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.
NOTE: A reader brought up an interesting point. This story may be a little bit hard to follow since it jumps back so much between past and present.
In the Part One, the date was June 6, 2001. That technically is the present for the story. But, for simplicity,
Part SixRaleigh, North Carolina - June 28th, 2000
"We just need your John Hancock, right here," Jason Karmanos, vice president of the Hurricanes said.
I grabbed the pen tightly in my left hand and signed on the dotted line. A dozen flashes from cameras were going off around me as I signed my unconditional two year commitment to the Carolina Hurricanes' organization. With one signature I had just pocketed $100,000. Plus I'd be making $93,000 next year. And the year after that, at least $97,000!
The room applauded as I handed the pen back to Stan. Paul Maurice, the head coach, held up a Hurricanes' jersey with the number 8 and my name above it. I wanted number 28 but a veteran on the team, Paul Ranheim, already wore that number. No way was he giving it up to some 17 year old rookie! I chose number 8 because it was one of my favorite's, Geoff Sanderson's, old number. Paul handed the jersey over to me and I put it on over my suit among the applause of the reporters gathered at the press conference.
I sat down as the reporters started shooting questions at me. The mediator pointed at a young and pretty blond near the back of the room.
"Nick, how long before you hope to be up here in Raleigh wearing that jersey?" she asked.
I felt ridiculous. I had witnessed plenty of press conferences before but I had never been part of one. All the attention and the hot spotlights shining on my forehead caused me to sweat. I felt light-headed as flashes from cameras continued to explode around me. It had all happened so fast. One minute I was in Connecticut in my home quietly watching ESPN. The next minute the phone had been ringing off the hook trying to get me to do press conferences and interviews. I had gone from no one to to quasi celebrity in the hockey world in less than five minutes. Ron told me to enjoy it now because in a few months I'd be in the minors and invisible again.
"Well," I started out, listening as my voice boomed through the speakers set about the room and reporters reached out with their hand recorders trying to capture every sound that left my mouth. "That depends on a lot of things. Uh, when Paul decides I'm ready I'll be up here in a heartbeat. Until then, I know I've got a lot of work to do in Cincinnati. Uh, in the meantime I've got a tournament with the junior U.S. team coming up in Europe and I'm just going to try to play the best hockey I know how over there. So hopefully, when I hit the ice in October I'll be in top form and ready to make a contribution for Cincinnati and maybe even Carolina."
As I finished my statement more questions erupted around the room until the mediator pointed at a grey-haired man in the front row and the room went silent as he was granted permission to speak. "Nick, where do you think, honestly, you fit into this organization. The list of talented young forwards for the Hurricanes is more extensive than any other team in the NHL. Your addition has shocked a lot of people. What role do you expect to be playing here come October?" It was a tough question. I had been fearing something like it. The Hurricanes already had three very young and very talented left-wingers who hadn't yet reached their top potential. Top scorer Sami Kapanen, Martin Gelinas, and Bates Battaglia. I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat, realizing I had to choose my words carefully, so as not to step on any toes.
"Whew," I whistled into the microphone. "That's a pretty tricky question," I joked. The tense room broke into pockets of laughter. I was doing what my agent had told me. Be cheerful, funny, likable. And modest! I looked over to the right and made eye contact with Trent. He winked at me acknowledging the little joke I had made and nodded with approval. "I'm not a coach," I continued, "I'm not an expert on the game by any means. Uh, I imagine my role here will become obvious in a couple of years as soon as Paul figures out what to do with me. Whatever role they want me to perform, though, I can assure you, I'll perform to the best of my ability. I'm behind, uh, any decision they make for me 110 percent."
Again the room bust into a flurry of questions and a young reporter near the front got the floor. "17 years old. From a small town in Connecticut. Full of promise. And you just pocketed $100,000. Any plans on what to do with the money?"
I nodded before giving my response. I had actually anticipated this exact question. "Well, I'll tell you one thing. I need a car. Uh, my parents desperately need our kitchen remodeled so I'm sure a lot of the money will be going there for their support of me all these years. And isn't Playstation 2 coming out pretty soon?" The room broke into polite laughter again at my joke, before a dozen reporters started jockeying for position again.
"Nick can take one more question and then he's got to be on his way," the mediator said into my mike. He pointed at a gorgeous redheaded woman sitting near the back of the room.
"Nick I've got two questions for you if you don't mind," she started, smiling warmly. "Number one, has there been one person in your life that is really the most responsible for you being here today and number two, are you free Friday night for dinner?" The room erupted into laughter as the young reporter asked me out on a date.
