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 the real athletes who are mentioned in this story. You'd have to ask them yourself.
New York City - January 7, 2001
At the Cincinnati airport, I had called my parents and told them to spread the news. Hopefully everyone would be watching, especially Ron. The game was being broadcast by ESPN 2, the deuce! I was met at JFK airport by Byron and one of the assistants. Byron's left leg was in a full cast and I found out that he had broken it the night before in practice. I assumed that I would come in and skate a little bit on the fourth or third line. I was way too young to just hop into the fray of things. But, in addition to Kapanen's and Byron's injuries, another of the wingers, Gary Roberts, was recovering from post concussion syndrome. So at the airport I was informed that I would be skating on the second line. They needed speed and with Kapanen and Roberts out, I was the man they believed could fill in.
After leaving JFK, we made our way downtown to sixth avenue. We were staying at the Marriot. It had been a while since I had been in New York. I could feel the energy and excitement of the Big Apple and I had goose bumps all over. I only had about half an hour to relax before the team jumped on a bus and headed over to Madison Square Garden.
My equipment had been shipped from Cincinnati and was waiting in the visitor's lockerroom. The Hurricanes provided me with a helmet, gloves, socks, and pants, so I matched the rest of the team. In the lockerroom before our warm-up skate, several of the guys I had met before in Raleigh came up to say hello. I was surprised that they remembered me. I threw on my equipment and right after lacing up my skates an assistant came over with my jersey. I held it up before putting it on. This time it was official. I turned it around and saw the white number 8 and "Brewer" written on the back against the red background. The goosebumps came back. I slipped it over my head.
I followed the rest of the guys as we walked through the tunnels and to the ice entrance. I walked along the carpet through the tunnel and I could see the arena. A few thousand fans were already filing in and were scattered around the arena. As I walked out of the tunnel I heard a few guys heckling us. They were leaning over the railing shouting at us. I walked underneath them without a problem and stepped onto the ice of Madison Square Garden. I took a few strides and began to warm up my legs, not believing I was actually here. The Rangers were already out on the ice and were taking shots on their goalie. As we warmed up I looked around the arena. It was still relatively empty but I had not doubt that it would be full soon with screaming Rangers fans hoping for our blood.
After the warm-up we came back to the lockerroom for a final talk from the coach, Paul Maurice. He went over the Rangers' defense and warned us how to avoid giving up the puck in the neutral zone. Even though Carolina was having a bad year, New York was doing even worse and we were expected to win this one. At 12:45 one of the rink attendants poked his head in the lockerroom. "They're ready for you!"
The team lined up, captains in front, followed by the rest of the players, and the goalie, Irbe bringing up the rear. I nervously grabbed my stick on the way out. I ended up dropping it and scattering the rest of the sticks on the floor. One of the defensemen, Ozolincsh patted my shoulder. "Relax, my friend. You'll do fine."
"Thanks," I said, trying to grin to calm my nerves. The butterflies were raging in my stomach. We were led through the ancient hallways and came out towards the edge of the tunnel where we were held up. We listened as the announcer boomed, "Ladies and Gentleman, your New York Rangers!" 16,000 fans cheered as the Rangers took the ice for the pre-game skate. I watched them skate around the ice as the crowd cheered and the music thumped.
We were finally released onto the ice and as I came out of the tunnel the same guys from before heckled us, this time a little louder. A chorus of boos met us from the rest of the arena. By now the garden was jam-packed and there was a sea of white and blue Ranger's jerseys. Surprisingly I was some red jerseys down by the boards behind one of the nets. The ice had been freshly zambonied and I skated around to get my legs warmed up again.
After five minutes we were huddled over to the bench for a last bit of advice from Paul. "Remember guys, keep your heads up, watch out coming across the neutral ice for their forwards trying to isolate you. Nick," he said, as he glanced around for me. He made eye contact and continued, "I know you're probably nervous as hell being out here. But just do what you're been doing in Cincinnati. Your line is out there first. It's best to just jump into something like this." I swallowed hard. We broke up and I headed over to the center of the ice to line up for the national anthem.
