radar of a lot of young men,” Rogers continues.
A boyfriend question. She wants to seek out Mary Beth and share an eye roll, but she’s too well-trained. She fixes her media smile firmly in place. “I’m as committed to hockey this season as I was last season.”
“Have you been encouraged by the front office to remain single?” asks Marty Owen, a sports writer for The Concord Courier. He’s wearing a rumpled suit, seemingly the only kind he owns. His eyes, too close together, are especially piercing this season. He’s always hunting for the angle which makes the team look the worst. She doesn’t understand why he covers a team he appears to hate.
“The front office doesn’t interfere with my personal life.” Though maybe they will now. “The NAHL isn’t an easy League to play in, and I don’t want any distractions.”
“You think a boyfriend would be distracting, then?”
“A hypothetical boyfriend has already created a distraction. We’re here for Concord’s first Fan Fest and instead of asking me about the upcoming season, you want to talk about someone who doesn’t exist.” She scans the crowd until she finds Ed Rickers, her favorite reporter of the bunch.
He works for The Granite State Sports Network, and his tie today has Concord’s condor on it. “You bulked up this summer.”
“I always strive to be better.”
It’s the perfect opening to ask about her summer training or her expectations for the season, but Marty Owen says, “Concord drafted Elsa Nyberg at this year’s draft. Was it wise to take a chance on another woman?”
One day, she’ll strike the phrase take a chance out of everyone’s vocabulary. It’s all she heard last year even though Concord picked her last which was the opposite of taking a chance. Drafting Elsa wasn’t a gamble. She’s an elite goal scorer, able to come up big at the vital moment. In addition, she plays on the left wing, and her goal scoring combined with Sophie’s playmaking…a line with the two of them could be exactly what Concord needs to propel them into a winning season, then the playoffs.
“If you’ve seen Elsa’s game tape, you’d know Concord isn’t taking a chance,” Sophie answers, as bland as she can manage. She locks her indignation down deep. “She’ll be an asset to our team.”
“She has an edge to her game you don’t,” someone in the crowd says. She doesn’t recognize him which means he’s probably a blogger. If he thinks he can pit Sophie and Elsa against each other, he must be new.
“One of the reasons I’m looking forward to playing with Elsa is because her skill set complements mine. Not all women in the NAHL are the same.”
Rickers is smiling as he asks, “What about Gabrielle Gagnon? Would you say the two of you are different players?”
Gabrielle is the third woman to be drafted into the League. She and Elsa both went first round at the last draft. Elsa, tall with sharp blue eyes and a bright smile, will be Sophie’s teammate and roommate this upcoming season. Gabrielle, who is striking in her own way, is the first female goalie in the League. They’re both proof Sophie did something right last season. The “Sophie Fournier Experiment” as her critics, and even some of her supporters called it, must have been a success since two more women have been added to the League.
Sophie allows the reporters to see a flash of her smile before she answers. “I’d say I’m more offensively minded than Gabrielle, but she has me beat as a defensive player.”
Rickers grows serious. “Do you think she’ll be a good fit for Quebec? They’re notoriously hard on their goalies.”
Most teams put statues of players they’re proud of outside their stadiums. They erect monuments to franchise players, the ones who have led the team on a great playoff run or scored an iconic goal or blown team records out of the water.
Quebec’s stadium is guarded, or maybe haunted is the better word, by a statue of William Loiseau. He was the Bobcats’ goalie when they won five straight Maple Cups, and he was the one who lost them their sixth. With a win, Quebec would take the record for consecutive Maple Cup victories from Montreal, their longtime—and bitter—rival. But in triple OT of Game Seven of the Finals, the puck trickled through Loiseau’s legs and Quebec lost.
They ran the man out of town. From the rumors Sophie’s heard, he was run out of the country too. They put up a statue of Five-Hole Billy to warn future goalies against repeating his mistakes. It was the birth of the Quebec Curse. They haven’t held on to a goaltender for more than five years since.
“Quebec does have a reputation,” Sophie agrees. “Gabrielle is a steady goalie, and she’s always performed well for Team Canada, another tough hockey critic. There are a lot of aspects of her game for Quebec to like.”
It’s uncommon for a goalie to make their team right out of being drafted, but maybe Gabrielle will be an exception. Sophie’s most excited for Elsa, to have another woman on her team, but it’ll be good to compete against Gabrielle.
