Champagne splashed all over the walls of the dingy, electric-lamp-lined tunnel that snaked to the locker room. It kept getting in my eyes, burning them, causing me to blink and tear up as we made our way back to the relative safety our den provided. Everyone was screaming, grabbing and hugging each other as we crashed into the little room that had become our home away from home. This wasn’t supposed to be in the cards for us. It wasn’t supposed to happen. But none of that mattered to me, and all the bubbly in the world couldn’t have distracted me from keeping steadfast vigil on the door, hoping against hope he wouldn’t come.
The dank dressing area reeked like five-day-old salmon thanks to our sweat-drenched, woolen hockey sweaters, used socks, and spilled hooch. The stench, the closeness of the room, and the rapid drumbeat of the blood pumping in my ears made it hard to focus.
Each time the door opened and a new reveler entered, swinging his boater wildly about him, my heart dropped into my stomach and beads of sweat popped up across my forehead. The taste of bile nearly caused me to double over and vomit. What if they all knew what had really just happened? Or more importantly, what if they knew what we were told to do and why? My dirty little secret.
Percy, one of the big defensemen, grabbed me in a headlock and started laughing and throwing me around in a horrific parody of the Charleston. “Brett! We did it!” he shouted to me, to no one, maybe to all of us. I struggled wildly, my lungs pumping without catching breath, desperate to break free. I finally slipped away from his grasp to catch a panicked glimpse toward the doorway, but no one was there. If he had come, I would know.
Suddenly, the door opened again, and he appeared, shoulder pads filling the doorway, eliminating all thoughts of escape. He took giant steps into the room, the heavily padded legs of a goaltender swinging out widely in large semicircles as he charged forward. On the ice, he had been graceful and moved deftly. On cement, he lumbered across the floor, his skates clacking each step, but I still didn’t have enough time.
The joyous locker room cheers fell silent in that single moment. Someone had let go of a foolish-looking beaded headband pulled off some woman in the stands, and it drifted to the floor in slow, sweeping arcs. Once the first person had seen him bolting into our sacred place wearing that rival bright maroon and white sweater in our locker room, an enemy behind the lines, I knew there would soon be horrible violence. One way or the other, things would never be the same.
Before words could form on anyone’s lips, he had pointed his finger toward me and screamed. “You!”
The madness of the moment must have affected my hearing, because when he screamed, I swore his voice became a thunder-cracking chorus of angry angels ready to pass judgment. Sweat dripped off his fingers, taped from being broken this way and that during the many years he had stopped the puck with nothing but worn leather padding between his hand and the speeding rubber.
Jean-Paul leapt forward leading with a haymaker, clobbering the intruder hard across the side of the head, cutting his face. Blood splattered against the wall. Men sprang forward from every nook and cranny of the locker room to pull them apart, holding them relatively still.
Blood flowing from the nasty cut above his brow pooled at the bottom of his chin. His tight jaw shook with rage, the droplets of blood swaying back and forth, hanging for impossible seconds.
The roaring sound filling my ears, making it impossible to think, suddenly stopped. I could see and hear clearly. It all came into sharp focus. Our captain held up his long arms, the lone sheriff keeping the lynch mob at bay. The entire team had gathered in the center of our locker room, surrounding this stranger at the gates, hungry for a reason to explode. The intruder’s face turned into a contorted, sickening version of itself, his finger pointed directly at me. It was almost over.
The intruder was about to destroy my entire universe with a single word. My breath caught in my throat. Would it be the next word he said out loud? Would I hear it as breaking glass or a shallow whimper? Tears had sprung from the corners of my reddened eyes, bile gurgled in the pit of my stomach. The captain put a hand up for everyone to be quiet, turned to the man, and said, “You’d better tell us what you’re doing in here, right now!”
The man took a deep breath, caught the panic in my eyes, grinned, and began to speak.
September 7, 1926
The harsh ring of the wooden phone case hanging on the wall brought the room to attention. “Uh-huh. Yep. All right.” The coach hung up the phone receiver, turning to us to see expectancy on our faces. “You’re behind the eight ball today.” The coach laughed, his ruddy face shining across the room, belly that was once hard bobbing up and down like an apple in a barrel on Halloween. “Betta look sharp and step lively or them scouts’re gonna pass you by.” The locker room sprang to life, noisy with nervous excitement.
Scouts. In a shrinking league, their all-powerful judgment meant everything. Life and death to us hopefuls, whether we languish here banging the boards for pennies, playing on one backwater team or another, or something more. I don’t mean to disparage the Marauders. I don’t know what I’d have done if my old coach hadn’t called in a favor with an old pal.
“Boys, when it’s me, I’m gonna get a shoeblack to pretty up my Oxfords every day!” Mickey MacKay, one of the boys who was nice to me, dreamed aloud.
“He’s rollin’ in it now!” Everyone roared.
“And how!” another boy exclaimed.
“I bet anyone here a fin I’ll be the first to score today!” another fella boasted.
“They ain’t gonna give you a second look after they give me the up and down!” Mickey continued. The boys were all jawing about who was going to score the most goals and who would block the most shots. All except for me. I couldn’t even think about what it would mean to get picked up by a big team. Hell, I had just started here and was still trying to get used to hockey beginning in September. We didn’t have indoor ice hockey back home in Delavan, Wisconsin, so we couldn’t play until December most years.
When they came in, everybody paid heed. They wore shiny cap-toed shoes, their ankles covered in white spats that slapped the ground as they walked. With their dark fedoras shading their eyes and sharp, dark woolen suits contrasting those shoes, they resembled gangsters.