I took off my helmet as some guy belted out the first few lines of the national anthem. I looked around the stadium. As nervous as I was, this was going to be incredible. I just hoped I played okay. I knew my friends and family would be watching. And I was positive that Ron would be watching as well, happy as hell to see me skate in the NHL. I had hoped to talk to him before the game but hadn't found the time. The anthem ended and the crowd was cheering as we lined up at center ice. I was skating with Jeff O'Neil and Tommy Westlund. I lined up at the red line and waited for the ref to drop the puck. Mike York, one of the Ranger's right wings lined up across from me. "It's your first game, right?" he asked me politely. I nodded. He smiled. "Good luck man," I felt some of the nervousness melt away and my tense lips pursed into a forced smile. He continued, "Because I'm gonna pound your fucking head into the boards all night." His smile disappeared and he stared me down. I looked away.
The ref threw the puck to the ice and O'Neil got a stick on it and squirted it over to me. Immediately York skated over and jabbed his stick against me hard. I tried to skate up the ice with the puck, but York continued to hook me with his stick. I dumped the puck up the ice and tried to get away from him. Unable to shake him, I blindly threw an elbow behind me and connected with his face. He went down to the ice immediately and the ref's hand went up, signaling a penalty. The whistle blew.
He gestured over to the penalty box and said, "Let's go buddy." I skated over into the penalty box and sat down on the bench. Now York would be looking for me all game to kick my ass. Great. I heard the ref yell through the hole in the glass. "Number 8, Carolina. Two for elbowing." The door closed and the ref skated away. I was half-aware of the Rangers fans behind me heckling me. I'm sure I'd be getting it all night.
"Carolina penalty to number 8, Nick Brewer. Two minutes for elbowing at 0:11 of the first period. That's number 8, Nick Brewer at 0:11 of the first period."
Well, at least I heard my name on the loudspeaker. I was going to get an earful from Paul when I got over to the bench. Hopefully we would kill it off and not give up a goal.
The defense played well and after two minutes the Rangers had not been able to score a goal so I stepped back out onto the ice. The puck went out over the boards right after so I skated over to our bench for a line change. No one said anything to me as I stepped back onto our bench. I took a seat. Paul came up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders. "Hey, good job out there."
"Sorry about that penalty, coach."
"Don't worry about it. He was asking for it. Keep your head up on the ice. Don't let someone blind side you." At least he wasn't mad. The first period ended in 0-0 tie. As we filed off the ice the guys above the tunnel gave us shit again. I noticed they were all drinking and assumed it would get worse as the night went on. I had played well but hadn't touched the puck too much. The play on both sides was pretty sloppy and there were a lot of giveaways. I felt it was going to be a low scoring affair. York and some of the other Rangers had been on my ass the whole time, but I was fending them off well. The one thing that shocked me was the pace of the game. It was so much quicker. Obviously, the guys in the NHL are better than in the IHL, but I didn't expect the difference to be this much. I found them flying all around me. It was hard to just keep up with the plays.
I started on the ice for the second period too. This time O'Neil lost the face off and the Rangers got it deep into our zone. After a couple of tough shots on goal that Irbe deflected away, I got the puck up to O'Neil who skated it out. The crowd was in a frenzy of excitement from the near scoring opportunities. O'Neil made a couple of nice moves and was able to get past the Ranger's forwards. One of the defensemen went after him, but missed and O'Neil found himself streaking up the ice with Westlund on a two-on-one. I skated as fast as I could to try to catch up. O'Neil made a beautiful pass to Westlund who one timed it right back to O'Neil. O'Neil wound up and fired high to Richter's stick side. Somehow Richer found the puck and made the save. The puck trickled out and was just out of the reach of O'Neil as he skated by. The defenseman tried to skate over to it but I had been coming up hard from behind the play and got there first. I found myself 15 feet out from the goal with an open shot, so I took it off. The puck screamed into the top shelf past Richter. The goal light came on. It took me a minute to comprehend what had happened. Then I raised my stick and pumped my arms several times. The other players came over and grabbed me in a bear hug.
