Leo Novacek lived for ice hockey.
Hockey is a game of elegance and grit but he coached the Whooping Lake Innoomis, a motley bunch of has-been's, wannabe's, and you-gotta-be-kiddings. Even the name was a loser. Nobody in northern Saskatchewan knew what an Innoomi was but it was probably the Chippewa word for 'goon,' because when you don't have talent you beat people up.
The Innoomis play at Mineral Tech Arena, a building trying hard to crumble into the frozen tundra. The owners turn off the heat in the winter to save money, which doesn't matter to the out-of-work miners that come to the games; all the booze they drink works like antifreeze and the permanent layer of frozen beer coating the cinder block stands keeps them from hurting each other too bad when fights break out.
One dreary, January day, Leo hunched on the bench, nursing a hangover. As usual, the morning skate was more like drunken ballet. Perkenen, a forty-five year old Finn, tried to get up after crashing into the boards. Fäst, a Swede with a mismatched name if there ever was one, huffed and puffed as he tried to keep up with the other players. Yablonski, whose face looked like a relief map of Afghanistan, took off his goalie mask just in time to get hit in the forehead with a stray puck.
"I'm okay, Coach!" shouted Yablonski as blood trickled into his eyes.
Leo took a swig from a thermos and sighed. This wasn't hockey, it was Keystone Cops. Once upon a time he'd had dreams about coaching in the NHL. And now, just like his players, he was at the end of the line. But for no good reason, he was still an optimist. His dad once taught him a motto that he still strove to live by.
"Good things happen eventually," he whispered to himself.
Leo turned around. The voice had come from an older man dressed in a thrift store suit. Standing alongside him was a teenage kid dressed in lopsided hockey gear and a helmet that didn't fit. He was holding a stick that had no curve on the blade, the kind you got for five bucks at the Wal-Mart in Moose Jaw.
"Who are you?" asked Leo.
"This is Smith. He play for you," said the older man. "He give one hundred ten percent. He shoots! He scores!"
Leo looked toward the locker room. "Hamburger!" he shouted. "Did you let these idiots in?"
There was no answer.
"How did you get in here?" asked Leo. "The door is supposed to be locked."
"I open door," answered the older man. "Smith play hockey for you. He scores!"
The kid nodded and smiled and Leo saw something he didn't usually see at a hockey rink -- a full set of white, gleaming teeth; Leo knew the kid couldn't be a good hockey player with a set of chompers like that.
"Look," said Leo, "we got a full roster. Tryouts are in September."
"You need Smith," answered the older man. "You twenty games out of playoff spot."
There was something odd about the guy's accent. Leo had coached players from all over the world -- Swedes, Czechs, Finns, Russians, Latvians, you name it. This guy sounded like none of them. There was a peculiar lilt to his speech and a faint clicking sound at the end of each word.
"Where are you from?" asked Leo.
Leo scratched his head. Irkutsk? Wasn't that in Siberia? If so, how did these guys find Whooping Lake?
"Look," said Leo, "we're scrimmaging this morning. Come see me another time."
"I play now," declared the kid in the same peculiar accent. Then, smiling broadly, he hopped over the glass and onto the ice.
"Hey!" shouted Leo.
But the kid had already fallen on his face. "I okay!" he shouted as he got back up on his wobbly feet. Leo noticed his skates had double runners. Another big seller at Wal-Mart.
"New skates," muttered the older man, who sat down on the bench next to Leo. "He not bring skates from home."
Leo chuckled in spite of himself. The kid would fit right in on a line with Perkenen. He decided to let him have a little fun before he threw him out.
"I am Johnson," said the older man, thrusting out his hand. "Please meet you."
"Leo Novacek," answered the coach as he shook the older man's hand. Leo pulled his hand away. It was freezing in the building but this guy's hand felt like a hot tamale.
"Do you have a first name?" asked Leo.
"You could ... how you say ... no say it," answered Johnson.
Leo chuckled. He'd known a lot of Eastern European players. They didn't much care for vowels over there.
Out on the rink, the kid had found his balance and was skating around in circles, tapping his stick on the ice, trying to get Fäst to pass him the puck. Fäst glanced over at Leo who just sighed and nodded.