The scouts made a short stop in the locker room to see the coach, but none of them spoke to us at all. They were gone to their seats as quick as they had come, leaving a room full of anxious people worried about their futures. We should have been focusing on the game at hand.
When the scouts split, the team captain Billy added his two cents in his usual nice way. “You bums better be hard boiled today, playing with all you got if you want to make it to the big time, with the way things are.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, instantly feeling stupid and regretting my words before they stopped reverberating off the walls like a horrible echo that wouldn’t fade. He laughed at me, shooting me a glare that said he thought I had rocks banging around between my ears.
“What a chump, eh, fellas?” someone said, poking fun at my expense.
“You don’t get it, do you, Blondie?” he scorned, swatting my head forward from behind, knocking my dirty blond hair—the hair that brought a bunch of girlie nicknames my way—over my eyes. It actually got my goat every time someone taunted me about it, but getting the captain’s dander up wasn’t the best choice for the new guy on a team, so I usually swallowed it. Hard.
“The chances of getting picked for a big team like Toronto or Montreal…slim to none, what with all them leagues collapsing,” Billy continued in a belittling schoolmarm voice. “There are a lot of professional hockey leagues that didn’t make it—”
“I know, lay off, I just forgot,” I pled, trying to make him stop, feeling foolish.
Billy just looked at me with cold derision before continuing on, ignoring my interruption. “Like I was saying, up through last year several of them fell, like the Western Hockey League and the Western Canadian. Who else is gone?” he asked the crowd of followers like the teacher he was pretending to be, cocking his smile toward me the whole time.
“The Central Professional,” someone answered, trying to impress Billy.
“Pacific Coast and the National Hockey Association.” Each league mentioned stung like a slap in the face for having said anything in the first place.
“All right, I said lay off, would ya?” I whined.
All those players from those teams were flat busted and scrambling for work. It was frightening how the National League owned most of what was left, including the Stanley Cup, which represented the most prestigious, the most honored of all sports trophies. Scouts came around once a year to all the farm teams to look for prospects but contracts were scarce. I knew all this, yet the eighteen-year-old idiot inside me talked for me sometimes. I couldn’t win.
Ever since I arrived in Milwaukee a week ago, big eyed and hopeful, things proved different than I expected. People were different. Back home, I had been the star of the team, the supposed golden boy with friends, even though I’m actually shy and never felt like I fit in, for my own reasons. Here, Billy had been beating his gums at me, razzing me, trying to get me to challenge him to a fight. He made sure I knew it would take more than playing skills to unseat him as the leader of the pack. He made me edgy whenever he was around, and he was always around. I loathed him.
I’m generally not the guy who asks for center stage, even when my involvement in sports drew people to me and got me whatever I wanted along with some things I didn’t. Out there on the ice, out there things are different. Billy didn’t really mean anything by it anyway. At least that’s what I kept telling myself when he continued to give me the business about how I’d never make it.
He was wrong. I had to make it. Getting to the big leagues wasn’t just my dream, after all. My mother wanted it badly, saying, “You could skate before you could even walk.” It’s like a tired cliché, and it wasn’t true. As best as I could tell, it wasn’t even possible. But my mother always said it. Sometimes I wondered if she was expressing pride or something else.
Once I scored my first goal, there was no turning back for my father, either. It was constantly drilled into my head—not in any way that could be mistaken as having a choice in the matter—that I was going to be the world’s greatest hockey player. Some days, I even believed it.
Billy continued to rub salt in my wounds, and that’s when it started. While sitting in the locker room before the game, thinking about scouts, big leagues, and what my father would say if I didn’t make it, my nerves started acting up like they sometimes did. I started counting things, eyes darting back and forth over whatever I was counting. It doesn’t matter what it is that gets counted, or whether I count in single digits or escalating numbers. It just gets stuck in my head and I can’t stop. One, two, three, four, as the count of the people sitting on benches went up. Then twenty-four, twenty-two, twenty as the skates were taken from the cubbies by each of the guys. There I was, staring into space unable to count to any conclusions, heart racing faster and faster, eyes welling in pain. This thing became an unstoppable monster in my head.
I started doing that as a little kid, and nobody seemed to know what it was or how to cure it. My face hurt from the jaw clenching I did while I counted things over and over, like a grinding and gnashing. Shit! I hated when it happened, and it happened way too often. Sometimes it was an endless circle, and I could never count my way to a stopping point, exhausting all my energy.
Even though the pills the doctor back home had prescribed for nerves made me groggy, I clasped the bottle in my pants pocket in the cubby. I started to bring it out, but the pills rattled in the bottle and I started counting pills in my head, reflecting on totals minus how many I took. Mickey pushed by Billy while I was in the middle of another run of numbers. He smacked me square on the back.
“Rate a game like you did against Madison the other day and, Brett, my friend…” He trailed off when he reached for his skates. A good whack on the back like that snapped me out of my head. I released my hold on the bottle and left the pills in my pants pocket where they continued to taunt me. I did not start counting again, however, using the movement to push myself up. I couldn’t wait to get out on the ice, where that sort of thing never happened.
Coming out of the dark tunnel into the stadium, I heard the bustling sounds of the crowd. Hearing the people clapping and talking with excitement for their home team wound me up. Truth be told, it didn’t matter if we were the home team or not. I just loved the feel of the game. The folks in the crowd in the big city were different than those back home, who all knew the players. These people were dressed in their Sunday best, big bright hats on the ladies, many of the men shouting out at each other in cheer or boast. They were businessmen, laborers, wives, rich and poor, all swirled together. More or less. The high cost of a ticket, five whole cents, kept most away.