I was ecstatic. I couldn't describe the jubilation to you. By the time I skated over to the bench I had been smacked on the helmet and patted on the back about a million times by my teammates. The goal was announced to a sporadic booing throughout the stadium but I was elated. I had scored against one of the premier goalies in the NHL in my first game ever! I was still tingling by the time the second period ended. We brought a 1-0 lead into the lockerroom with us. By this time the guys above the tunnel were piss drunk and yelled loudly at me as I passed below them. "Hey number 8, you suck! You're gonna get laid out by Leetch next time you come across the blue line!"
I smiled to myself as I ducked under the tunnel. It felt good to get them riled up. After the game, if we won, maybe I'd say something back to them.
As I walked back towards the lockerroom I was stopped by Brian Engbloom. "Nick, can I grab you for a minute?" I nodded my agreement, trying not to look too excited.
The camerman got in position and the light came on. Brian stood next to me. "I'm standing here with Nick Brewer of the Hurricanes, playing in his first NHL game ever. Nick, tell me how it feels getting your first goal in your NHL debut?"
"Obviously, I'm pretty excited," I said into the microphone. Jeff and Tommy had a great two-on-one, and I happened to find myself in the right place at the right time. I guess I got lucky."
"Well it takes more than luck to beat Richter, but I congratulate you all the same. What's your take on the team's situation right now? There are some key players missing from the line-up."
"It definitely makes things tougher for us. We've got to turn things around if we want to be playing in April. This team has some pretty good depth though and I think that that's certainly not impossible."
"Well, I'll let you get back to your lockerroom, thanks for your time."
"No problem. I just want to say something to someone back home."
I looked into the camera. "Ron, that was for you man. Hang in there!"
The camera light went off and Brian shook my hand. "Thanks, Nick."
The third period was fast and furious as the Rangers came at us with everything they had, trying to get back that goal. With five minutes left in the game, they neutralized our lead on a powerplay. Leetch ripped a one-timer from the point that deflected off one of our guy's skates. The crowd went wild and the stadium got really loud. You could feel the momentum shift their way. By the time my next shift came, time was winding down in the third period. It looked like we'd have to go into OT. The Rangers were energized and the crowd was especially loud. It was amazing how noisy the stadium could get. We finally put some pressure on them and got the puck deep in their zone. I got to skate it up as Paul called out for a line change. I pretended that I was going to dump the puck as I headed past the red line and the defensemen in front of me relaxed. I got a burst of speed and was able to get away from him. A lot of players were shocked at how quickly I could gather speed. It was one of my strengths.
I got just inside their zone before another player pressured me so I took a slapshot and tried to get the puck on net. As I took the shot the player skated in between me and the net, blocking Richter's view. Luckily, I got the shot off before the defensemen slammed into me knocking me down hard. As I careened into the boards I expected to hear a loud shout of approval from the crowd; but to my surprise I heard nothing. After I stopped spinning I looked to see where my shot had gone. The goal light was on and Richter was smacking his stick on the crossbar in frustration. I had scored again!
I got off the ice and was met in a bear hug by our captain, Ron Francis. "We should have called you up sooner, man!"
There was less than a minute remaining and some in the crowd were already starting to shuffle out of the building. Again, I was surrounded by my teammates and congratulated. My head was spinning, not from the hit, but from the fact that I had scored two goals plus the game winner in my NHL debut. The Rangers pulled their goalie but time winded down the game ended, a 2-1 win for us.
Raleigh, North Carolina - January 16th, 2001
There it was in big bold letters across the front page of the The News and Observer.
I turned to the sports section and started to read.SOMETHING A'BREWIN' IN CAROLINARookie Brewer Breathes New Life Into 'Canes - 1C
BREWER COMES UP BIG FOR 'CANESRaleigh, NC - Call it rookie luck. Call it what you will. The fact of the matter is, Nick Brewer's six point road trip and last night's stellar performance against the Bruins has helped slumping Carolina close the gap with Boston and the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Canes went on a three game road trip trailing Boston by ten points. Three straight wins, one against Boston cut the deficit down to six. Then last night, came the icing on the cake when the 'Canes blanked the Bruins 4-0 in front of a sellout home crowd.
