Blame it on the Wind Chill

Chapter 1

Just under two to go in the second with the Ducks on a late power play. Ok, focus, Perry, I think, channelling my thoughts to him with all the power invested in me, just get past the blue line. “Atta boy!” I say unconsciously, with a little too much fervour, as Corey makes a pretty nifty move, separating the Calgary defence like a deranged surgeon hacking apart conjoined twins. “Sorry,” I mumble offhandedly to the stern-looking businessmen sitting around me, though my eyes stay glued to the screen. Corey to Getzlaf, now back to the point, a shot—

“Score!” I yell, jumping up from my seat in a moment’s excitement, causing heads to turn down the aisle along with dirty who-does-this-kid-think-he-is looks. I quickly recover and plop down, high-fiving the guy sitting next to me, who’s clearly distraught and alienated by my sudden outburst. I mumble an apology and clap him on the back, perhaps too hard, as he doubles over on impact.

“Yes!” I whisper to myself. It’s 3-1 Anaheim, and I feel like doing a happy dance as the horn blows and players head off the ice for the second intermission. Good, I think. If they can keep outplaying the opponent like this, we’ve got another two points in the bag. I reach for my Bluetooth impulsively, but remember that I’m not supposed to use it on the plane. Damn. My fingers jitter on the arm rest. If I could just make a quick phone call to Perry…

“Uh, excuse me, sir.” I jolt around, burying my phone deep into the cushion and flashing an innocent smile. She’s your typical flight attendant: mid-age, brown hair pulled back in a harsh ponytail, with heavy lipstick and a Crest Whitestrip smile. Her eyes shifty, scanning her surroundings for improperly stored luggage, Samuel L. Jackson, and other potential safety hazards. “Sir, you’re going to have to turn that off and put it away.” She awkwardly bends over the man to my left and points to the jagged corner peaking out between my leg and the pleathery armrest. “The use of all mobile phones and wireless electronic devices is forbidden for the duration of the flight as this may interfere with navigational equipment,” she says robotically, as if she’s had to repeat this to a thousand Textaholic Anonymous kids before me.

“Oh this?” I shrug sheepishly. “I was going to put it away anyhow, but thanks for stopping by. My teammate just scored, though.” I show her the box score. She doesn’t seem impressed. “I play for the Anaheim Ducks? In the NHL.”

She gives a half-assed smile, as if running out of patience. “That’s very nice, sir,” she says politely. “But please refrain from creating a commotion.” So I got a little carried away.

“If you have anymore questions, please don’t hesitate to press the call button.” She moves on the next victim, heels clicking away, while I let out a low whistle of relief. That was close; too close. Well, I knew she wouldn’t confiscate the thing unless I had some terrorist-like screensaver, whatever that looks like, but something about it just brought me back to tenth grade for a moment. The days of sneaking glances at the chunky Motorola in my lap on the NHL trade deadline, waiting for updates from the designated skipper on the latest blockbuster deal, while desperately avoiding Ms. Horn-Rimmed-Glasses and her eagle eyes. For people like me who got away with it every year, it was fantastic, but not so much for the stealth-challenged, who had their beloved devices banished to the “naughty drawer” until summer.

I kick back and wiggle before hitting that airplane seat G-spot. This is going to be a long flight.

It’s different when you’re traveling with the other guys, because, while there are some pretty old dudes on the team who are out cold from takeoff, at least they have a pulse. Which is more than I can say for some of these people I’m currently surrounded by. With them you can goof around, engage in virtual battles, or play pick-on-the-aerophobe-in-the-pack. I doubt the guy sitting beside me is going to be up for a round on Mario Kart.

The plane begins to move as I tune out the booming voice of the jolly captain, explaining emergency procedures on the intercom. I can just picture him with a receding hairline and a full, bushy white playoff beard. Like a registered sex offender.

While the newbie flyers frantically double check their seat for life jackets and review the cartoons of all the different ways this plane can go down, I check the candy stash in the hidden compartment of my duffle bag. I have my M&Ms, Twizzlers, Fuzzy Peach, and handful of assorted sweets I stole from the Niedermayer kids’ leftover Halloween stash. Popping a stick of cinnamon gum I lean back and prepare for five hours of quiet and, hopefully, uninterrupted bliss.