My face turned red and I swallowed a swig of water from my glass sitting on the press conference table as I waited for the laughter to die down before answering the question. "Um, yes," I joked back. "What, pick me up at like 8pm? Although my parents will get upset if you don't have me home before my 10:30 curfew." I waited for the laughter to subside and then answered her real question. "You know seriously, there's a ton of people who have had such a great impact on my life that I really wouldn't want to single out anyone in particular. Um, but I'd be a fool not to mention uh, probably one of the best coaches out there right now in youth hockey, a guy who has taught so much about the game, about myself, and um, about just life in general. Ron Havers is just about as good as they get and he already knows I'm eternally grateful for all he's done for me. I guess you could say he'd top my list as one of my biggest influences." I had hoped to plug Ron's name at some point during the press conference. Hockey had been his life and he'd always dreamed of coaching in the minors, but opportunity had never knocked. I hoped that dropping his name during the press conference might stir up enough of a buzz to get him some offers. Of course he never would have asked me to this for him. This was totally my own idea..
I walked out of the press conference and was greeted in the hallway of the Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena, home of the Hurricanes, by the captain and one of the assistant captains.
Jason Karmanos introduced me. "Nick, I'd like you to meet Ron Francis and Glen Wesley."
I shook Ron Francis' hand trembling with excitement. I was shaking the hand of a guy who had actually held the Stanley Cup. His name was engraved on it for eternity, along with all the other players and teams who had won it since it was first awarded in 1893. It was without a doubt the most revered sports trophy in the world. "Nice to meet you, Nick," Ron said to me warmly pumping my hand.
"It's very nice to meet you, too," I said.
"Nick, hi," Glen said taking my hand. "Welcome to North Carolina. I've been here since the team moved here and I'll tell you one thing. The weather here is a hell of a lot nicer than other places I've played."
I shook Glen's hand. "Oh come on, Glen, you can't tell me its nicer than Hartford!" I joked. He laughed. I added before releasing his hand, "I can't tell you how many times I used to go the mall and watch you play. It's really nice to meet you. You too, Ron, although I was little when the Whalers traded you away to Pittsburgh." The Whalers used to play at the Hartford Civic Center. It was nicknamed the mall because built around the rink was a full shopping mall. You'd exit the games and be walking past department stores before you got outside. It was pretty cool.
"That's right you're from Connecticut, aren't you?" Glen asked.
"Yup," I answered. "I grew up there."
"Yeah, Connecticut was all right," Ron told me. "Any ways, we're here to give you a tour of our facilities and operations here in Raleigh. So when we call you up you'll be ready to jump right in and not be lost around here. Sound all right to you?" he asked.
"Sure does," I answered. I noticed he said "when you get called up" not "if you get called up". I wondered if he knew something I didn't or if he was just trying to get me excited.
They led me away but before we got stopped as I stopped by a voice I knew I recognized.
"Nick! Hey Nick!" I turned around and saw the red-headed reporter from the press conference strolling towards me. I smiled sheepishly as she approached. She wasn't serious about that date, was she?
"Hi there, how are you?" I asked.
She offered her hand. "Sandra Freeman," she said. "But please call, me Sandy."
"Nick Brewer," I said shaking her hand.
"So did you think I wasn't serious about dinner Friday night?" she asked raising an eyebrow.
"Umm," I started, squeeming with embarrassment. "I, I, uh, I don't really know."
"Well I was. I know a great Chinese place. You like Chinese, what do you say?" I racked my brains searching for some way out of this. Ron and Glen were standing there with huge smiles on their faces. I wanted to impress them because I needed to get off to a good start with the 'Canes. I didn't want a repeat of those months of hell when I had first joined the Bandits. But I also didn't want to go out with this woman. What the hell I was supposed to do?
"Sandra I'm afraid he'll be halfway to Ohio on Friday night. He's only here for a couple of days. We've got him on a tight schedule," Jason Karmanos said, saving my ass. "Sorry to spoil your fun," he said patting me on the shoulder.
"Well its too bad," Sandra said. "Perhaps another time? Could you take a rain check?" she asked.
"Sure," I said, nodding nervously. I was relieved to be out of that jam. Sandy flashed a big smile before turning quickly on her heels and heading back towards the press room. I watched as Ron, Glen, and Jason watched her ass sway from side to side as she walked away.
Ron broke his stare first whistling and punching me in the arm. "You dog! Half the team wants to sleep with 'Sandy, from the Raleigh News and Observer.'"
