Not the Only One
DISCLAIMER: Yada yada yada. This story is pure fiction, all names and characters are made up and any similarity to real persons is not only a coincidence, it's damn eerie! Of course, I make no claims about the sexuality or opinions of real athletes who are mentioned in this story. You'd have to ask them yourself.
NOTE: This story is more about relationships and coming to terms with one's self rather than sex. There will be sex, but it won't be the focus. Just a head's up for you.
Raleigh, North Carolina - June 6, 2001
Maybe I could make a difference. A huge difference. Just be honest. Show your true self. But its not so easy when you're faced with what I'm faced with. I've hid my true self my whole life, buried deep inside a shroud of toughness where it could do the least harm. Only at night, alone, does it come to the surface and fester, wounding my soul and my pride more than any other thing ever could. I'm gay, and I'm a professional athlete. Two things that go together like toothpaste and orange juice.
I'm not sure even where to begin. Should I start with my hockey life, or my gay life? It pisses me off that I have to have two sides to my life. The side I'm proud to show off to my friends and family, that of a rough and tough hockey player trying to make it big. Then the other side, the one I shun from the public's eye and everyone else I know. That of a gay athlete in an overwhelmingly homophobic world. Sometimes I wish a puck would come and knock my gonads right off so I wouldn't have to worry about sex or love ever again. But I know my emotions run a lot deeper than my parts, and that's what keeps me awake at night, terrified and frustrated.
Ever since I was a kid I knew I had found my true love in life. It was chasing a hard plastic puck around a frozen lake from sunup until sundown, enduring the blisters on my feet and the frostbite in my hands, the bone thudding collisions with my friends, and the teeth jarring falls against the ice that would leave me dazed and confused, but oh so thirsty for more. The only thing that could slow us down was a snowstorm. Then we'd have to get up extra early, well before the sun was even thinking of trying to rise, to get out on the ice with our shovels to clear off a rink. Because come noontime, the weight of the snow piled off to the sides combined with the sun's rays to turn our rink into a slushy mess that was unplayable despite the cold. My friend Bryan referred to the phenomenon as 'Frosty's Piss'. It could a ruin a whole week of skating.
But those are the fondest memories of my boyhood, when all our problems and frustrations of adolescence could be set aside as soon as we stepped onto the frozen lake. No longer were we dorky sixth graders who got picked on in school by the eighth graders. We were transformed into Hull's, and Gretzky's, and Messiers'. We dropped our homework woes and instead dropped our gloves when someone got out of line. I remember the first time I came home with a black eye. My mother was furious. She demanded to know who had hit me. I told her it was Bryan. She couldn't understand why my best friend had punched me. I said in a matter of fact sort of way, "He had every right to. I slashed him so hard I broke my stick over his leg." It made perfect sense to us that fighting each other on the ice was fine. This was hockey, not ice dancing. As long as no grudges ever left the ice, which they didn't.
Soon we were all playing together on a midget team in an organized league. Actually, this was more or less to get us off of the lake after my friend Scott fell through the ice one day in March and nearly died. Bryan and I pulled him out luckily, but he still has a scar to this day on his chin from where the ice cut him open. I was always small growing up but I was spunky. No one liked the physical part of the game more than me. But when I got into an organized league with boards, and rules, I got my ass kicked. It didn't help that all my opponents were strangers, instead of the friends I had grown up with. But these guys knew how to check! Its one thing to get a friendly bump from a neighborhood kid on the ice. But quite another to get mashed into the corner by some goon who outweighs you by 100 pounds. But luckily I hit a major growth spurt going into eighth grade. I practically had to teach myself how to walk again as I sprang up like a weed to over six feet tall. I was thin growing up but now I was so scrawny it was almost sick. When my parents went out on weekend nights and leave me in the care of my two older brothers, they would torture me. One would drive out to McDonald's and get five Big Mac meals. Then they would tie me to a chair and force to eat as much as I could. It was part teasing, part trying to put some pounds on my bones!
By the time hockey season rolled around I was a bit less awkward on my feet and I learned to start using my size as an advantage. I had always been able to check pretty hard but now I had something to back it up with! I made a travel all star team that same season and played all summer long under a coach I'll never forget. Probably my biggest influence in hockey and in life. In three months under him, he worked us like stinking dogs with endless drills and conditioning. But I can honestly pinpoint that summer as the turning point in my life. I learned an immense amount about the game of hockey. And I learned that in spite of my worst fears, I had this horrible fascination with boys. Despite what I tried to tell myself, I was a faggot.
