Blame it on the Wind Chill

Chapter 8

According to Hallmark, Santa is the man behind the holiday seasons. Forget the birth of Jesus; it’s all about the guy in the red polyester suit with a beer belly Boudreau would be envious of and a payoff beard that makes my dude Niedermayer seem like less of a man. In fact, he’s such a poster boy that his image is plastered everywhere, on all the mugs, in every window display, and the other meaningless crap people feel compelled to buy this time of year.

He’s like the Sidney Crosby of Dutch folklore. Dempster bread, Sid? Come on.

To some he’s the ideal father figure teenage fathers model themselves after. To others he’s the Bed Intruder who “sees you when you’re sleeping” and hands out enough fossil fuels to keep a Canadian fire pit going strong through the summer months. He’s the creepy dude at the mall who gropes boys and girls as they pour their little hearts to him.

Here, at this rink, he’s the chubby doll sitting at the abandoned receptionist desk, belting out classic tunes of Jingle Bell Rock and Frosty the Snowman in a little girl’s falsetto. “How cute!” says an elderly lady passing by the table. She says this to me like I work here or something.

Yes, I want to strangle it, too.

After we arrived, my uncle told me to stay put while he went to do something of “great importance” in his office. I don’t know what that something is, but I have my suspicions. Now I’ll never get rid of that image of him “taking care of himself”. It’s worse than a physical scar, trust me.

I stand there awkwardly, shifting my weight back and forth. My hands are shoved in my pockets and I’m inadvertently whistling along to my lone companion. It’s a catchy song. A woman with braids and a baby walks by and gives me a dirty look. What’s her problem? I was simply whistling. I get another look and finally realize I’m standing right outside the ladies’ room. Oh.

I should move, I really should.

It’s an old community centre, slightly rundown and mildewy, but it reminds me of the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Red paint covers the walls and flyers for garage sales, charity fundraisers, and volunteers needed for holiday gift-wrapping decorate the bulletin board. It’s not a state of the art facility, but the old school vibe gives the place history and character.

I finger a pastel drawing on display in front of an art class. There’s just an overwhelming feeling of community here. It’s not yet noon on a Saturday, but the place is already crawling with activity. Sweaty old ladies walk past me in 80’s jazzercise outfits with their neon yoga mats. Little ballerinas and karate kids scurry by to the water fountain beside the door.

I walk around the place, peeking into doors. I find classes for salsa, painting, knitting, cooking, African beading, and kickboxing. The sound of screaming women in birthing class harmonizes the screeching keytars coming from upstairs.

“Cam Fowler, is that you?”

It’s the father of an old friend of mine. He’s accompanied by a little boy with beady eyes poking out of his scarf.

“Mr. Niels! It’s been a while. How are you?” He gives me a good strong pat.

“I’m great. Taking the grandson to karate class, if you can believe.” He chuckles. “Time flies. I mean look at you, Mr. NHL. I’ve been following you a bit; they’re decent numbers you’re putting up for your rookie campaign, eh? So are you going to be the next Niedermayer?”

It’s always a bit intimidating to be compared to a future Hall-of-Famer. Those are some massive shoes to fill.

“I do try,” I offer.

He laughs and pats me on the back again. “Keep it up, I’ll see you around.” Mr. Niels is very fond of patting. Unfortunately he’s also 6’5 and three hundred pounds so when he does so, it kind of knocks the wind out of you.

The kids are beginning to show up. I see several boys towing CCM bags bigger than themselves and poking each other with their sticks. They talk about the Leafs season and their favourite players. “Sidney Crosby is going to win the Rocket Richard again,” says a brown kid. “He’s going to own Ovechkin in the Winter Classic.”

“Yo, I was watching 24/7 the other day with my brother and we heard him say the f-word,” says another with Harry Potter glasses. “Three. Times.”

“No!” the others gasp, horrified that their role model is really just a cursing “potty mouth”.