I scanned the arena looking for the scouts. With all the faces in the crowd, it seemed silly to try to find them because the stadium was one of the biggest in Wisconsin. It held fifteen hundred people. After a tense minute or so looking, I finally spotted them behind our own players’ bench, all sitting together, roster sheets in hand.
Stanley Garret, the owner of the Milwaukee Marauders, was sitting with them, smoking some giant Cuban cigar that smelled up the whole area. I knew it was a Cuban because he bragged about them to anyone who would listen. One of the scouts had these intense eyes that drilled each of us as we stepped onto the ice.
For a second, the idea of trying to do some fancy footwork to show off as soon as I took the ice popped into my head. But what if I tripped up and fell? That would definitely leave a lasting impression they could talk about on their train ride home. Finished before it even started. No thanks. I played it safe.
When my skates touched the ice, the wind brushed my face and ruffled my hair with each stride, and right then I could have cared less about scouts, coaches, Billy, or big league contracts. The world of ice swallowed up the shy, odd fellow I became when off it. Sometimes it grew so intoxicating, I had to force myself to remember to breathe out there. Swoosh, swoosh. That’s all I could hear—the sound my skates made as they pushed through the water that formed on the ice surface.
When the referee blew the whistle and dropped the puck, Billy won the face-off. He slid it right back to me as I moved up toward the middle of the ice. I didn’t see any openings to skate into, so I passed it off to Mickey and headed to my spot. I called it my spot because everyone from Coach to my father had always taught me where each player should be when he has the puck and when he doesn’t. As I moved past the front of the goalmouth, the boys were fighting against the boards for the puck until it popped out of the scrum. It seemed to slide right toward me as if I willed it to come to me. My stick reached out and grabbed the puck, pulling it back toward me as if it already knew what I wanted.
One of Toledo’s big defensemen came charging at me. He lumbered, which made me believe that I could fake him out, deke him into moving as if I was going left when I was really going right. When the big guy committed to move with me, I quickly switched back to the other side so fast he couldn’t follow, opening up a clear path to the goalie. A half step to my right, and I was alone. My eyes darted to the right as well, trying to get the goalie to think that I was going to shoot that way. When he took the bait, I shot to the left. The frozen rubber puck flew past the goalie as he reached across his body in vain.
A horn sounded somewhere high in the stadium to report the goal. I raised one hand up in celebration and let the momentum carry me forward, gliding toward my teammates. I was crushed as they skated into me without slowing, then into each other, cheering and hollering. It overjoyed me when a deke worked, which was far better than how I felt when it didn’t.
I forgot the scouts were watching, and I focused on playing the game. In the second period, we were tied at one. With most of the guys heading one way toward our net, I noticed that someone had mishandled the puck. It was going to my teammate, Mickey. I pumped my feet, going down the ice, hoping he’d notice, which he did. Mickey saw me breaking away, headed for the goalie. He flipped the puck up in the air to me so that it came off the ice where no one could trap it, the pass landing flat and even. That puck slammed into my stick so hard I almost lost control of it. But I didn’t. It went directly from the tape on the bottom of his hockey stick to the tape of mine just like we had practiced over and over.
I headed straight for the goalie with no other player anywhere in sight. It was a breakaway play. My heart pounded to the rhythm of my skates pushing forward. Their goalie had come out of his crease a few feet, past the painted square line around it, to challenge me for position. They almost never leave their safe zone, knowing we can’t even cross their line unless we have the puck. I’d love to say I knew their goalie and had studied his style the way many of the guys did, but it’d be a lie. I just saw fear in his eyes. Having scored on him once, he knew I could do it again.
I pulled my stick back as if I was going to give it the old slammer. He dug deep to brace for it. That was when I saw what I needed to do. I flipped the puck to the backhand, causing him to move too fast across his own feet and stumble. I pushed the puck past him into the net while he sprawled out all over the ice. I would have laughed if I knew that would never be me on the ice looking like a sap. I actually felt a little bad for him. Not bad enough to stop, though.
In the next minute, I scored again when a smooth pass came from Billy and fooled the goalie. Billy might have been mean-spirited toward me almost every second of the day, but he played to win. I was able to tap it in nice and easy to bring the tally to three goals, the boys and the crowd screaming as if this game decided the Stanley Cup championships. In a way, it meant even more.
Walking to the locker room during the second intermission, I arrogantly looked up to see if the scouts were watching me. They weren’t. They were talking in a tight little circle, two of them laughing like schoolkids, not even paying attention to us players. Some scouting! I hoped they had been watching us a few minutes before as I scored my third goal of the game.
Mickey slapped me on the back with an overenthusiastic heavy hand. He was short, stout, and strong. He had to be thirty, but he skated as fast as any man, his wavy blond hair flowing in the breeze. Mickey was a nice guy, if a bit boisterous and brash. He came from Canada, Quebec, I thought, which should have meant he was calmer and quieter like the rest of his countrymen were supposed to be. But he wasn’t, not at all. He said it was because his people came from Scotland originally, but he sounded more like the modern city with all his slang.
“Man, that was the cat’s pajamas! I practically gave you that goal, boy.” He laughed real loud, and a couple of the other guys joined in, except Billy, who was scowling. Mickey’s laugh was infectious, just like his personality. When he chuckled, his blue eyes would tear up, causing them to sparkle a little. The boys called him the Wee Scot, on account of his size and nationality, but his stature hid all of his raw power. I smirked a little at what he said.