Maybe I'm getting too caught up in the past. Maybe I should just jump to the present, the night before the biggest game of my life. Or maybe I should flash back a bit to when I arrived in Jackson, Mississippi to play for an ECHL team at the age of 16. Probably not the best place for a young gay northerner to be on his own. But if you really want to understand my story, where I'm really coming from, you have to have the big picture. Yes I'm gay, but that doesn't define who I am. Hockey has defined me since I was three years old. It really is the one thing I've cared about most in my whole life. Maybe then you'll understand why. Why I can't shake this monkey off my back. Denial, denial, denial.
Lets flash back to my junior year in high school. We'll start there. If anything, it makes for a good laugh.
My home in Connecticut - September 13, 1999
The Jackson Bandits. That's what my coach and mentor, Ron, had said over the phone. That same guy who took a goofy 14 year old kid and turned him into a star. I didn't think I had heard him right. "Who?" I asked again.
"The Jackson Bandits. They play in Mississippi. They're a relatively new franchise in the East Coast Hockey League," Ron repeated.
"Jesus Christ. Mississippi? They have hockey down there? I was expecting, something, well..." I responded a bit perplexed.
"Nick, what did you want, the New York Rangers?"
"Well, I was thinking, at least the AHL or the IHL."
"Hey," Ron told me. "You're good. But you're not great. You've got a long way to come, kid. If I was offered a chance to play minor league hockey at the age of 16 I would have jumped at the chance! You gotta start somewhere!"
I was starting my junior year in high school. Instead of starting to think about colleges like most other kids I was shopping around for hockey teams. When you're 6'3", 190 lbs with a slapshot over 90 mph, you could afford that luxury. I had gotten a lot of exposure playing for the USA Junior team and was hoping that at least some NHL teams would be showing some interest in me. Alas, so far this ECHL team was the only one that had even feigned interest at inviting me to a tryout.
"Nick, the past couple of years I've watched you grow from a goofy 14 year old into someone who really had a grasp of the game. From the start you always had great vision on the ice. But you're still only a mediocre passer. You've got an incredibly hard slapshot but if you get it anywhere near the net its a miracle. And you're a great checker, but you let your aggression get out of hand way too often and end up taking dumb penalties. No one learns the game in a couple of years. Ask Gretzky when he learned the most about the game and he'll tell you it wasn't until late in his career. This is your chance, whether you think so or not. Put in four, five years in the minors, and prove you're a contender, and the NHL may come. But let me tell you something you're not going to like to hear." He paused, letting the gravity of his next statement sink into my head. "There are about a thousand kids your age that are already ten times better than you. Making it to the NHL is not going to guarantee you success. There are tons of guys, each year, who find themselves in the big league only to find out after a season that they weren't cut out for it to ever last. The minor leagues are where careers are made or lost. They are the absolute most important years you'll have. After a couple seasons there, you will know and the scouts will know exactly where you can fit into the scheme of things."
"Do they even have an NHL affiliate?" I interrupted him.
"Not yet, but word is they might sign up with new Minnesota expansion team."
"Well then what are my chances of getting to the NHL through them?"
"Nick, I'd be lying to you if I said it wasn't a long shot. But you can say the same for any player who dreams about playing in the big leagues. Its one in a hundred. Hell, one in a thousand. But you can't let those odds get in your way. Instead of moping about them you have to use them to your advantage to motivate you to work your ass off every day, 25 hours a day, eight days a week, 53 weeks a year. And if you're patient, and you behave, and you stay out of trouble, and you work as hard as you possibly can," he paused again for effect, "then with luck maybe you'll get your chance. Just maybe. Are you willing to commit the next five years of your life to the hardest struggle you could ever imagine for a payoff that might never, ever come?"
My spine tingled. It always did after Ron gave one of his speeches. Like the time we were playing for the Junior U.S. team in the final game of a tournament in Quebec. It was the championship and we were down 7-5 against a faster and stronger Canadian team playing in front of a hostile Canadian crowd. I'll never forget the speech he gave that night right before the start of the final period. Football fans like to think of Vince Lombardi and his famous speeches. Well he had nothing on the speech Ron gave us in the lockeroom that day. By the end there wasn't a dry eye in the house. His orations were that powerful that they could evoke such remarkable emotions and move you to do such amazing things. I scored the game winner that day in the second overtime period, to give us the win and the championship, 8-7. It's one of my fondest memories.
"Yes," I said, tears beginning to well in my eyes. It was then that I ultimately started down the road to the rest of my life. And it would be such a long and trying road.
Jackson, Mississippi - December 26, 1999
I imagined the first time I heard my name announced over the PA system in a professional arena would be the greatest thrill ever. It wasn't.
