The year is 2025. The Thunder Bay Shield are struggling to start the AHL season, their fourth in the AHL as the farm team of the Winnipeg Jets. Under the leadership of Head Coach Tobias Kelly and team captain Eddie Haynes, the Shield must improve both on and off the ice if they are to have any shot at the Calder Cup.
Chapter 4: Digging Yourself Out
Walt trudged down the long hallway that wrapped itself around the underside of the Terry Fox Memorial Arena’s concrete lower bowl. He was still shaking his head at the news he had heard on the radio on the drive in that Shield defenseman Dutch Holland was lying unconscious in hospital following a bar fight the night before.
He stopped at the door to his humble office when he spotted something out of the ordinary: the door to the weight room was open, but the light was off inside.
“Did I forget to do close that, or was it the players?” he muttered to himself. He could check the security tapes later. He trundled down the hall to the doorway, leaned in and grabbed the handle.
“Don’t close it.”
Walt jumped back as a chill ran down his spine. A shadowy figure emerged in the darkness, walking towards him, reaching out and…
...turned on the light.
Eddie Haynes stood before Walt, squinting as his eyes adjusted to the light. The bags under his eyes and stubble on his cheeks indicated it had been a long night, and Walt wondered if the man had slept at all.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Eddie muttered, staring at the ground. “I thought maybe I could come here and work out and it would take my mind off of it, but I can’t stop thinking about it…”
Walt didn’t know what to say. He knew Eddie was a good man, and it surprised him that it hurt him to see the team captain like this.
Eddie looked up from the floor and met Walt’s eyes.
“What do I say to them? I’m supposed to lead by example, but this…,” he stopped. “This is more than I signed up for, Walt.”
Walt scratched his head, and leaned against the wall.
“I don’t know what to tell you, kid. This is a pretty tough spot. And I’ve seen some tough spots in my day. You’ll be alright.”
Walt turned to exit the room, but stopped at the doorway, facing out into the hall.
“When I was around your age, my youngest...Adam...was hit by a car when he was riding his bike. He was three.”
“Oh my god, Walt, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.”
Walt continued, still with his back turned to Eddie.
“Adam was rushed to hospital. His little leg was so badly broken they had to amputate it at the knee. We waited for him to wake up. And waited. Days passed and nothing. The doctors couldn’t give us answers, and we just sat by his bedside waiting. Summer turned to fall, fall to summer, and we waited. Sitting by his bedside became normal. I wouldn’t say things went back to normal, but they developed a sense of normalcy.”
Walt turned back around, and Eddie could see he was barely keeping in tears.
“So we’re sitting there, one February day in 2010, and we’re watching the Olympic gold medal game. You know the one. Iginla flips that pass to Crosby while falling and bang! Back of the net!”
Tears were now falling down Walt’s cheeks.
“My wife and I jumped up, and hugged each other, and I remember looking back at my son and he’s staring up at me smiling. I couldn’t believe it.”
Walt wiped the tears away from his eyes, smiling.
“Anyway, I guess what I’m getting at is if Iggy can wake up, then so can Dutch.”
“I guess you’re right. Thanks for telling me that.”
“That story’s just between us, okay,” Walt said as he started walking down the hall. “Or I’ll take that key back from you so fast you’ll forget you ever had it.”
Eddie smiled as he watched after him, and then paused.
“Hey,” he called down the hall. “I thought you said your son’s name was Adam. Why’d you call him Iggy?”
Walt stopped and turned.
“When Crosby yelled ‘Iggy’, he woke up. We’ve been calling him that ever since.”
Walt turned and walked further down the hall. Eddie smiled, shaking his head, as he returned to the weight room.
* * *
Tobias Kelly Once again found himself swearing against the very existence of the frozen substance as he attempted to shovel his driveway clear so he could get his car out of the garage and get into work. Shovelling snow to the west side of his driveway was fine, but the wind out of the east blew snow back into his face every time he pushed it east.
He threw the shovel into the corner of his garage, stamped his feet a few times and got into the car. His seat felt like rock, and he felt glad that he had decided to get a vehicle with seat warmers so that things would be nice and toasty by the time he got to the arena. The engine roared to life, and with it came the sounds of the radio.
“...with a chance of flurries, high of -25. Over to sports, Thunder Bay Shield defenseman Nick Holland remains in hospital this morning after a late night bar fight left him in need of emergency surgery, which doctors performed successfully last night. Holland remains in critical cond-”
Tobias turned off the radio. He was receiving updates before Andy and the hospital were disseminating them to the media, so none of this was exactly news. Besides, a little silence never hurt anybody, right? What was that old saying, silence is golden? Tobias’ car skidded as it approached a stop sign, and his attention returned fully to the task at hand.