Then it dawned on me. The scouts not looking at me, Billy’s angry look, Mickey boasting about how he helped with my goal. The scouts thought I was being selfish with the puck. Although we were winning the game, and I had scored three goals, hockey only had so much room for showboating and grandstanding. I had to make sure that I played fairly with my teammates, so I made the decision to hand-feed them passes that were as close to perfect as possible. Sitting there thinking about it, I began to chuckle a little. If I ended up with some assist points for helping others score, it’d look good for me too, which might also make me look selfish. I had to stay away from the doubt building in my head and just play my way.
In the first few minutes of the third period, my chance came. When Mickey got the puck, we dished it back and forth to each other a few times until he finally took the shot and scored. The whole team flew over to hug him, the crowd waving its arms in the air in a giant blur. Just as we were separating, one of the enforcers from the other team clipped me in the back of the legs with the butt end of his stick. I went down like a sack of flour.
When I jumped back up, I took a swing at this big palooka. It shocked him a little. I would not claim my quick strike hurt him in any way. It simply took him by surprise, which wore off rather quickly. If we had a fight on even terms, it would be curtains for me. After all, it was his job to make players like me pay, mostly in pain, whenever he could. After the next swing at him missed, he connected with a few. Which hurt. Terribly.
Then half the Marauders’ bench knocked him down and piled on his head. The mêlée allowed me to slip back away without getting murdered, which I’m sure looked real impressive to the scouts. A hockey player who skirts away from a fight? It had not been my greatest moment. The referee didn’t seem to care who started it or who ran from it. He threw us both in the penalty box.
All told, I had three goals and two assists under my name on the score sheet in that game. Added to that, I also had two minutes in the penalty box for my semi-professional boxing debut. We won the game five to two. Mickey scored the other two goals, both off my passes. It was swell to help him out. Since showing up on the team, it hadn’t been easy for me to make friends, friends that I actually wanted to be around. That was never my strong suit, but he was pretty good to me.
Back in the locker room, everyone seemed excited and happy the two of us had such a good showing. Surely they were worried that all of the stats had our names on them. I almost wet the front of my hockey pants in excitement when the door opened and the coach came into the locker room with the scouts. My pants were so wet from hitting the ice that no one would have noticed anyway.
“Boys, this here is Dick Irvin, Gordie Fraser, and Percy Traub,” the coach said after clearing his throat. “They came all the way from Chicago to see the game today.” We all just stared at them. Chicago. What team? They didn’t even have a team. My brain spun around in circles, and the cogs couldn’t seem to catch the gears. “I have to say they got one hell of a game at that!” The cheer went up at the high praise from our coach.
When the cheering died down, Dick, the more serious of the gangster-looking guys, said, “Fellas, you all played a good game. You know why we’re here today, so I won’t give you no bull.” You could have heard a pin drop in the room as he drew some breath to continue.
“We have a new team down in Chicago. Most of you know that. We need some players who want to win games. We want to go all the way to the championship this year. Prove ourselves to our new city. The coach here has our list of people we want in Chicago, and it’s also posted right outside on the wall. If you didn’t make the list, keep playing hard and we’ll see.” We all looked at each other and back at him. “Well?”
The room became a stampede of bull elephants and rhinos giving Dick and Gordie and anyone else brave enough to be standing there the bum’s rush. I stood in the back, waiting for the crowd to clear a little bit so I could see the list. The crowd stopped shoving each other and turned to face me.
“What?” They had me worried I had done something wrong, completely forgetting in all the rush what we were desperately trying to look at. Then I saw Billy’s face, and I knew what had happened. He looked at me, his eyes a well of pain so profound it could stop your heart. For all the anger he spread around, I stayed my shock for a second to feel for him.
“Oh my God,” I said finally.
Tacked on the wall, hanging at a slight angle, was a single crisp, off-white sheet of paper that read: Brett Bennet. Mickey MacKay. Thank you. My heart stopped working for a full minute. Then as quickly as it started, the silence ended with whoops and hollers from Mickey jumping up and down with me in his arms.
“Brett, I’m a man that pays his debts, and that’s on the square.” When he paused a second to collect himself, I thought he was going to cry. I started to tear up, either from the sentiment or the excitement. He continued, “We’re pals now for sure! I know that some of those shots were yours to take, and you gave ’em up to me. I appreciate it something awful, and I’ll be there whenever you need me. I don’t skip out. Chicago, here we come!” It must have slipped my mind to tell him that passing the puck didn’t exactly make me look bad either.
I thought the other boys would poke fun at me for crying, but I just couldn’t help it. It had been too intense a day, such a great game, and now this. And it was happening for Mickey too? The other players didn’t razz us at all, but they didn’t congratulate us much either. They just disappeared into themselves, keeping busy with the tasks of putting away equipment and clothes. I’d like to think I understood them. I don’t know how I’d deal with not seeing my name up on that wall. My tears weren’t just little ones that were easy to wipe away, either.
September 8, 1926
Chicago was nothing like Milwaukee.
I didn’t get to see any of its urban sprawl from the train’s windows, asleep and drooling on myself. The nerve pill I had taken to deal with the unbearable counting of the railroad spars knocked me unconscious. I felt terribly small as I stepped out of the enormous Union Station train depot into the dirty streets with everything I owned shoved into my one bag. These giant metal monstrosities blotted out the sky above. They were immense but ornate, with scary stone gargoyles perched on their tops. Milwaukee had skyscrapers of its own, but Chicago stacked them one after another, stretching out as far as the eye could see. The sun poking through the clouds gleamed off the tall windows in the sky, going upward forever.