Jason shook his head finally breaking his gaze. "It broke my heart to do that, Nick, but business is business. All right I've got to run. These guys are going to take you to lunch and then give you a tour of our facilities around the area. Enjoy!" He turned quickly on his heels and headed upstairs to the administrative offices.
'Don't get too excited," Glen told me. "She uses sex like a carrot to get what she wants. I think she's just digging around, sniffing out a story."
After a quick tour of the Entertainment and Sports Arena, we headed downtown to grab lunch. Since the Hurricanes were still looking to build a bigger and bigger fan base, they tended to go overboard on their promotions. Hockey was relatively new to this area and they needed to give at all the hype they could. The local media helped them out as much as they could since having a professional sports team brought revenue and prestige to the area. The management had convinced the press to hype up the publicity surrounding my signing. Under normal circumstances, they probably wouldn't have even had a press conference and public signing for a player as young and untested as myself. But the press had been talking about me all week in the papers and I was scheduled to do two separate interviews for the networks tonight. I'm not going to lie you to. I was drinking it up.
"The biggest change you'll notice when you start playing in the NHL, is how this is so much more a business than a sport," Ron said as he drove his BMW SUV through the crowded lunch hour traffic. Glen was nodding emphatically in agreement from the front seat. "We spend about 40% of our time generating press, and in turn, revenue for the team. There's endless numbers of press conferences and interviews. Then they'll set up special meetings for you where you visit hospitals, youth hockey events, charity golf tournaments, you name it. When you see people on the streets, you've got to be on your best behavior. Especially with little kids. If it ever gets back to Karmanos that you refused to sign an autograph for a fan, its a $2000 fine. And I am dead serious. Certain parties in this car can back up that fact!" I watched as he stole a grin at Wesley in the front seat. Glen was chuckling to himself.
"This organization has been working hard to get a toe-hold in this area," Francis continued. "I mean here, hockey takes a back seat to just about everything. We're competing with NASCAR, college football, college basketball, especially UNC. That's what's king down here. That's why we spend just about the most time out of any team in terms of publicity."
He turned into a small ice rink at the end of a pretty secluded drive. "This is our practice ice. A couple of local youth leagues play here and so do several high school teams. We share the ice here just like everyone else. Our morning ice time is right after a prep school practice. But the kids are usually pretty cool and they try not to bother us too much. But its not unusual for them to being hanging around and watching us. Did you have reporters come to your practices in Jackson?"
"No," I said. This was all happening way too fast. My head was spinning from the day's events. We had toured the ESA and they had showed me the offices and introduced me to some of the inside people I'd working with for things like media coverage, sports training, travel arrangements, and so on. Then they had introduced me to the team's NHLPA representative, someone it behooved every player to get to know well. NHLPA - National Hockey League Player's Association. This was a business, and like other business it had its own union. Every player who was a affiliated with a team had to join the NHLPA and pay the yearly dues. In return, the union made sure we had salaries competitive with other sports and a way in which to air gripes about the team and the league.
After that we had had lunch. Most of the players had returned to their homes scattered around the world for the off-season. There were several players who were around, however, and they joined us at the restaurant. I got to meet two more players. I met our starting goal tender, Arturs Irbe, and another of the defenseman, Curtis Leschyshyn. After that, the other guys left and Ron, Glen and I had headed over to our practice ice for the last part of the tour.
"We never had any reporters at our practices," I continued.
"Well, the media pretty much follows us about everywhere we go. If we're having a bad stretch and the press is really hounding us, Paul will sometimes close the practices to the public," Ron said.
"It gets that bad?" I asked.
"Nick, you're in for a rude awakening," Glen said. "You won't get it that bad since you're not well-known, yet. But the home-town press knows who we are and they bother everyone from the stars, to the fourth liners."
Ron corrected him joking, "But its not called bothering Glen, its called publicity."
"I don't care what you want to call it, its annoying as hell," Glen finished.
30,000 feet above the Atlantic ocean - July 3rd, 2000
It was late at night, my time; my watch read half past ten. But doing the math I realized it was very early the next morning in Prague, where I'd be arriving shortly. And I needed to get on their time quickly. We were scheduled to land in Munich at 6:30am Grenwich mean time. Then we were to catch a connecting flight at 7:45am to take us the rest of the way to the Czech Republic. I was traveling with the US Junior team for a a week long tournament. It would be the last hockey I'd play before spring training with the 'Cane's in the fall. Everyone else around was fast asleep and the cabin was totally quiet except for the soft humming of the 747's jet engines.