Growing up in a relatively loose family, I, on the other hand, have always been taught that those are just hockey words. After all, Uncle Eric curses like a sailor and would never bother to censor himself, no matter if there are kids around. Bad influence, yes, but in their household it was never made a big deal.

I guess if kids are really paying attention to what is said on the ice, maybe as players we should start watching our tongues. And the camera operators should probably stop focusing on our faces after play is stopped. Don’t read lips, kids.

A few other people acknowledge me, probably out of politeness. “Duuude, that’s Steven Stamkos!” I hear one kid say to his friend.

“I’m not—” I begin, but by then they’re out of earshot.

Then I spot Drew arriving, all by himself. He’s struggling with his bag and I rush over to help him with the door.



“You’re here by yourself?” I look around for his parents. He seems to sense this.

“Uh, my sister’s unloading some things from her car. She’ll be here.”

A red-face Uncle Eric approaches. “There you are, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

“You told me to wait for you here.”

“Bullshit.” I roll my eyes. Some people have to be right all the time. Yes, I ran to Tim’s for a sugar fix and was gone for half an hour. Silly me.

“Well what are you waiting for, a letter on a plate? Pronto, Curly.”

He has me set up the nets while he goes to make a very important call. I don’t know who he’s calling, but I have my suspicions. I wait on the side in my equipment, hauling a bag of pucks. The zamboni’s just about finished up on the ice.

This rink is pretty beat up. It’s grungy, it’s smelly, and it’s as if the whole building is held together by a colossal wad of duct tape. Being a small community arena, there is hardly any room for spectators aside from shaky bleachers that reek of sweaty skates and the area behind each net. This is clearly indicated by the STANDING ROOM ONLY painted on the wall. While there are no spectator seats, there is a mini beer fridge. I open it up. And sure enough, it’s full.

I walk over to the play-by-play booth. On the table is the controller of the scoreboard, which, might I add, has the wrong date and time. Like, I wasn’t aware that it was still November and it’s six o’clock in the evening. The thing looks like an ancient Playstation controller. There are buttons for shots on goal, home, visitor, and even one that reads horn. I don’t know what it does, but I want to push it.

Despite all this, I still think it’s an awfully neat place. I use to come skate here with Tim and our friends. I can see it hasn’t changed much, though to be fair, I don’t think it has in the last couple decades.

The zamboni driver gives me a thumbs up as he takes a victory lap around the smooth ice. I return the favour and I begin to haul all of Uncle Eric’s things onto the ice.

“I can take it from here. Thank you.” Uncle Eric comes out and begins setting up the nets. “Could you please tell the boys to hurry up?” At first I’m confused why he’s being so cooperative and courteous, but then I see the parents arriving, with a couple of pretty Asian mothers chatting right up against the glass. I glance over to my uncle, who’s giving the ladies all sorts of attention and smiling over at them in a flirtatious way. Meanwhile, the women are looking at each other like, “Who’s this creepy white guy checking us out?” They make a point to make a beeline for the exit.

“Boys, hurry up!” I yell through the locker room door. I immediately hear the laughing and chirping come to a silent halt. They understand the message. “It’s Steven Stamkos!” I hear the same kid scream. “Don’t make him mad, guys; he can get us free tickets!” I don’t want to break his heart, but he’ll have to know the truth sooner or later.

I get back on the ice and start skating around. I try to take this easy because I am out for a reason. The weight of the stick feels good in my hands and taking shots will feel even better. I dangle a puck to the blue line and rip it off the left post.

“Nice!” someone comments sarcastically. I look up and of course, it’s her. She wears a smirk on her face and I feel one emerging on my own when I suddenly ram into the boards and fall with an audible thump. At least I had my head up. Uncle Eric skates by laughing and chips a puck that hits the boards just above my head. I groan and pull my ass up. My face probably resembles a shade closer to Brian Burke’s in a press conference.

When I look back, she’s chatting away with another parent. I wonder what they’re talking about. Not my latest display of athleticism, I hope.