The city smelled too. Not bad, really. It just had this mixture that was hard to place, except for the train smoke. Judging by the construction workers and building materials all inside and around the station, the city was in a state of constant growth. The air was filled with the din of sledgehammers striking metal and workers yelling to be heard.
I must have looked like a country bumpkin, but back home we didn’t have so many different motorcars and trucks. Milwaukee had some, but this was entirely different, this chaos in motion roaring by, its tires blasting water up from puddles and ruts over the sidewalks. People yelped as they jumped back out of the way of the splashing sludge, which seemed to be a mix of dirt, grime, coal dust, and rain.
“What’d I tell ya, pal?” Mickey said, slapping my back, which caused me to stumble forward toward the oncoming traffic. He smiled with this giant, toothy grin I found hard to ignore and even harder to resist as he reached his hand out to help me step back up on the curb. He had a ruggedly handsome way about him. This, along with his particular kind of charm, led some ladies to his side. His short body and solid muscles made him awfully strong, which I felt as he hoisted me up out of the street. I would hate to run into him when he was in a bad mood.
“It’s big. It’s big? That’s all you have to say?” Mickey looked up at one of the sky-eating buildings. “We are going to take this city by storm. All the rumble’s gonna be ’bout us, buddy. Wait till the ladies get a load of my mug.”
I grimaced. “Uh-huh.”
“Oh, poor boy, don’t be jealous. I’m sure the dames’ll love you too,” he said, ruffling my hair a little too aggressively for my taste.
“Let’s go find the Coliseum offices,” I said to change the subject. “I really want to get this squared away.” I had been feeling this gnawing at the bottom of my belly since we left Milwaukee. I worried the guys in the main offices here were going to rescind the offer, if that’s what it was. We weren’t sure if we would have a tryout. They were going to take one look at this country boy and laugh me back to a bus because they weren’t going to pay for a train ticket home.
“You worry way too much, Brett,” Mickey said as he walked away from me toward the next corner, gesturing wildly at both sides of the street. “This is my city now. Everything is going to be just—”
“Jake. I heard,” I finished for him. Mickey never seemed to run out of things to say. From what I could tell as I passed in and out of consciousness on the train, he talked all the way to Chicago. I recalled him saying that everything would be jake quite often. A skeptic, I protested. He waved away any concerns I had with the swat of one of his powerful hands.
“Yes sir, partner. It’s gonna be just jake,” he said, oblivious to my attempt at exposing his overuse of that word. “It will. You just wait and…hey, let’s catch that hack!”
The cab ride to the Coliseum cost twenty whole cents, entirely too expensive considering the state of my affairs. The filthy yellow four-door taxi bumped and banged us around so much my ribs felt like they were going to pop right out of my shirt. Every time we hit a pothole, my window glass slammed down inside the door. I tried to roll it up and hold it in place until the next crash to no avail.
The cabbie was a heavyset man about fifty, with a bushy black beard. He was smoking a giant cigar that smelled awful. What is it with cigars? He kept blowing the smoke up over his shoulder so it wafted right into the backseat, and, of course, into my face. I coughed discreetly a few times, hoping he’d get the point. He didn’t. Mickey didn’t seem to notice, either.
“What are you two going to the Coliseum for? There ain’t nothing going on there today,” the cabbie yelled back at us through clouds of grey haze.
Mickey’s face became a huge grin. “Mac, you are looking at the two newest stars in Chicago. In a month, you’ll be asking for our autographs.” This was embarrassing. Surely this cabbie was about to pull over to kick these two lunatics out right in the middle of who knows where. He looked us both over, scowled, and turned back to face the road, not even slowing down.
“You sure ain’t dressed like no stars.” We had to admit he was right. We looked so shabby compared to the wealthy with their shopping bags full from Marshall Field’s or those other fancy places on State Street. Mickey continued to smile and gawk at the city moving by us at thirty bumpy miles an hour.
“Fourteenth and Wabash,” the cabbie said with finality as he screeched up to the curb. Then he made some wisecrack about us being royalty or stars or something. He might have said other things to us, but I got caught off guard by the building and didn’t quite hear him.
“The. Cat’s. Pa-ja-mas!” Mickey exclaimed, accentuating each syllable.
We stood in front of quite possibly the most impressive building I’d ever seen. The Chicago Coliseum, a massive structure that spanned blocks on the south side of the city along Wabash Avenue, might not have been as tall as the downtown skyscrapers, but it outclassed them all. The first thing to grab my eye was the grand red roof cascading all across the building’s many peaks and valleys. The building resembled an enormous medieval castle, like the kind I’d read about in history books.
The front of the building had this Big Ben–like clock tower on it. It was a red brick color, but lighter than the roof of the main building, which was a deeper, vibrant red tile. The white stones of the main building were rounded at the tops of the many turret-shaped towers, the kind you could imagine Rapunzel dropping her hair from for the prince to climb. The giant windows at the top looked bigger than our whole house back home.
A well-dressed businessman in a suit apologized after he bumped into me, waking me from my dreamlike daze. I had been walking around in circles with my head tilted up to see the whole of it. Mickey grabbed my arm and led me to the front doors where he knocked loudly. After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, we heard this soft, faraway clomping noise that steadily grew louder. The whole thing made me think a butler was about to open a little hatch window above the door to ask us what business we had with the king.
The door swung open. An older, paunchy gentleman dressed in a blue security guard uniform stood there, looking as if we had interrupted something important. “How can I help you young men?” he asked in a formal tone.
“We’re the newest stars for this here team, and—” Mickey began before I could shove him to make him stop acting like a horse’s ass.