After she’s released from the media, she sits for a signing session with Matty, Lindy, and Delacroix. Benoit Delacroix—X—is their veteran defenseman and as much as this weekend means to Sophie, it means more to him. The last expansion took place during the League’s seventy-fifth year. Concord was one of the teams added. X was recruited out of college, the first player signed to the team.
X, and Concord, have been in the League for eighteen years now. He’s dedicated his entire career to this team, and Sophie will see him lift the Cup before he’s done. No one has given this franchise more than he has, and she wants him rewarded for it. There are lines in his face she doesn’t remember from last year, and his beard, while trimmed short, has more gray than brown in it this year.
She sits between X and Matty with Lindy on Matty’s other side. They’re the pillars of the franchise, the Condors building up around X then Matty and X then Matty, X, and Lindy, but a solid structure needs four pillars. Maybe it’s cocky for her to elect herself Concord’s fourth support, but she does it anyway. The four of them, they’ll bring Concord to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, then they’ll win the Cup.
“You’re my favorite player.”
Sophie’s pulled out of her thoughts by a girl in a Condors T-shirt. Her curls are pinned to keep them out of her face, and she hands a second T-shirt to Sophie to sign.
“It used to be Justin Rust, because he’s American and my brother says I’m not allowed to like Canadian players best, but it’s a stupid rule so I like you anyway.”
Matty’s doing his best not to laugh, and Sophie has to turn away from him so she can control her smile. “Thank you. Do you play?”
The girl nods and it shakes some of her curls free. “I want to play with the boys like you. I have your poster on my wall and my brother told me it was stupid because girls can’t play as good as boys but you scored the most points in the League.”
“If you’re good enough to play, you can play, whether you’re a boy or a girl. What’s your name?”
“Eliza Bennett. My mom named me after some girl in a really old book. I’m going to name my daughter Sophie like you.”
All three of her teammates are openly laughing at her now. Fighting a blush, Sophie writes To Eliza above her signature. “You seem too young to have kids.”
Eliza rolls her eyes. “Duh, I’m only in sixth grade. Mom says I have to wait until college to have a boyfriend.” She squints at Sophie. “If you didn’t go to college then when are you allowed to date?”
Thankfully, one of the convention attendants moves Eliza along before Sophie has to answer.
After the convention, the team piles into one of their favorite bars. They take up two sets of booths near the back, and Sophie sits between Witzer and Merlin with a bottle of water rather than a beer. She fiddles with the plastic label. “It has been one day, and I’ve fielded more questions about dating than I did all of last year.”
The table falls silent. Nelson looks away as if the word date is something to be afraid of even though she listened to him regale the locker room with stories of his various hookups last year, in more detail than anyone needed. Next to her, Witzer has gone still as if she’ll forget he’s here if he doesn’t move or speak.
“Sorry.” Sophie twists and untwists the cap on her water bottle. She forgot there are some topics off-limits to her.
“You don’t need to apologize.” Merlin glares at his phone.
She leans over his shoulder. The Sin Bin, which is more an online tabloid than a hockey news site, is running the headline Sophie Fournier–Hockeysexual? She’s heard variations of the same ever since her male teammates realized they wanted to be near girls instead of running away from them. There were several awful months in the locker room where the boys strutted around with their shirts off and their chests puffed up.
She was eleven and completely uninterested.
Over the years, with different teams and in different locker rooms, Sophie has remained uninterested. Sometimes, she wonders if there’s something wrong with her. She’s never felt a spark when she sees someone or experienced the stirrings of a crush. She’s seen plenty of abs and asses and dicks in the locker room and never thought anything besides put some clothes on before a camera catches you.
“This article says instead of watching porn you get off on hockey highlights.” Merlin keeps his voice light, trying to make a joke out of it because if they can joke, then everything will be okay.
She doesn’t need him to guard her feelings, but she appreciates the effort. She’s tempted to say she gets off the way she imagines most women without a partner do—with her hands and her favorite vibrator—but this isn’t the right time or the right audience.
Instead, she grins and bumps his shoulder with hers. “I guess you don’t have to worry about me having a crush on you. You’re certainly not on my hockey highlight reel.”
The table, if possible, grows even quieter.
Then Matty slaps the table as he bursts into laughter.
“Hey,” Merlin grumbles, but he looks too relieved to mean it.