I closed my eyes tighter this time, trying to fall asleep. It was no use. Something just didn't sit right with me. I had a sixth sense about some things. I'd called Ron four times before I left for Europe trying to reach him. I wanted to know what he thought about the signing in Raleigh the week before. I wanted to know how he thought I had answered the questions and done in the interviews. He hadn't called me back. I hadn't talked to him since we had watched the entry draft together. I knew something was amiss and I was terrified at what it could be... Right now Ron would be coaching the regional Connecticut summer team. They would just be starting tournament play. And starring for his team was my good buddy, Matt. Things were a lot better between he and I now, but there was still that unresolved issue. That stupid fist fight.
We still hadn't really talked about why we had fought. None of us ever apologized. After a couple of weeks of ignoring each other things kind of just went back to the way they had been. Or so it seemed. Everyone else assumed we had made up and had put everything behind us. But inside, I felt sick about what had happened and I knew everything had changed. Instead of addressing the problem we ignored it, and the situation had grown worse. On the outside everything had remained normal so our parents and friends were clueless.
That night in St. Paul was the last we had ever fooled around. I left him alone from then on realizing that he wasn't like me, that I was different from him and everyone else I knew. Matt had remained distant since then as well. We never shared our dreams and passions anymore nor sought out each other when one of us had a problem. I look back and realize that at the time I had felt like I had lost the best friend I ever had. But knowing what I know now, I realized he must have felt the same way too.
By the time he or I were ready to try and make things right, I had been shipped off to Mississippi to play in the ECHL. I remembered that night after our win in Trenton when he had asked me if I were seeing anyone. It really was his first acknowledgment of me really being gay. A milestone if you think about it, but too it was too little, too late. I had been too busy the past summer to see him and we never did reconcile. I imagined it was eating him up inside as much as it was eating me up inside. And if I were in his shoes and had a problem like that, there would be only one person I would go to talk with about it. Coach Ron. And Ron just happened to be spending the summer coaching the Connecticut travel team.
But no. Matt couldn't have mentioned our fight, and our situation, and what had really happened. But then again, Matt was an emotional guy; no matter how hard he tried to act on the outside, he needed to get things off his chest. He need to talk with someone and Ron was just about the best guy to turn to in a situation like that. And that would explain why Ron hadn't returned any of my phone calls... I thought back on that time in New York. It was a bad memory, one I always kept in the back of my head. I didn't want it to taint my sentiments about Ron. I tried to ignore it because Ron was my mentor and the person I looked up to most in this life. I hated to think that he could have said what he said and meant it... Because what if he found about me. Oh god, what would he think...
Saratoga Springs, New York - June 20th, 1998
The tirade was entering its 11th minute and still Ron showed no signs of slowing down. He had chewed us out a bit in the first intermission. Overall we just hadn't shown up to play that night. We were playing in a junior tournament in New York. It was single elimination and in only our second game we were in danger of being eliminated by a tough Maine team. We had played them before a year ago and spanked them. This year though they had some new additions including a brilliant but "eccentric" new coach. I'm not sure to this day if he was really gay or not, but it was obvious to all of us. I felt uncomfortable around him, especially in the presence of Matt.
We were down 6-4 going into the third period, yet the score didn't reflect the game at all. We had scored a soft goal in the beginning of the second period and had notched another on a penalty shot. They were beating us in the corners and controlling the puck and the pace of the game. Plus they were more physical and were putting a beating on us in that category as well.
Ron was all over us and desperately trying to wake us up so we didn't have to head back to Connecticut early and whipped. After going over all our assignments and emphasizing which ones were missing, he finally led us out of the lockerroom and back towards the ice. We waited along the gates as the zamboni did its final few passes around the rink. Just before it finished, the Maine team came out of their lockerroom and took a position next to our players. One could sense the tension in the air as tempers flashed back to cheap and dirty actions on the ice from both sides. Luckily, nothing major happened and we entered the rink without incident. I noticed though that Ron seemed to be staring down the other coach.
After a quick skate to warm up we lined up for the dropping of the puck. The final period was just as fast and furious as the others and once again the other team quickly picked up where they had left off. They scored another goal three minutes into the period. They were dominating us in our defensive zone and as each line came off the ice Ron angrily scolded them on what we had done wrong. Mostly we weren't finishing our checks and were failing to keep our positions during breakouts. I could sense his frustration after each shift. I had never seen him this upset, although I had never seen us play that badly before either.