“Sir, we are here to see Mr. Muldoon. He sent for—”
“Not here,” the security guard said, interrupting me. “The help gains entrance to the Coliseum through the service doors in the back.”
I interrupted Mickey again and tried to tell the guard we were not the help. He ignored me, again instructing us to go around to the back. He pointed toward the right side of the building, then went back inside and closed the door with a reverberating clang.
The back of the building was just as huge as the front, but not nearly as ornate. It was covered with plain brick, as if they’d spent so much money on the front they didn’t have enough left to do the back. We walked past the discarded wooden crates that cluttered the backside of the building, and we found the open service doors. We entered a small room with low ceilings and long hallways on either side.
Since we didn’t see anyone around and no signs to speak of, we decided to go to the right. After a long walk, fruitlessly looking for the office or even the locker room area, we smelled it before we could see it: that familiar odor of the men’s locker room, filled with ripe sweat and stale clothes desperately in need of a good washing.
Behind the door, people were laughing and hollering at each other. We went through to find the entire hockey team getting changed into their civilian clothes, obviously finishing up after a practice. None of the players paid any attention to us, acting like it was an everyday occurrence to have strangers traipse into their locker area while they were half-naked. It was a strange thing to even be in the locker room of a bona fide professional hockey team, and not some second-rate dopes. They remained unaffected. My biggest moment was just another Wednesday for these guys.
I didn’t know any of their names. I’d never been to a professional hockey game. I had read about the games in the sports pages of the newspapers and occasionally listened to some on the radio down at Mr. Halston’s drugstore. He was awful nice to us kids, letting us listen as long we bought penny candies to eat. If at least some of the faces and names were familiar, it might have gone a bit easier, I thought. Instead I came off sounding like a schoolkid looking for an autograph.
“Ex…excuse me.” The meek will inherit the earth. “Can someone tell us where we can find Coach Muldoon’s office?” No one bothered to look up. I asked again.
Undeterred, I was just about to tap someone on the shoulder to ask again when Mickey started bellowing. “What we have here, fellas, is a ground-floor opportunity to get in good with the newest stars of this here hockey club. It’s gonna run on all eight now for sure.” This ridiculousness stopped everyone in the room. Every single man stared at us. This was just how I didn’t want to start. After a few seconds of silence, the room erupted with laughter and the wisecracks started. It was hard to tell how many comments were made because of how loud the room got. They had a real camaraderie, having played together in Portland before the move to Chicago.
I reached out my hand to shake with the man standing directly in front of me. He placed his dirty, wet towel over my arm instead. “When you stars get through washing the sweaters and mopping the floor, then you have our permission to go see the coach.” Someone guffawed loudly.
Another man walked by me, threw his towel over my shoulder, and patted me on my head. “And not a moment before, Blondie.” My ears grew hot as I clenched my fist.
Mickey and I both looked around the room at the others for someone to step in and set this straight. No one did. “House rules, rubes. Sorry.” Someone patted my shoulder under a growing stack of towels and used sweaters.
By the time everyone left and the door closed behind us, we were both covered in mildewed hockey sweaters, towels, and a few pairs of socks and underwear. Mickey’s face was bright red with anger, which probably matched mine. How he stood there the whole time and didn’t fight anybody was beyond me. I wanted to, even knowing how that generally worked out. The clothes fell off us to the floor as we stood there dumbfounded, looking at it all. It was so ridiculous that even being mad over it seemed unthinkable. We stood there trying to decide if we should follow the apparent house rules or skip it and go look through the labyrinthine building for the coach. I reached down to start first.
Someone cleared his throat in the silence of the room, startling us. “You two ought not to believe everything you are told in this big city, eh?” I turned to the corner of the dressing room from where the voice had come. That’s when I first saw him, sitting on the warped, wooden bench next to a stack of rugged goalie pads, pulling his black, polished, cap-toe shoes on over expensive silk socks.
He looked to be twenty-five, but could have been a little older. He had that kind of face, youthful but not. His lean body and lithe muscles protruded from under his shirt. Even though he looked shorter than me, he exuded a presence that made him seem tall. His short, black, wavy hair had been oiled up and slicked back until they outlined his chiseled jawline. His eyes were deep oceans of blue locked on mine. And the smooth, French accent that rolled as he spoke…I was instantly tongue-tied.
Mickey asked him who he was, but that gaze never left mine.
“I think the best thing you two can do right now is to either wash all of these filthy animals’ clothes or…” He paused, and a sly, rakish grin formed across his full, puffy, red lips, “Maybe do something that they will not forget the next time they want to lead you around by the…un, how do you say…short hairs.”
“Wha—what did you have in mind?”
We scooped up all of the clothes, following his energetic lead, and ran into the shower area to a big anteroom that held a bank of toilets. Mickey seemed to love this idea, like a kid who just found a whole apple pie cooling on a windowsill. Looking over at our new friend, he motioned to the toilets and said, “Your big chance, mes amis.”
Caught up in the frenzy, we wasted no time stuffing all of the clothing into the toilet bowls and even pulled a few of the handles for good measure. Laughing hysterically, we pushed the sweaters in one after another until they were all good and soaked. The last few remaining sweaters got tossed in the shower room after we turned several of the knobs, bringing water down across the whole lot. It happened so fast I hadn’t even stopped to think about what we were doing.
“These guys are gonna murder us for sure,” I spilled out. My legs started shaking, my jaw clenched up, and my eyes were glued to the wet floor tiles, preparing to count them all. I felt myself being drawn into it. My chest tightened up, my body preparing for the internal battle that was already edging its way to the forefront.