Brewer's Hurricanes' debut had him scoring the 'Canes' only two goals to get the win over the New York Rangers. In games against Toronto and Boston, he notched another goal and added three assists. "I don't really know what to say," Brewer commented, "I felt comfortable with the puck and was lucky enough to be in some situations where I could do something with it. I'd be lieing if I told you I'm wasn't just as surprised as everyone else."
Then last night, Brewer pulled three goals out of his bag of tricks to record his first career hat trick. The always modest Brewer commented, "It didn't click with me immediately after the third one. It wasn't until I saw all the red hats coming over the boards that it dawned on me, I had a hat trick."
Since his arrival a few weeks ago, Brewer seems to have injected new life into the team. Team captain Ron Francis ended his scoring slump with two goals and Jeff O'Neil re-gained his fast and furious style of play as the sluggish 'Canes came out battling. Notoriously bad in the month of February, Carolina will need to continue to dig out wins as they move through the end of the season to get a shot at the playoffs.
"We've lost some key guys," Francis said, "maybe for the rest of the season. Everyone has got to pull even harder now as we head down the home stretch." Asked about Brewer, Francis said, "I don't know what it is, but you can feel there's a different vibe on this team with him being here. He's really enthusiastic and its great that we were able to get someone with his size and his speed from down below (in the minors). You usually don't see that at that level, from a guy this young."
Carolina's sweep of the Bruins gives them some momentum heading into a four game home stretch. "It's always good to go into a home stretch on a winning streak," head coach Paul Maurice said. "You can feel the excitement in the fans and players and it gives you that momentum you need, which is critical at this point in the season."
"We win tonight and we've got something good going for this stretch at home that could carry us all the way to the All Star break," Maurice, said. "I'm happy to get three games on the road but we've also got to stay focused and keep on churning ahead."
Look for the 'Canes to do just that in their next home game Saturday against the Devils.
Durham, North Carolina - January 17th, 2001
I wiped the sweat off my brow as we shuffled into the lockerroom. We had a tough practice in the morning and our afternoon session was nothing short of grueling. I peeled my sweaty equipment off as well as the flimsy tee-shirt I wore underneat my shoulder pads. I grabbed a bottle of water pouring it over my head before taking a huge gulp. I sat their for several minutes thinking, before getting up to pull my hockey pants down and add them to the pile at my feet. I paused as I sensed that something was wrong. The normally boisterous lockerroom had suddenly gone quiet. I looked behind me and saw them.
Ron Francis stood a few feet behind me with a sick and twisted grin on his face. The rest of the guys stood behind him with their own smirks. Ron held up a bic razor and a bottle of shaving cream. Grinning even more he said, "Time to be welcomed on the team, Nick."
I tried to bolt for the door but was tackled by a group of my teammates before I had even taken three strides. Every team has its ritual and I had heard rumors of what the 'Canes did to their rookies. I prayed it wasn't true.
I was carried over to the trainers table and laid on my back. I vainly tried to hold onto my underwear but it was no use. Strong hands grabbed it pulled it down to my ankles as even more hands held my legs and arms to the table. I was kicking and shouting, trying to break away from their grip.
Glen Wesley said to me, "Struggle, Nick, and you're going to get cut. You don't want that, do you?"
I realized the truth and I stopped flailing. I laid back and gave up. I heard the whirl of an electric razor and closed my eyes as they began to shave my pubic hair. "Damn, this boy's going to be popular with the ladies. Check out that rod!" I heard one of the players say.
Another chimed in. "Yeah, until they see he's bald as a billiard ball!" The other guys laughed as the razor moved up and down shaving my pubes. I didn't think it could get worse until I heard and felt the shaving cream being sprayed on my crotch. I opened my eyes to watch as Francis made the first pass over my crotch. He passed the razor to another guy, and then to another guy until the entire team had had a chance to shave me. Finally, they let me go and I stared down at my crotch. I was completely hairless. And god did it itch! There were a few nicks and scratches too.
"Welcome to the Hurricanes", Sandis Ozolinsch said, patting me on the shoulder. Enjoy your stay! I got up off the table and sheepishly pulled my underwear back over my shaven privates. I had been initiated. At least that was over.
TO BE CONTINUED...
OK, I'm back on track. Sort of. Expect a new chapter soon. Comments are always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time...