He pulled into his parking spot at the arena shortly before 10. There were a few cars in the parking lot already, but he didn’t expect people to start filing in until much closer to the 2 p.m. meeting time.
Grabbing his bag from the front seat, he strode across the parking lot. The plough had done a good job of clearing away the snow, though a light dusting had fallen since they had completed their work. Tobias was admiring the height of the man-made mountain in the corner of the lot as he approached the staff door, and didn’t notice the woman standing there.
His eyes snapped over to the woman, who stood, voice recorder in hand, squinting as the snow made it hard to see.
“Kady Brooks,” Tobias said. “Did you not get Andy’s news release?”
“I did,” said the sports reporter for The Chronicle-Journal, Thunder Bay’s newspaper, “but it didn’t have a quote. People are going to want to know how the team is doing, how they’re going to move on.”
“Move on?” Tobias raised his eyebrows at the reporter.
“Sorry, poor choice of words. But how are you doing? What is the team doing to get through this?”
Tobias scanned the parking lot, hoping the team’s public relations lead would miraculously appear, but Andy was nowhere to be found. He repressed a sigh.
“The team is doing as well as can be expected, but are understandably shaken by this injury to their friend and teammate,” said Tobias. “We’re all eager to hear some news...positive news, from the hospital on Dutch’s recovery, and our thoughts are with him and his family.”
“For a young team like this, a coach can take on a position as a father figure. How does Dutch’s injury affect you personally?” Kady pressed on.
Tobias knew he couldn’t very well tell her just how badly he felt, but drummed up something he hoped Andy and Sara would approve of.
“I care about all of my players both professionally but also personally. Dutch is a good young man, with a lot of life left to live. I want nothing but the best for these guys, to see one of them hurt like this is obviously very hard.”
“Any idea when he might wake up?”
“That’s a question for the doctors at the hospital.”
“No problem. Why didn’t you phone Andy to arrange an interview time?”
“Well,” she said. “I figured he’d give me the same old lines from last night, and if I wanted anything different I’d have to stake out the door.”
“And what if I hadn’t come along?”
A cold blast of wind blew snow across the parking lot, forcing both of them to shield their faces for a moment.”
“I guess I’d just have to enjoy more of this lovely Thunder Bay weather,” said Kady.
“Yea, it’s positively balmy,” Tobias said as more wind swirled around. “Have a good day, Kady.”
“You too coach.”
* * *
“...also asking me to take act as a go-between for the family with the media. Which is fair, because they shouldn’t have to deal with...uhm...Sara?”
Andy Hill stopped his brief when he noticed that his boss was staring off into space and not giving any visible reactions to anything he had been saying.
Sara blinked a couple of times.
“Hmm? Oh...sorry, Andy it’s been quite the night,” Sara said as she rubbed her face in effort to wake herself up a bit. Despite efforts to get several hours of shuteye, the search for sleep had been in vain.
“No worries, I know it’s been difficult,” said Andy. “As I was saying, Dutch’s brother has been acting as a spokesperson for the family, and is my main point of contact with them. He was telling me that he’d like to be able to forward any media calls onto us, which I’m more than willing to support.”
“Oh, of course,” Sara said. “Whatever they need, they’ll get. Tell them we’ll cover any costs during their stay.”
The general manager glanced at her watch.
“Just about meeting time. We better head over.”
“Of course,” Andy said, sweeping up his stuff in one motion and joining her as they exited her office and headed towards the meeting room.
* * *
The room was filled with players, coaches and various support staff when Sara entered. The Len Kropioski Memorial Room had an auditorium set-up, not unlike university lecture halls with rows of tables on rising steps. The coaching staff apart from Tobias was standing along the back wall, with the players seated facing their head coach, who stood at the front of the room near the podium. Sara chose to remain standing, leaned against a wall near the front. On the wall opposite of her stood Eddie Haynes, who looked a little haggard, but met her eyes with a slight smile and a nod. No doubt he was hurting like everybody else, but he seemed to be holding himself together pretty well.
Tobias knocked twice on the podium to gain everybody’s attention, noting that the room fell quiet far easier than usual. Dutch Holland was one of the guys that occasionally needed a second prompt to quiet down, and this was just another way his absence was felt.
“I’m not here to give you an update on Dutch,” said Tobias. “Anything we know, you guys know as soon as we do and we’re going to keep it that way. I know that a lot of people and media have been reaching out to you on social media, but let’s stick with the regular channels for external communication. I realize you’re all pros and know this already, but I’m trying to keep Andy from losing any hair or sleep over this.”
A smattering of chuckles rumbled through the room.