“You have made some impression now,” said the mysterious goalie.
This crazy act would never have crossed my mind on my own. Something about him made me want to follow him, but that didn’t save me from myself. When the goalie laid his hand on my shoulder, my legs fell still. At that moment, I stopped to take a deep breath, and my body slowly began to respond to commands.
“These guys deserve to be treated to a little special clothes washing from time to time,” the Frenchman said. Mickey must have thought this was the funniest thing in the world because he started cackling. This was the first time in minutes I remembered Mickey was still in the room with us. “Now, let’s go see if we can’t find Angry Pete for you,” he quipped. Did all the players call the coach that to his face?
We went down into a maze of halls and stairs and finally ended up in front of the coach’s office, stopping to straighten up a bit. Before my nerves could grip me again, I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder that was clearly not Mickey’s. “Everything will be all right. Dick will take care of you,” which confused me. I didn’t think I knew anyone named Dick. Almost as an afterthought he added, “Both of you. Trust him.”
I turned to him and stuck my hand out to shake his. He looked down at it, smiling that same puckish smile.
“Your hands were just down in a toilet, so, je crois que non, er, I think not.”
“What’s your name? Who are you?”
He winked one of those blue eyes. “Ah, two interesting yet completely different questions.” He reached up and straightened my shirt collar in both hands. Behind me, Mickey was straightening himself out rather than watching as this beautiful man fixed my shirt, for which I was thankful. “I am Jean-Paul. I’d say good luck in there, but you will not need it from what I hear. Remember to trust him.” With that, he was gone with a few quick strides. The sound of Mickey knocking on the thick, wooden door put an end to the moment.
“Odd guy,” Mickey said without apparent judgment.
Thoughts of the dark-haired, handsome man with the stormy blue eyes swirled around my head. “Yes. Odd.”
The door swung inward, opened by a large man a little rounded at the midsection smoking a fat stogie. Again with the cigars. He had a boxer’s face, the kind that might have once been good looking but now had too many sharp angles and permanently swollen areas. He stuck his hand out, taking mine with a vise-like grip that almost had me asking for mercy. He held my hand a few moments too long before letting go and grabbing Mickey in the same manner.
This was simply a tactic to show he was the top dog and no young hillbillies would outdo him. If we made it out of the meeting, this was the man that would be our coach. When he stepped out of the doorway, his office came into view. His oversized desk was stacked with papers, and swirling grey smoke filled the room. Another man stood in the haze by the windows, looking out at the street below.
“We’re awfully sorry we didn’t get here in time for the, um, tryouts,” I said. “We are really hoping that tomorrow we could—”
“Hah. Lucky you made it at all. And this is the tryout, son.”
“Oh.” It came out of my mouth, but I had no idea what he meant.
“You mean you don’t know?” Muldoon asked. “The Chicago Daily News said fifty people died yesterday in a gigantic train wreck at the station. Why, I bet it’ll be days before they get the schedules back on track. You boys must’ve seen the mess.”
Fifty people? Right where we had just been? How did we not see the wreckage? My God, that must have been what all the construction workers and material was about. And I didn’t even think. The people. Rail was supposed to be the safest way to travel these days. My heart started to thud, and sweat formed on the palms of my hands. “Well, that’s awful.”
“Come on in and sit down, boys,” he said. He grabbed a couple of thick crystal glasses and a bottle of whiskey off a side table. “Have a drink. You must be thirsty after all that travel.” The man by the window walked over to us. I instantly recognized him from the game in Milwaukee. He was one of the scouts, the serious-looking one. Great. “This here is Dick Irvin, captain of my team.”
Dick was a tall, lean man of about thirty hard years. His brown eyes were intense, his face strong. I am not ashamed to say that Dick scared the hell out of me. This was the man Jean-Paul said would take care of us, to trust, but he was still downright scary. Something about Jean-Paul made me want to believe him. Dick did not put out his hand, but after the towel escapade and the vise grip from the coach, I was growing leery of handshakes anyway. Mr. Muldoon again directed us to some chairs opposite his desk and everyone except Dick sat down.
“I’m told that you scored two goals with two assists, Mr. Bennet. Is that right? Quite impressive.” He had gotten the stats wrong, which made me wonder what he had been told about us.
“That was three goals, Mr. Muldoon, sir,” I said while clearing my throat nervously. Correcting this man was a risky move. He just smiled and took a sip of his whiskey. I did not drink a drop of mine, although I put it up to my mouth several times. I figured I was better off drinking to look like I was an adult, rather than turn it down like a child still wearing short pants. But I couldn’t stand the idea of that hot, bitter whiskey running down my parched throat.
“That’s right, that’s right. Three goals. And two for you, mister…”
“Mickey, everybody calls me Mickey,” he finished.
“Ah, so I’m not wrong on that score as well?” He handled that with the ease of someone with lots of negotiating practice, subtly chiding me for correcting him. Now I was done for, having just pissed off the head coach of the team we left Milwaukee to join. Mickey seemed anxious by the whole event and had to stop sipping his drink long enough to agree. I envied the coach’s level of confidence, real or not.
“Let’s get down to some business,” Mr. Muldoon said. “My team is going to go all the way. It’s our first year in Chicago, and to say we need to prove ourselves to this fine metropolis is an understatement. I want only the best on my team. You had a good game back in Kenosha or wherever, but this is the big time here, boys.” While Pete rambled on, Dick looked like the picture of calm.