He finally lost it when one of our guys was taken down skating up the ice on a breakout. It happened to be Matt and it was a clean hit, yet afterwards the opposing player had jammed his stick in Matt's ribs. I wasn't on the ice otherwise I would have laid a whooping on the Maine SOB. The coach was screaming at the refs but they hadn't seen anything as they were following the play up the ice in the other direction. Matt sort of just rolled onto his stomach clutching his chest.
Ron turned furiously towards the other team's bench. The other coach was well within earshot. "God damn it! You better control your fucking players, you hear me!!!" he screamed.
The other coach turned towards Ron and stared at him blankly before returning, "Could you please watch your language. These are only kids, you know."
"You just control your fucking players you piece of shit!"
The other coach got even more upset. "Excuse me," he boomed. "I don't even know what you're talking about but you had better clean up your mouth. What sort of example are you setting for these children?"
"Yeah, what about you, what example are you setting... you, you goddamned queer! They should keep homos like you away from kids!"
The players on both benches started yelling stuff back and forth. Their coach's mouth dropped wide open in shock. "Guys, I will handle this!" he shouted at his players and stepped up onto the bench so that he was standing face to face with Ron who was almost leaning into their bench. His rather large assistant came up right behind him in case things got heated.
In quiet tones he started having a heated discussion with Ron. I was sitting near the conversation and strained my neck to hear what I could. All I could make out was that the other coach had kept his cool and told Ron that he refused to be talked to in such a way. I had seen Ron angry before but this was ridiculous. Ron was usually harsh but fair, and had never lost his cool like this. Furthermore, he was a stickler for sportsmanship and punished us harshly if we stepped out of line.
By this time, play had stopped when the referees noticed Matt down on the ice. They had seen the altercation between our two coaches and skated over to calm both of them down. Ron was warned not to say another thing to the other coach or else he would be assessed a bench minor and he would be forced to leave the ice. But the damage had been done to our team. Seeing our coach lose it like that just shattered our confidence even more and we ended up losing the game 9-4.
After the game we sat in our lockerroom silently taking off our pads and moping about. None of us were saying much. I was in a bad mood and had quickly removed my pads and stood only in a white tee-shirt soaked with sweat and my boxers. Matt was in a smaller private room off towards the back of the lockerroom where Ron and the assistant were checking out his ribs. I decided to head back and see how he was doing. As I neared the room I could hear muffled voices, and surprisingly, laughter. I came to the open doorway.
Our assistant coach, Ed, was carefully checking out Matt's chest, making sure nothing was broken. Ron knelt beside him trying to make him feel better. Matt was in obvious pain. "Remember, Matt, girls dig hockey injuries."
Matt nodded and then grimaced as Ed's hand applied pressure to one of the bad rib bones. "Ahh!" he grunted.
"Does that hurt?" Ed asked him, applying pressure again.
"Owww! YES it hurts!"
Ron laughed and so did Ed which made Matt giggle a bit. And when Matt giggled it hurt his chest which made Ron and Ed laugh harder and poor Matt laughed even harder and was in pain from the whole process. I observed the ridiculous scene and started to smile broadly myself. Matt's laughter was so contagious.
"Come on, Matt, you're not going soft on us, are you? They're just a little bruised," Ed said.
"Yeah, toughen up doughboy," Ron added trying to cheer Matt up even more. "Or we'll go send you to play for that queer coach. How would you like that?"
"I'd make sure I didn't drop the soap in the shower," he said through clenched teeth and they all broke into laughter again. My smile had melted and I felt my face get red and hot. None of them had noticed me and I ducked away from the doorway and quickly moved towards the one toilet. The stall was empty and I threw the door door empty and slammed it shut behind. I sat down on the seat just as the hot tears welling up in my eyes started to run down my cheeks.
I had always tolerated it when someone joked about homos because I didn't think I was one of them. But tonight had made me feel sick to my stomach and I couldn't figure out why. More and more I was starting to believe it. That yes, I was in love with Matt and I did fantasize about other guys. This wasn't just a phase that every boy went through and most outgrew like I had read in that book. I was scared, and now more than ever, I felt alone. But I was most upset at Ron. The one adult in my life I really looked up to. His words had hurt me more than anything Matt had ever done or said. Matt was just a kid, but Ron was an adult; an adult whom I wanted to be like.
OK, the romance is coming soon. I'm still trying to give you a little more background. But seriously, the next chapter a new "beau" will be introduced so stick around. firstname.lastname@example.org.