The Boston Titans are playing in our home arena, and we’re losing. Badly. And I’m a big part of the reason why.
I’ve managed to screw up on every shift I’ve taken on the ice—an impressive feat, for sure. Although the first time wasn’t my fault. At least, not completely. My stick broke on a pass. Hell, maybe I was being too aggressive, but either way, instead of flying over to our right wing, the puck only wobbled a few feet away and was snatched up by the Avalanche’s defense.
That was when they scored their first goal . . . only forty seconds into the game . . . and when everything started to go downhill.
What I know for certain is that my team is losing patience with me. Even our captain, Reeves, who’s always supported me, was this close to dropping his gloves and pounding me into the ice. I could practically taste his frustration when he growled in my face.
“Come on, Tate. Get your shit together,” he hissed as he skated past me.
Of course, this had to happen against our biggest rivals, the Denver Avalanche. And it’s my fault we’re down by three goals.
“Shit game you’re having, yeah?” Bronson, the Avalanche’s cocky center, gives me a grin that shows off his missing front tooth.
“Shit game? Try shit season.” His teammate Raduloff smirks at me, his eyes sparkling with delight.
I grind my teeth against my mouthguard to keep from saying anything. His words sting like only the truth can.
There are no hockey fans holding up signs for me in the stands. No jerseys with my name printed on the back. Not yet, anyway. I’m unproven talent, the new guy on the team. And I’m blowing it every single time I take the ice.
It would help if I could get out of my own head for four fucking seconds. Yet lately, a bunch of confusing thoughts seem to fill my brain—like who I want to be in the NHL, and what I want to be known for. And since I don’t have any answers, it’s messed with my ability to perform.
At first, I was happy just to be getting ice time, but it quickly became clear that’s not enough. I’m up against some of the most talented players in the world, and they’re literally skating circles around me. They’re the type of guys who are the best in the league and still aren’t satisfied, and I’m learning that’s the mentality you have to have to succeed. It’s not enough just to make it. It’s not enough that I can skate fast and handle a stick at the same time.
Maybe I don’t belong here at all. Maybe I’ve only been fooling everyone before. Imposter syndrome is alive and well.
Self-doubts like these are always followed by the same somber thought . . . I wish my dad were still around to talk to. Maybe he’d have some insight or words of wisdom. Or maybe he’d just tell me he’s proud of me and that everything else will start to fall into place. But all I have now is my memories of him.
At the next face-off circle, Bronson skates past, giving me a little shove. “Don’t worry about Tate. He won’t be here next year.”
“At this rate, he won’t be here next week,” Raduloff says, his tone serious now, less teasing.
Bronson is bounced from the face-off circle and replaced with an angry-looking guy from Russia. What happens next is a blur.
They win the puck, and I move into my zone. Raduloff pokes his stick at my skate, almost tripping me before skating away with a smirk.
I race after him across the ice, white noise screaming in my ears, and tackle him from behind. A stealthy, highly illegal attack he wasn’t prepared for.
Raduloff goes down like a sack of potatoes—hard, quick, and without any of the grace he normally has on the ice. When he twists around to fight me off, I get in two solid hits before we’re pulled apart and I’m escorted off the ice.
I feel nothing but rage.
• • •
“What the hell were you thinking?” Coach Wilder bellows, jabbing his finger into my chest before taking a step back so he can continue pacing the conference room with frustrated steps.
We’re joined by Coach Tanner, and a woman I don’t recognize from the league. I’m told she’s the head of player safety, so I know this meeting is serious. Which is why I dressed in a suit and arrived twenty minutes early, just to be safe.
That little stunt I pulled on the ice last night cost us the game. I was ejected, and my team had to play five minutes short-handed for the major penalty. The sports reporters had a lot to say about my behavior, me as a player, as a teammate, as a person . . . and none of it was positive.
Wilder pauses and places one hand on the table, leaning toward me. “Raw talent isn’t enough to justify misconduct. You know that.”
“This can’t go unpunished.”
“I understand, sir.”
Coach makes an exasperated sound. “Do you even care about this?”
I care about a lot of things, but I’m not sure hockey is one of them anymore. Keeping those thoughts to myself, I give him the answer he’s expecting. “Yes, of course I do.”
His eyes sink closed, and he inhales slowly. “The team is suspending you.”
My stomach twists as I meet his eyes, waiting for my punishment.
“For eight games.”
Damn. It’s more serious than I expected. But I did blindside Raduloff, and he could have been seriously injured. He’s on concussion protocol now. Because of me.
“And before you can return, we require that you speak to someone.”
“Speak to someone?” I glance over at the lady the league sent over.
Distractedly, he nods. “Yes. we requiring you to work with a therapist and they will sign off on your suitability to return once they’re satisfied that you have your anger, frustrations, or whatever it is sorted out. Because what happened yesterday can’t happen again.”
Talking about feelings isn’t my strong point. I certainly don’t need anger management, or any kind of therapy. I just need a second to fucking breathe.
I haven’t even begun to process the gaping hole my father’s sudden death has left in my life. He died just as the season started, so I couldn’t fall apart then. I told myself I’d deal with it, just not yet.
Not only am I trying to come to terms with losing my dad, but I also feel guilty that my mother and brothers need me back home in Colorado. But Mom insisted that I stay in Boston, playing hockey like my dad would have wanted.
I look up, realizing Coach is still waiting for my response.
My mouth is dry, but I don’t dare ask him for a bottle of water. I’m not exactly in a position to be asking for favors right now, no matter how small.
“Okay,” I hear myself say, because what other choice do I have?
Wilder hands me a sheet of paper. “These are the approved sports therapists. Pick one and set up the appointment. Sooner rather than later.”
“Sure,” I manage to say.
“The league doesn’t tolerate this kind of shit, kid. Not anymore. The ice isn’t the place for some frat-party brawl. It’s your workplace, and you’re not getting the job done. When you don’t get the job done, we have to make tough decisions. Do you hear what I’m saying?”
I take a deep breath, trying to get my breathing under control. I understand exactly what he’s saying. They’re close to ripping up my multimillion-dollar contract if I don’t get my shit sorted out.
“Yes, sir.” I swallow and hold out my hand. “I understand what you’re saying.”
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