A sharp whistle sounds. The boys all stand still for a second. I realize I got them all out in less than a minute, which I take as a feat because I know boys love hanging out in locker rooms. It’s the male equivalent of the girl’s washroom. When I was little I wanted to live there. Isn’t the power of Steven Stamkos striking? Get it? Because lightning strikes?

Oh my God. I’m losing my mind.

“Boys, I just want you to meet my nephew.” I come in beside him and he wraps a creepily affectionate arm around my shoulders. “He plays in the NHL and today he’s going to be assisting me.”

“Stamkos,” I hear the kid whisper to the other boys.

“Actually,” I jump in, “it’s Fowler, Cam Fowler.”

“Huh?” he replies.

“I’m not…Steven Stamkos. My name is Cam and I play for the Anaheim Ducks.” He seems extremely disappointed by this, and that, in return, makes me feel pretty insignificant right now. I’ll have to work my way into their hearts. More practice for me.

“Oh. How many points do you have?”

This is something I should remember. “I don’t know. Not as many as Stamkos.” I laugh. He rolls his eyes like duh.

“Wait,” interrupts Uncle Eric, “how do you not know your own stats?” I shrug. I really haven’t been keeping track. “Hell, even I know and I’m old. How, you ask? Because there’s a light on upstairs”—he points to his head—“three goals, thirteen assists. Wow. Gretzky knew the stats of everybody and you’re telling me you can’t even remember your measly numbers. I mean if you had three-fricken-hundred goals you might lose count, but you have three.

“Well don’t just stand there!” he yells at the other boys, who have taken an interest, to my dismay. “Warm up! Skate! Shoot pucks! Geez, it’s like you’ve never been to a practice before.” He blows the whistle again. I think he just likes the sound of it. “God, if I were preparing them for war they’d be goners. They need to develop some leadership.”

“These kids are nine, ten years old. Don’t be so hard on them.”

“You shut up, Mr. I-Don’t-Know-my-Stats. Go do something. Get your ass out of my face.”

Uncle Eric’s always been insensitive with his words, yet it’s hard to be mad at him. He’s a character and everyone who knows him has come to accept that he can be, at times, difficult. Or maybe I have it the other way around. Either way, he’s got a heart of gold deep down. So far, I have not succeeded in exploiting it.

I skate over to the photographer’s hole, where I find her taking pictures.

“Hey,” I say, flipping a puck onto my stick and holding it up to her through the hole like a peace offering. Why can't we be friends, why can't we be friends. Click. She takes it and stuffs it in her bag.

“Thanks,” she mumbles, still looking at me through her camera lens. Click. Click. “How’s your head?” She laughs and I roll my eyes.

“It’s awesome.” I watch her carefully put away the Canon after wiping the lens with a cloth. “Why are you here?”

“My brother’s in the class,” she points to Drew, “but I guess you already know that.” I nod, perplexed, putting the pieces together. Does that mean she’s their neighbour? “Yeah, I live next door.” Why does she keep doing this?

“Really?” It’s so cliché to date the “girl next door”. I feel a deeper interest in what went down between her and my cousin to cause them to split. People don’t just break up with people they love overnight. I want to know. Or maybe I don’t; I’m not sure.

“Excuse me?” I turn around. It’s the Stamkos kid, approaching me.

“I’ll see you around then?” I say to her.

She thinks about this. “Don’t push your luck.”

“Wait—what’s your—” I begin, but she’s already walked away. I sigh. That’s twice in one day. I hate being walked out on. Do I look like an unfaithful husband from Spanish soaps?

I turn back to the boy. “Yes?”

“Sorry,” he says, “I didn’t mean to interrupt you.” Of course he didn’t. “I just—are you sure you’re not Stamkos?”

I laugh. This kid is way too cute for me to be annoyed with him. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Oh.” He sounds super let down. “Too bad.”

I agree. I’m about to say something when the whistle sounds again. “Stretching!” I hear Uncle Eric yell. “Cam, lead the boys.”

I skate over to centre ice. “What exactly am I supposed to do?” I whisper to him.