Fäst passed the kid the puck. The kid was at center ice, just over the red line. When the puck hit the kid's stick, he gathered it in and spun around once in a clumsy circle. Then the puck was ... gone.
The other players froze, looking down at the ice where the puck had just been.
"He shoots! He scores!" shouted Johnson from the bench.
There was a long pause. Yablonski stood in the goal crease and took off his mask. "Why is everybody just standing around?" he asked.
Leo stood up and called out, "Look behind you!"
Yablonski turned around and saw the puck in the net. The kid had shot it in from fifty feet away. And no one had seen it go in.
* * *
Leo tossed and turned in bed. The woodstove in his double-wide had long since died down but still he was sweating. Visions of sugarplums danced in his head. This morning at the rink, he had seen his ticket out of this God-forsaken, icebox of a town. And it was a kid named Smith.
Leo didn't think for a minute that 'Smith' was the kid's real name. He knew nothing about Irkutsk, but he figured there weren't many Smiths up there. But that didn't matter. If the kid had gotten into trouble with the government, so what? Leo planned to ride this kid as far as his dreams could take him.
With Smith on the team, the Innoomis could almost certainly win the Arctic League. Then people would begin to talk about Leo and his new prot%g%. There would be job offers to coach bigger teams down south, as long as he brought the kid with him. That's how these things worked.
And in a couple of years, who knows? The NHL might come calling. Maybe even the Chicago Blackhawks, Leo's favorite team. After that, champagne from the Stanley Cup.
Leo threw off another layer of blankets. Was all of this a bit premature? He didn't think so. This morning, when Hamburger had finally made it to the rink just before noon, Leo had asked him to outfit the kid with some decent equipment, including a real pair of skates and a stick with a curved blade. The kid had come out of the locker room looking like a real hockey player. When he went back out on the ice he had been ...
There wasn't a word for it. The kid made Wayne Gretzky look like a beer leaguer. He twirled like an Olympic figure skater until you got dizzy just watching him. He shot from anywhere on the rink and scored without anyone actually seeing the puck once it left his stick. It spooked Yablonski so bad that he refused to play goalie anymore until Leo threatened to cut him from the team. Each time the kid scored, Johnson stood up on the bench and shouted, "He shoots! He scores!" In all of his nearly fifty years, Leo had never seen anything like it.
The other players tried to do what they always did when outclassed, namely, to knock the kid down. But none of them could catch him. It was like the kid had eyes in the back of his head.
Leo smiled and whispered in the dark. "Good things happen eventually."
* * *
Springtime finally poked its long-lost head above the tundra. It was the time of year when dreams come out of deep freeze.
The Innoomi's were getting ready to play Yellowknife in the first round of the Arctic Cup. Three months ago, no one would have given them a chance to even make the playoffs, much less to be the number one seed. But Smith had proved to be even better than advertised. The Innoomis had gone on a tear, winning all but two games, the two games when Smith and Johnson left town on family business. Leo had pleaded with them not to go, but they simply disappeared into the woods at the end of Inuit Street. Four days later, they showed up in the locker room and all was well with the world again.
The attention Leo was getting was more than even he could have dreamed. The Canadian hockey press hadn't waited until the playoffs to find Smith. Reporters hung around the team like fruit flies and Leo got to do most of the talking.
"Oh yeah," said Leo, "I told the kid to simply work on his skills and the rest would come. You don't want to rush kids."
Cameras flashed and Leo smiled like a beneficent priest. He wanted to look good in case he made the cover of The Hockey News again.
"So Leo, what's the kid's first name really?"
Leo chuckled. "I can't pronounce it. You can't pronounce it. I'm not even sure the kid can pronounce it."
"So what town is he from in Irkutsk?"
"I can't pronounce that either," answered Leo.
He walked to the bench and gazed around Mineral Tech Arena, which had gotten a makeover. The owners had turned up the heat for the sellout crowd. And all of them knew about Smith. Which meant that they also knew about Leo.
* * *
Game four of the playoffs. Leo yawned. The Innoomi's were up 10-1 in the third period. The suspense had been gone since halfway through the first period when Smith had gotten his third goal for the hat trick.
The Yellowknife players were showing their frustration. Since Game One, they had been clutching and grabbing all over the ice. But Smith kept dancing away before they could catch him. So Leo wasn't worried when Smith gathered up the puck in the far corner. Three Yellowknife players converged on him. Smith reached up to adjust his chin strap and the Yellowknife players closed the gap.