"Ladies and gentlemen, there has been a late roster change for tonight's game. Number 44, Radek Olzmussen, has been scratched. Number 28, Nick Brewer, will be dressing in his place." That was it. No dramatic music, no cheering applause, nothing spectacular. The 3000 thousand fans who sat scattered around the empty arena were indifferent to my fifteen seconds of fame. I sort of looked around in awe at where I had come in just three months.
My tryout for the Bandits in September had gone well. I got in three separate fights during the first day. Once with the their bonefied goon, Howie Jaworski. You may think that picking fights was the wrong thing to do during a tryout, but the truth is that that's one of the things the coaches look for in a young guy. How hard you can hit and how hard you can be hit and still be standing. Being skilled is important but if you can't stand up for yourself you're not worth a damn in hockey.
When I got back to Connecticut after the tryouts I had only to wait a couple of days before the head coach called me and offered me a spot on the practice squad. It was hardly what I could have hoped for. Basically, I had made the team as an alternate. I would be used during practices for the starting players to beat up on. The ice time I would actually see would be limited, but I would see some. That was the good part. Ron gave me the name of an agent and before long I had an $8000 a year contract nailed out with the Bandits of Jackson, Mississippi. Not worth a pot to piss in for most people but it was plenty for a kid to earn playing a game he loved.
I arrived late on a Friday night at the small airport in Jackson only to be met by the same goon, Jaworski, who I had picked a fight with during tryouts. He was half asleep in a chair in the terminal when I walked up to him with all my belongings crammed into a suitcase..
"Um, hi, I'm Rick Brewer. I'm here to play for the Bandits."
Jaworski looked up gruffly, then stood up and straightened out his ruffled clothes. He turned around and led me towards the exit with not so much as a hello. When I stumbled and almost dropped my suitcase he turned around and grumbled, "Let's go kid, we've got an early flight to catch to Pensacola tomorrow morning. I don't want want to spend half the goddamned night here!"
Most of the other players were just as friendly. I practiced long and hard like everyone else. I usually traveled with the team to all their games, but never suited up. I was only there for morning practices and late night hazing rituals. On my 17th birthday, my present was to be tied to a post outside our lockeroom naked. Two hours later the cleaning lady finally found and untied me. I was beginning to get really frustrated. My first Christmas away from home was spent in the cockroach infested apartment block that I had been living in since my arrival. Me and a couple of the other new guys had a nice meal at one of their apartments, but that night I found myself alone in my room with only the walls to stare out. Not knowing anyone down here had actually been a blessing as it allowed for less distractions. When I actually found free-time to use I had spent it at the gym or jogging around and around my neighborhood trying to push my whole miserable existence out of my head and concentrate on hockey.
About 10:30 on Christmas night the call had come in from the coach. He wanted me to suit up in place of Radek for tomorrow's game against Peoria. Olzmussen hadn't been giving his all lately and our coach tolerated nothing less than a hundred percent all of the time.
I barely slept a wink that night knowing that I'd be playing in my first professional game in less than 24 hours. At the morning skate it seemed everything was in a fog. I couldn't believe that I would soon be suited up and out there on the ice in the minor leagues. The minor leagues! Of course it wasn't the NHL, but Jesus it was every bit as tough. Every player had one goal out there. To prove that they were better and tougher than you and to make you pay for competing against them for the few available NHL slots. They hit just as hard, if not harder in the minors, and they played almost twice as dirty!
For tonight's game against Peoria, I would be playing on the checking line. Let me make sure you understand hockey. A line consists of three offensive players (or if you play defense, two). For offense, one center, and two wings. I'm a left winger. Most teams play with three scoring lines and one checking line. The scoring lines are out their to get goals. The checking line is out their to enforce your team's style of play. Basically, it tries to enforce the pace of the game that your coach wants to play at. If the game is too open and fast for your team, you try to slow it down. If the game is too rough for your team, you go out their and try to punish the opposing players who are responsible.
Five minutes into the game our line got the call. One of our star players had just been leveled by Peoria's prime intimidator, Scott Walthers. As our coach called for a line change on the fly his last words to us were, "Kill that motherfucker!" My heart was racing as I hopped over the boards and I hit the ice for the first time in my life. There was no score and the only thing I could think about was how sweet it would be to to pop a go ahead goal on my first shift ever. The puck was deep in Peoria's defensive zone as I raced in to try and forecheck and keep them from breaking out into neutral ice. I came in low around the corner and the defensemen whapped it off the boards to another player as I came flying in with a head of steam with every intention of knocking his head off. He easily sidestepped me and my well intentioned check found nothing but Plexiglas as I went careening into the boards. I heard a loud cheer as our home fans applauded my efforts at the hit. God did it give me a burst of adrenaline. If only I had been able to connect! I skated back around the net as Peoria started to bring the puck out of their zone. A cross ice pass to a streaking winger gave them a fast break heading up the ice. I skated furiously to catch up to the play.