“Are you shitting me? You’ve been playing for how many years, and you don’t know how to stretch?”

“I do, but—“

“—then do it.”

I exhale, and swing my arms back and forth, trying to be zealous, while developing a game plan. “So, everybody, how are we doing today?” I’m greeted by silence. Cue the crickets.

“You’re leading stretches, not a dance aerobics class,” yells Uncle Eric.

I can feel my face going red. I’ve been embarrassed in front of these kids way too many times today. “Well, let’s stretch our legs!” I get down on one knee and touch my toe. How long am I supposed to hold it? “One, two, three, four…ah that’s enough. Other leg!” The kids follow in my lead and finally I feel like I have some authority in here. “Now sit in a V and reach in front of you. Good, good. Um, now touch your toes or something.”

“Put your stick in front of you, get into push up position and hold in a plank.” I watch as they fall over one by one. “Nice. Stretch your back.” It hurts when I do this, so I get up and shake it off. “Roll the ankles…then your neck…don’t go all the way! Right to left, up and down, then shrug your shoulders.” We do some arm circles and finish up with other arm stretches. “Okay, I think we’re good. Coach?”

“What?” He’s talking to someone on the side. “Oh right. Travis is here now.”

“Yay!” the kids cheer. What, am I not good enough for them? And who’s this Travis person? I see this dude, maybe a high school student, skate over. He’s about six feet, less than two hundred pounds and his hair is in a buzz cut. There’s something about him that just radiates niceness and friendliness. The boys jump onto him, knocking him over. They start a pileup like something you’d see after a team wins the Cup.

“Okay, okay. That’s enough love,” says Uncle Eric. “Stations today. You know the drills. I want you to work especially on one foot slaloms and stopping. Get it done!” He turns to me. “Cam, this is Travis. He’s my other assistant. Get to know him. Buddy up. I don’t care. Just set up my pylons.”

“Hey,” I extend a hand, “I’m Cam.”

“I know!” He wraps me in a hug and we exchange manly pats. Canadians sure have a penchant for masculine embrace. “Duuude. What are you doing here?”

“Injury reserve. I know, it sucks, but I should be back soon.”

“Damn. So how is it in the big league? Exciting right?” He seems a little starstruck. By me? Really?

“Yeah,” I chuckle. “It’s a ball, but you eventually settle into things.”

“I bet you’ve met tons of cool people.” The life I have is pretty surreal. I never expected this would be me—a player in the NHL, being watched by thousands on TV. I can’t imagine little boys and girls with posters of me on their walls, thinking that they want to be like me. Okay, that’s just me dreaming. Still, it’s humbling and truly special. Since moving on up from juniors, I’ve been playing with stars like Selanne and Getzlaf, playing against the Sedins and Crosby, and scoring against Quick and even Luongo in the last game I played.

“Just a few.”

We line up the pylons in a straight line. The way it’s set up the rink is divided into four areas or stations. One is for stopping, another is for tipping in front of the net, and the remaining ones are stick handling and slaloms, which we just finished up.

“Hey, NHL 11 anytime, my brother. Call me.”

“Definitely,” I say. I’m always down for gaming. Trust me, it’s not like I have anything better to do.

“You know what, a couple of us are getting together tonight to watch the game. I know you’re not a Leafs fan, but do you want to come?” Sure, I nod. Why not? “Great. See, her, over there? That’s Becky, get a ride from her.” He points to the girl I was speaking with. That’s Becky? He waves and she waves back, smiling.

“Um…would that be okay?”

“Of course. She’s super nice. And she lives next door to coach, so it shouldn’t be a big deal.” Well she’s not super nice to me, I want to say. Now that he mentions it, I do remember a Becky. Tim’s Becky. That’s right. How could I not remember? And the B from the photo. Everything makes sense now.

“So you know her?”

“Yeah, she’s pretty amazing.”

Really? “Are you and Becky together?”