Leo was looking down at his notes when he heard the thud. He looked up and saw Smith face down on the ice, not moving. "My God, no," whispered Leo.
Hamburger charged over the boards and slid across the ice in his street shoes. He knelt down next to Smith, cradling the kid's head in his hands. The stands were deathly silent. Next to Leo, Johnson tried to follow Hamburger over the boards.
"No," said Leo, restraining the older man. "Let Hamburger take care of it. He knows what he's doing."
Leo could only hope and pray that it was true.
* * *
Later that night, after all the fans had gone home, Leo wanted to cry with relief. He had sat there on the visitor's bench long after the game was over, afraid to go into the locker room and check on Smith. But now Hamburger had returned and was sitting next to him on the bench. He had just given Leo the most welcome news of his life. The kid was going to be okay.
"And he'll be ready for the next round of the playoffs?" asked Leo.
"He's fine," said Hamburger quietly.
"Something's wrong isn't it?"
"You won't believe me if I tell you."
Hamburger took a deep breath. "So, I'm examining the kid. He's face down on the floor. I'm checking the back of his head for bruises. And then I see it."
Hamburger sighed. "The kid has eyes in the back of his head."
"I know. All the great ones do."
"You don't understand. The kid's got eyes in the back of his head. Two of 'em. Right there under his hair. Blinking at me!"
Leo cocked his head. "You've been listening to Art Bell again."
Hamburger ignored him. "That's not all. I check out the kid's helmet and sure enough, there are two little holes drilled in the back.
"Then Johnson comes into the locker room. I'm already creeped out but Johnson says, 'Me fix.' He bends down and whispers something in Smith's ear. I can overhear. The language is like nothing I've ever heard before -- like a series of pops and clicks and grunts. Then Johnson takes this shiny, metal stick out of his pocket and waves it over Smith. It makes a humming noise and the kid sits up. Johnson looks at me and says, 'He fine now.' Then Smith gets dressed and they both take off."
There was a long, long pause.
"You're not kidding, are you?" asked Leo. He'd known Hamburger forever. The guy wasn't smart enough to make up a crazy story like that.
"I only wish I was," muttered Hamburger.
There was another long pause.
"Ham?" said Leo.
"You won't tell anyone about this, will you?"
The trainer paused and looked away. Leo thought that maybe he was seeing dreams of his own. "The secret's safe with me, Coach."
"Thanks. I won't forget this."
"Neither will I," said Hamburger. "Neither will I."
* * *
It was 4:30 AM and Leo hadn't slept. Outside his window, the starry, northern night was turning gray. Leo had two choices -- he could lie here awake for another three hours or ...
He got out of bed. He put on a parka and sheepskin hat, along with moon boots and gloves. He took a swig from a vodka bottle and went out into the still, sub-arctic night.
His feet crunched on the crusty snow as he walked the two blocks to Inuit Street. Gravel road had begun to appear for the first time since training camp in October. He passed the sleeping bars and one restaurant until he reached the edge of the woods.
Leo wasn't exactly sure where he was going. He knew that Smith and Johnson disappeared into the woods every night. He figured they had a trailer out there or something. He found a path where the snow was packed down. He followed it and heard the cry of a wolf.
The trees thinned into a large, open space. Leo didn't quite believe what he saw there.
Parked in the clearing was a flying saucer. That might seem like a primitive description, but it was the only name that fit. It was a silver spacecraft with dents and scratches all over, about the size of Leo's double-wide. It perched on spindly legs about eight feet off the snow, tipping slightly. Leo felt like he had been transported into a B-movie from the 1950s. With the gray light of the approaching dawn, the whole scene was in black and white anyway.
Leo circled the small craft, looking for some sort of door. He found a rectangular indentation on the far side. He stood gazing up at it. What should he do now? Try and knock? And how would he do that? He finally settled on something that had worked for him once in High School. He pried a handful of pebbles loose from the thawing ground and tossed one at the flying saucer. It hit with a metallic clang that sounded a lot louder than it should have. Leo fought the urge to run away.
He threw another pebble, harder this time. There was another clang and then a low humming noise from the saucer. The rectangle widened and a door appeared. Warm, amber light flooded down from inside.