“This team is a family,” Tobias continued. “And family means we support each other through the good times and the bad. Some of us are going to take this differently than others. It doesn’t mean that we care more or less than we should about Dutch; it just means that we’re all individuals processing this in our own way. But I don’t want anybody feeling isolated. If you need to talk to somebody, please reach out. Our office doors are open, and I promise you that I will make myself available, Sara will make herself available. Eddie’s there. We’re all there for you and for each other.”
Players nodded, a few muttered words of agreement, making eye contact with various people around the room.
“We’re all in this together. Let’s not forget,” said Tobias. “Now...we’ve spoken with the commissioner, who sends his thoughts and prayers, and he agreed on our stance that we should play our next game on Friday. Today being Monday, I want you guys to take tomorrow off, and be ready for practice on Wednesday. We’ll keep you posted on Dutch’s status, and whether or not his family wants any visitors. Have a good day off, rest up, and I’ll see you at practice.”
Tobias headed out the door, with the rest of the staff following him, leaving the players to themselves.
“Before you guys go,” yelled Eddie over the din as players started to talk and gather their things. “We have a special presentation to make. The person who is receiving this is very deserving. In fact, the assistant captain and I couldn’t think of somebody more deserving. Travis, come on down here!”
Travis looked absolutely perplexed as he stood and walked up front, as his teammates shouted his name, laughed and clapped. Marshall produced a gift bag, complete with tissue paper poking out of the top.
“Travis, from all of us, please accept this,” said Eddie, shaking Travis’ hand as he gave him the bag.
The players looked on eagerly as Travis slipped his hand inside the bag and pulled out…
An alarm clock.
The room exploded in laughter, as Travis’ face turned a deep crimson.
“Practice is at 10 on Wednesday, bud,” Eddie grinned as he slapped Travis on the back.
Travis cracked up laughing, and then raised the clock above his head like a trophy, and the whole room cheered.
* * *
Wednesday came, with no change in Dutch’s status. Despite this, practice was fairly upbeat.
The team had visited Dutch in two waves on Tuesday, as the hospital already broke their rules by allowing half the team into his room to visit him at once.
Tobias, Sara, Andy and Eddie had lugged a bunch of gear with them, as a hastily arranged visit to the paediatric section of the hospital was arranged. The smiling and awestruck faces of the team’s littlest fans were enough to warm any heart.
Tobias was pleased to see his players respond so well, and there was a real feeling of desire in his players to win on Friday for Dutch. If the effort levels in practice were matched in the game, Tobias thought they stood a good chance against Iowa.
Tobias watched as Travis Duchesne smacked in a one-time effort on a pass from Scott Juneau. Tobias could hardly believe it when he entered the building at 9:30 to find Travis in the weight room with Eddie. Maybe this whole Dutch thing had changed him. If so, Tobias was fine with that, though he wished it hadn’t taken such a negative event to do so.
* * *
Time really seemed to fly over the next couple of days. The players hit the ice a couple more times, though with less intensity leading up to game day. Tobias encouraged this, as he didn’t want his team to be emotionally and physically exhausted by game day.
Game time came, and Travis, his penance complete, lined up in his usual left wing spot alongside Gavin Hunter and Scott Juneau. Trey Ditchfield had slotted into the line-up to take Dutch’s spot, while Pascal Horton was once again a scratch.
The puck dropped, and the Shield got to work. Gavin won the puck back to Marshall, who in turn banked a pass up the boards that Travis picked up on the fly, inches from being offside. The defender watching him desperately accelerated to cut off the angle, using his size and reach to cut off the front of the net from Travis, who instead cut behind the net and flipped the puck back to defender Henry Baines waiting at the point. Henry unleashed a rising one-time slap shot, only for Gavin to deflect it right back down off the ice, between the Iowa goalie’s five-hole and into the net. The capacity crowd and Thunder Bay bench exploded with noise. The game was seventeen seconds old, and the Shield were already ahead.
They didn’t let up. Goal after goal filled the Iowa net, with their unfortunate netminder being chased after 4 allowed on 13 shots with a little more than five minute left in the first period. By the time it was all said and done, the Shield had seven goals to Iowa’s lone marker, a short-handed tally that left goalie Lukas Mueller fuming and Tobias making notes about letting up and defensive responsibility while on the power play.
But the win felt great. The hometown crowd loved every minute of it, and for the second game in a row went home happy. The Shield weren’t in playoff position, but numerous excited discussions arose about the postseason possibilities.
Eddie had picked up a trio of points, with a goal and two helpers, while Travis had returned to his dominant ways with two goals to go along with his assist. There was also a rumour that the Jets were going to send Teddy Jones back down, now that their injury woes between the pipes were coming to an end, which further stimulated the playoff talk.
* * *
The ceiling was white.
TO BE CONTINUED…