As the plane begins to ascend, I look out the window at the world below me. I wonder what’s happening in the locker room right now. It feels weird to watch games streaming live, as opposed to from the bench or on the ice. Frustrating, too, because I want to be there in the midst of the action, contributing on the forecheck or chirping at the opposition bench. I hope I never get injured again.

Okay, that may be impossible, but I don’t feel like I should be kept out at all. I know coach is worried about me overusing my back, but it honestly feels fine to me. Sure, it’s not 100%, but I still believe I don’t warrant to be written off as a healthy scratch in all its vagueness. Seriously, in some cases an upper body injury means as in the upper body was the last known location of the player’s head. It gets messy out there for sure.

I know I should be happy that I’ve been given all clear to take the next couple of weeks off to celebrate the holidays in lieu of my wonky back, but when your family’s already made plans without you in mind, it’s kind of sad knowing that they now have to go out of their way to incorporate you into their busy lives.

My parents have already gotten a head start on their holidays, flying over to Europe, sans-children, sans-responsibilities. My sisters are staying with some friends right now and will be at our cousins’ in Michigan for Christmas. That leaves Uncle Eric and Aunt Helen: the only relatives with an extra bed to spare, which is why I’m leaving beautiful sunny California to live in an igloo in Canada for the next month or so.

Well Toronto’s not exactly an icebox, very metropolitan and not what you’d call the “true north” as their anthem proclaims. Still, it’s quite a stretch from the t-shirt weather in Anaheim. Not that I’m unaccustomed to it, after living up north practically all my life. I used to go to the city all the time when I played in Windsor, indulging in Aunt Helen’s non-mouldy bread and clean sheets. They took good care of me.

I was actually born in Windsor and my dad’s a Newfie, so technically I am a Canadian, more or less. To be honest, I think my Canadian family still sort of resent, for lack of a better word, my decision to play for the American national team, but what can you do? When you hold dual-citizenship you can’t please both sides of the border.

I open up the LA Times and go to the sports section. A couple short articles about those damn Kings and one about my boy Hiller, but that’s it. I go through the Toronto Star I picked up for good measure and it’s just bombarded with Leafs, Leafs, Raptors-woes, and more Leafs. A Maple Leafs win makes every Toronto columnist go nuts. If only we could get that type of exposure in the south.

I settle for some old episode of How I Met Your Mother and get out the package of cookies Mrs. Niedermayer packed for me. They’re gingerbread men, decorated by her sons most likely, judging from the pro icing and sprinkles. I pick up one that looks to be the safest and take a bite. Not bad, if you don’t think about where their grubby hands have been. Maybe I’ll send them in a care package to my friends at the ACC.

On second thought, maybe a little rest will do me some good. I’m out for pretty much the rest of 2010, which sucks, but not as much as surgery like the medics warned. Now I usually ignore their recommendations because as a player you’re expected to troop on, but I’ll agree my back is giving me some grief. Of course I’ll have physiotherapist sessions in Toronto and training, but at this point, it’s best to just listen to the coach. I don’t want to have to end up sleeping in a craftmatic adjustable bed like I know some ex-NHLers do, cough, Niedermayer, cough.

“Excuse me,” comes a voice behind me. Twisting my body back, I see it’s a young boy about twelve or thirteen, sporting a Montreal Canadiens baseball cap. “Hey, aren’t you…,” he narrows his eyes. I’m pretty sure I have a mini Sharpie somewhere in my pocket; it’s always a pleasure to sign things for fans, especially young ones.

“…going to crank up your chair?” He waits for me expectantly. “They’re wheeling out food, man. I need my space back.” I simply sit there, staring dumbly for a second.

“Oh. Well, uh, sorry, dude,” I manage, doing as told. The guy gives me an appreciation nod and plugs himself back into his music. I don’t think that’s ever happened before; I guess I was wrong to assume. Consider my ego internally bruised.

At least I didn’t ask him where he wanted it.
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I'm not completely satisfied with it, but there you have it. I guess it's more like a prologue; the actual story will begin next chapter.