Johnson poked his head down through the opening. "Coach?" he said.
"Hi," said Leo. "I was just out for a walk. I saw your ... trailer. Can we talk?"
"One minute please," answered Johnson. He disappeared and then reappeared a moment later, wearing a shiny silver coat that looked like it hadn't come from a thrift store. Or even Wal-Mart.
Leo took a step back as Johnson tossed one end of what looked like a rope ladder through the opening. It landed at Leo's feet and Johnson climbed down.
"What can I do for you?" he asked.
"Well," Leo stammered, "I just wanted to see if Smith is okay."
"Yes, Smith is fine."
"That's good. When he was passed out on the ice there, well, I was pretty worried."
"He's okay," said Johnson.
"Yes, well. Like I said. That's good."
Leo examined the spacecraft. "So you're not really from Irkutsk."
Johnson chuckled. "I knew you'd figure it out eventually. No one knows anything about Irkutsk so it seemed like a good place to be from."
"Huh," said Leo. "So what happened to your accent?"
"Even we don't know anything about Irkutsk, so I had to guess on the accent. But I can speak perfect Canadian, eh?"
Leo looked up into the sky, which was by now a lighter shade of gray. "The place you're from -- is it far?"
"Far for you. Not far for us."
"So what's it like there?"
"Winter, winter, all the time. So we play hockey."
Leo almost laughed as a picture popped into his head of little green men with hockey sticks. "So how did you find us?"
"We've known about you for a very long time. We get your TV signals so we watch most of the NHL games. He shoots! He scores!"
"That's not what I meant," said Leo. "How did you find me?"
"Smith is a very green player. He's been struggling just to make the team in his home town. I thought that bringing him here to play for a very bad team would boost his confidence. And the Innoomi's are one of the worst teams in the Universe."
"You're his father?"
"Yes. He is the youngest of fifteen sons."
Leo nearly choked. "Fifteen sons? Do any of them play like Smith?"
"Oh, they all play much better."
Leo's mind raced. Fifteen players? That was three whole lines.
Johnson turned away. "We have to leave now. The launch window is small."
Leo's eyes opened wide in stark terror. "Leave? But ..."
"The season starts tomorrow for Smith's team at home. Besides, it is getting much too warm for us here. Goodbye."
Leo shot spittle out of his mouth. "But ... but ..."
As Johnson got to the top of the rope ladder, Leo managed to sputter, "Will you come back?"
Johnson gazed down. "There's a good chance, eh? I was here before -- about a hundred and fifty years ago. I taught the natives how to play hockey. I even started your planet's very first team. I named them after my home planet. I was happy to see that they're still playing after all this time."
Leo gazed up open-mouthed like a man in a dentist's chair. "Then that means your home planet is ..."
"Innoomi," said Johnson. "At least that's as close as you can get in your language."
"So hockey wasn't even invented in Canada?" Leo felt like he had just uttered treason.
Johnson pulled the ladder up through the opening.
"Wait!" said Leo.
Johnson paused. "Eh?"
"Will you ever bring Smith back?"
"I think so. He wants to play for the Detroit Red Wings."
Leo felt his dreams melt away like May snow. He hated the Red Wings.
* * *
The Innoomis had just been swept out of the playoffs by Great Slave Lake. Without Smith, they were back to being a bunch of goons, an approach that will only take you so far in the playoffs. The reporters had asked the expected questions about what had happened to Smith. Leo mumbled something about how the kid had to go back home to Irkutsk to see his sick mother. The Hockey News now had packs of sportswriters wandering all over Irkutsk asking a lot of questions.
Leo stood on the bench in the locker room and looked down at his motley collection of players -- Fäst, Perkenen, Yablonski, and all the rest. He had actually grown a bit fond of these goons, even without Smith.
"No inspirational speeches tonight, boys," he said. "Thanks for a good season and I'll see some of you next year."
As he left the locker room for the last time, he heard Johnson's voice in his head. Was he mocking him or giving him one more glimmer of hope?
Just before the door to the saucer closed, Johnson had smiled down and said, "Hang in there, Coach. Good things happen eventually, eh?"
And indeed, for Leo Novacek, good things had happened, at least for a short time. So maybe they could happen again ...
Article © Wayne Faust. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-03-27
Image(s) are public domain.