“That’s why you need us on your team, Mr. Muldoon,” Mickey piped up. “We’re a hell of a pair, Brett and I.” This was the moment where the coach started to look like an angry Pete indeed. Jean-Paul had been right.
Muldoon took a swig of his whiskey and a long puff on his cigar before he cleared his throat and spoke directly to Dick. “What did you say to me about these boys, Dick?” Muldoon leaned back against his thick, creaky, wooden rolling chair and took another puff. This was clearly another tactic he used often.
Dick came over to us and sat down in one of the wooden chairs around the giant desk. He sat straight as an arrow, which caused me to straighten up a little as well. “All I know, Pete, is that the kid can play. Like I said, he might be a bit scrawny and needs some discipline, but with the right line behind him, he could really do something. The other one ain’t too shabby, either.”
Muldoon paused for what seemed like a year before taking in a deep, dramatic breath. “Big praise coming from you. Set them both up with the standard contract, Dick, one thousand dollars for the season. If you prove to be second-rate or just too damned difficult to deal with, we can dump you. And we will. If you get injured and can’t play after our team doctor looks at you, you’re out. If you refuse to play, you’ll be fired and held legally responsible to pay us the remainder.”
Mickey was already putting out his hand to shake on the deal, but over his shoulder I saw Dick subtly shake his head back and forth. Was he signaling no? I reached out and placed my hand on top of Mickey’s, pushing it back. I took a swallow before speaking.
“I think that’s a fine offer, sir, for a starter. But can I mention I blocked ten shots this season so far as well as scoring those goals?” My knees threatened to shake me out of the chair. We were not out on the ice. This was his territory. My heart ached, banging to escape my chest, worried that my boldness would ruin both our lives. “And Mickey here is part of the reason I’m able to get to those shots. You should see him clear out the ice.”
Pete got up from his desk, and his face turned a deep, purple color. “I’ll be damned if some snot-nosed nobody from Delavan tells me how to run my business!” Muldoon had made it seem like he didn’t know much about us or didn’t value my skills as a player, but when he mentioned my hometown, I knew he knew a lot more than he was letting on. He must have known about our playing.
All the way here, Mickey talked like he was going to carry us through with his powerhouse bravado, and he stood up for himself pretty well most of the time. Except for right now. He turned his head sideways with a terrified look, as if to ask if I had lost my marbles.
I just sat there for a minute in the uncomfortable silence. The tension was palpable, and I felt the familiar pull inside me to count things, pushing me to look at the ceiling tiles to figure out how many holes were in each square. My jaw muscles started to tighten up. Just as I began to count them, Muldoon slapped both of his big, veiny, lined hands on his desk and leaned forward. “Eleven hundred, but if you so much as have an off game—”
“Two thousand,” I spat out before my brain could engage and scare me back into my shell.
“Son of a bitch!” Muldoon looked over to Dick, his sharp, exaggerated breathing blowing snot out of his nose like a mad bull. “You have got some nerve, kid,” he raged as he looked back over to me. Just then he turned his gaze back to Mickey. “And you.” Mickey’s head shot straight up so fast, his hair would have flown off of his head if not for all the pomade. “Are you ready to leave this office and head back to the bus? Huh? Broke and flat on your ass?”
We sat in silence, not so much because Mickey had caught on to my shaky ploy, but because he was too scared to say anything. I was too. One thousand dollars was more money than anyone back home made in a year, including my father. Just the mere thought of walking out of that office with nothing but my hat in my hand terrified me. Especially because I was so flat busted, I didn’t even own a hat. I looked over at Dick, catching his eyes just as he motioned them toward the door and back several times.
I cannot imagine what came over me at that particular moment. Sometimes we just have faith in something or someone, even if there seems to be no logical reasoning for it. “I’m sorry we couldn’t reach an agreement, Mr. Muldoon. Best of luck to your team.” I got up and headed for the door.
“Wait, you little son of a bitch,” Pete said, just as I reached for the door handle. “I’ll do sixteen for you, fourteen hundred for MacKay here. And that is it. Not one more goddamned nickel.” Mickey had practically run back over to him, agreeing. Turning back toward the desk, my face hardened, I prepared to negotiate for more. I opened my mouth, but before I said anything, I looked at Dick for encouragement. What I saw was a stern look that said we’d won, and it was time to let it end or go too far and lose it all.
“Mr. Muldoon, you have a deal. You won’t regret it, I promise you.” I went back over to shake the hand of our new boss but was handed a pen instead. Muldoon did not look happy. Now Mickey, he looked happy. Contracts were signed. Dick was told to set us up in some boarding house until we got paid and could afford to rent an apartment.
“Bennet,” Muldoon said as I was about to leave his office. “Remember, the road to victory is paved with gravel. Don’t make me regret this and crush you beneath it. Now get out.” When we left the office and headed back down the hallway, Mickey jumped all over me. He was boasting about how we took the team for a mint and about how we played the old man together. It was annoying, but he was so excited, it was hard to be mad at him.
We had been told to wait out back for Dick so he could take care of us. All I could think about was how I just made an enemy of my boss. Just maybe, I thought, there was a powerful ally to be had in the captain. The whole situation had left me shaky, my insides in knots.
Through the partially closed office door, we heard Pete threaten Dick. “If this kid isn’t as good as you say he is, you’ll be joining him on the train to Milwaukee, I swear to God. That’s more than you’re worth. Hear me?” Mickey’s face fell as we stepped away from the door, maybe feeling bad for Dick, but more likely realizing they were not arguing about him or his skills, but about me and mine. I felt bad for both of them, even Dick, which was odd considering how frightening he seemed.