I came into our defensive zone and looked around for Walthers. He was hanging low in the slot (right in front of the goal) and waiting to get a feed from a teammate. I skated over to him and jabbed him with my stick to let him know I was there. Their was a battle for the puck in the corner as Walthers and I got tangled up. We were both edging for position so that if the puck squirted out to us we would be able to do something with it. The puck stayed down low in our zone until one of our defenseman was able to wrap around the boards on the other side and get it out to a winger. As we began to break out of our zone I got myself untangled from Walthers and tried to make my way up ice. I looked up just as the forward caught sight of me skating over the blue line. He fired the puck towards me just as he got creamed by a defenseman. I reached out and hauled in the pass with my stick. And looked up as I started to skate up ice. I couldn't believe my eyes. There was no one in front of me, but the other team's goalie. The one defenseman had hit my forward and taken himself out of the play. The other defenseman had been caught in low in our zone battling for the puck. No one had stayed back at the point to prevent us from getting a breakaway. All I had to do was skate up the ice and it would be me versus the goal tender. In battles like that, the shooter almost always won!
I took two giant strides and skated furiously up ice. Walthers realized he was the closest player to me and did what any smart hockey player would do to prevent a breakaway. He tried to take me down. And he succeeded. One moment I was skating up the ice, the next moment Walthers hit me as hard as he could in the groin with his stick. I fell like a sack of potatoes. I closed my eyes as hard as I could to keep the tears from welling up. The sharp pain of the initial hit was starting to fade into the dull throbbing as my testicles practically shrivelled up in my stomach. Sure I was wearing a cup, but that doesn't do shit when someone whacks you as hard as he can with his stick.
The ref's hand immediately went up in the air signaling a penalty and after Walthers caught up to the puck and took possession, the whistle blew. My eyes were still closed from pain as I heard the referee shout out, "Number 81, blue, slashing!" The crowd roared as the referee skated Walthers into the penalty box. One of my teammates skated triumphantly over to me. He leaned down and slapped me hard on the head.
"There you go baby! Way to draw that penalty!" Draw the penalty? Was he crazy? All I knew was that I just about got castrated by some motherfucking goon and I was in the most intense pain I had ever been in in my life. At that moment, I only wanted to be back home in Connecticut on the lake, skating with my friends. I wanted to be far, far away from this madness. My teammates helped me skate off the ice and I took a seat on the bench and put my head between my knees and my hands on my head for the rest of the period. I only had two more shifts that night, and they were both uneventful. My debut had been a bitter disappointment and we dropped the game 4-1.
An hour after the game I lay exhausted on the bed with an ice pack on my forehead and my eyes tightly shut trying to forget my misery. My groin still ached from the blow it had received and I had a headache to boot. The coach had screamed at us for our lackluster performance against Peoria. He especially came down hard on my line. I had missed my assignments every time he sent me out and had allowed a breakaway to occur which led to one of Peoria's goals. Needless to say, I was really disappointed with myself. Here had been my chance to go out and earn some more playing time and I had played like shit.
I missed my friends. I missed my family. I missed my home. I had been miserable since my arrival here in Mississippi. I knew no one down here and most of the guys on my team were a lot older than me. When I did go out with some of the younger guys all we did was go out to bars, try to score with the women, and get in bar fights with the locals. Obviously, none of this suited me. I felt so alone and wondered if there was anyone else gay like me within 100 miles.
My thoughts drifted back to what it would be like at home. My parents had told me there had been a fresh snowfall recently. The lake had been frozen for a while. I'll bet my friends would be out there tomorrow morning at first light to play. And they wouldn't leave until well after the sun had gone down. I thought about my other friends from the junior U.S. team. They were probably all home with their families too. Then my thoughts drifted to Matt, and a faint smile crossed my lips. What would Matt be doing right now? He was probably in bed by now. It was late. The thought of him lying in bed all warm and snug beneath the covers as the winter winds howled at his window took me back to a happier time. I wrapped my covers around me tightly as I thought back to that February night almost three years ago. The walls had done little to keep the biting cold air out of the room and his heater was not working properly. It had been freezing and the two of us had huddled close together under the sheets to keep warm. Two friends, lying close together talking about what 14 year olds talked about. Hockey, music, school, sex. I was shivering and he pulled me in close to him and wrapped his arms around me to keep me warm. And I had not resisted and let him pull me in close to his body and cradle my head on his chest. My pain and misery faded into a reminiscent bliss as I thought about that wonderful night and my first love.
TO BE CONTINUED
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