“Rebecca?” He laughs it off like it’s the most ridiculous idea. “We’re just friends. She doesn’t really date around anymore, since, well things happened.” What thing? I gesture for him to expand on that. “Sorry," he shakes his head. “It’s not my business to talk about. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

I look at her again. I feel like there’s something about her that she’s hiding. Something that Travis here knows. While I totally respect her privacy, it makes me more interested in getting to know her and maybe biting off a nugget of her mystery. I doubt that’ll happen, though. She obviously has some beef with me because looking at her now she really seems like the super nice person Travis was talking about, playing with babies and shit. I’ve already apologized for the sledding incident, haven’t I?

“Bring it in!” I hear the sharp whistle again. It’s seriously annoying now. I see Travis wincing at it, too, and we sort of share a look before bursting out in laughter.

“On the bench, boys, I want to give you guys a piece of my wisdom,” he begins. “So listen up. Today I’m going to talk about giving a 110%.” He whips out the whiteboard, as if writing things down will simplify the information he’s about to communicate. “Giving 100% means everything you got.” He writes it down. “Giving 110% means giving 10% more than what is humanly possible.” He writes that down also. “If we’re going to succeed as a team, we need 100% of you guys giving 110% 100% of the time. If only 50% of you guys give 110% and the other 50% give 100%, I guarantee you 100% we’ll only win 50% of our games. Suppose 75% of the 100% only gave 50% and 25% of the 100% were not feeling 100%, then we’d be in a heap of trouble. That’s why we need 100% of you guys giving 110% 100% of the time.

“We have a friendly with Markham coming up. Now I’ll tell you that name is misleading. It will not be friendly. And any of you looking to make some friends, don’t bother showing up. A show of hands: who will not be showing up?” The boys look just about as confused as I am.

“Trick question. You will all be there. If you weren’t planning on going there, you wouldn’t be here today and all of you are here today. I’m your coach; I have to be on you like—” he struggles to snap his fingers, “—that!

“Todd,” he points to the nervous-looking kid, standing in the back. “What is the square root of 69?”

“I don’t…know,” he squeaks, terrified. “Eight somethin’?”

“Todd, I don’t know the answer either. And I don’t care what the answer is. Just checking to see if you’re with me folks. Steve, name the three territories. Oh, you can’t? You haven’t learned it yet? What kind of school do you go to? Still, you’re the goalie you have think fast. If you can’t react to that, how are you going to be able to save a 110 km/h Chara slapshot?” He proceeds to single out and obliterate the confidences of the rest of the kids, one by one. I hate it when people ask screwball questions just to throw you off. Before the draft I was asked which member of my family I’d leave behind if North Korea attacked my hometown. That team did not draft me. I guess they weren’t satisfied with my answer.

“Now we’re going to practice the shootout. Cam would like to demonstrate. Cam?”

“What?” I say, still dazed.

“Shootout,” whispers Travis. Right.

The shootout is not my specialty, but I’ve had some success with it recently, most notably that winning goal I scored in the tenth round against Edmonton. I map briefly what I’m going to do and then I go for it.

I take the puck wide from the right, trying to recreate that memorable night against Khabibulin. I dangle it a bit, but as I look up I suddenly feel myself slipping and before I know it, I’ve fallen and crashed into the end boards.

“Oooooh,” I hear the kids suck in a breath. “Wipeout!”

“This is exactly what Stamkos did in NHL 11 last week, no lie!” whispers the Stamkos kid, excitedly.

“That’s enough,” says Uncle Eric, between fits of laughter. “We’ll come back to that. In the meantime let’s end the practice with a scrimmage. Wednesday evening, seven o’clock, let’s grind those bitches down…I mean, well, you know what I mean. Let’s play some hockey!” A round of hooting and cheering goes around and the kids proceed to pick their teams.

“Tough luck, buddy,” says Travis skating up to me. He helps me up and we go over to the bench to watch. I gaze over and Becky catches my eye.

The amusement on her face is priceless.
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I've been writing soulessly all weekend. Credit for the "rant" goes to the NHL. Happy reading.