Niki Hartling’s first instinct was to ignore the two sharp raps on her office door. There was precious little time for interruptions with the start of the new semester eleven days away and the mountain of curriculum work that lay ahead of her.
A third knock forced her out of her chair. Fine, she thought with fresh exasperation. She’d make them go away quickly, especially if it was a colleague wanting to grumble about course loads and schedules. Or worse, a student begging to get into one of her already filled classes or perhaps wanting a teaching assistant’s job. Or God knew what else.
She pulled open the door and stepped back in surprise. “Lynn O’Reilly, my God, woman! What are you doing halfway across the province?”
Lynn, a tall woman whose leanness had given way to a muscled stockiness in the years since her hockey-playing days, wrapped Niki in a bear hug, squeezing the breath from her lungs. “Nice to see you too, Nik.” Her grin was as wide as a watermelon split in two. That was Lynn, wearing her emotions on her sleeve, whether it was her temper or her cheer. “I bet I’m about the last ex-teammate you’d expect to see standing in your very impressive university office after all this time, eh?”
No, Niki thought as a blade of sadness bit into her heart. The last former teammate she’d ever expect to see standing in front of her was a woman she’d mostly given up thinking about a long time ago. A woman she’d once loved with the naîvéte and abandonment that could only come with being in love for the first time, where every feeling, every moment together, dwarfed all else. But eleven years had sailed by. Eleven years in which Niki had married, become widowed, was left with a child to raise alone. Eleven years in which she had grown up and been through more than most people endured over the course of decades. Seeing Lynn again only reminded her that she didn’t have the time or the inclination to think about the old days. Not when there was so much in the present to worry about.
“Jeez,” Niki said, rubbing her face by way of giving her emotions a reset. It wasn’t Lynn’s fault that so much had changed, that so many things in her life had become hard. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
“Hard to believe it’s been over a decade since we shared the same ice. But you haven’t changed a bit. You look like you could still strap ’em on and give ’em hell on the score sheet, the way you did in ’98.”
Nagano 1998. The first Olympic Games to include women’s ice hockey as a medal sport, and a bittersweet silver medal for Niki, Lynn and their Team Canada teammates. The memory was as clear as if it had happened yesterday, that moment when the silver medals were prominently placed around their necks. When all of the players but Niki and Lynn cried tears of frustration and disappointment and anguish. Their team had been the favorite to win gold, but Niki and Lynn, the team’s de facto leaders, had known better than to buy into all that sanctimonious, head-swelling hype. It was the underdogs who were blessed with the advantage, with the mental edge in sports, Niki tried to counsel her teammates then, because the underdogs were almost always hungriest and played with the least amount of pressure. But her advice—and the goals she scored almost single-handedly—hadn’t been enough. It was in that moment when the silver medal was draped around her neck that Niki knew it was time to hang up her skates, because she, too, had ultimately come up short in matching the Americans’ desire to win. She’d given it everything and it hadn’t been enough. The wanting was there but the result wasn’t. Ultimately she’d failed her team, failed herself, and knew that as a player it would be impossible to want—and to come so close to achieving—anything like that again. When you tried your best but couldn’t quite reach the top of the mountain, there came a time when there was nothing left but to turn around and go back down.
Niki swallowed, deciding it was too long ago and too painful to dredge up their playing days. Little could come of this little stroll down memory lane. “Speaking of the Olympics, congratulations, by the way.”
“Thanks,” Lynn said, whistling under her breath. She would be the assistant coach for Team Canada’s entry into the Vancouver Olympics six months from now. But there was a current of worry in her voice and the way she was shuffling her feet. “I don’t know, Nik.”
“There’s nothing not to know. You’re up to it. They wouldn’t have picked you otherwise.” Niki was deeply familiar with the pressures Lynn faced, because she had been an assistant coach to the national team in the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, where Canada had claimed gold against the Americans, exactly as they’d done in Salt Lake in ’02. But the golden glow was short-lived. Six weeks later her wife Shannon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only months to live. Niki had not coached a game of hockey since.
“It’s not that, Nik, but thank you for your confidence.”
No, it wouldn’t be a lack of confidence, not with Lynn. Lynn was capable, was brutally ruthless at times. Or at least, when it came to winning. She wasn’t afraid of making decisions, wasn’t afraid of doing whatever was required. A bull in a china shop, as both a player and a coach.
“Got time for a walk?” Lynn asked with a hopeful lilt to her voice.
“Of course.” Anyone who’d traveled the four hours down the clogged Highway 401 from Toronto to the University of Windsor campus deserved a few minutes of her time, curriculum be damned. And for Lynn to show up unannounced after all these years, well, whatever she wanted to talk about had to be important.
The campus was deserted, as it would remain until the semester started. It took only minutes for Niki and Lynn to reach the Detroit River and the meandering, paved walking path along its shore. Summer still hung hot and humid in the air, autumn giving no hint that it was poised to take over. But that would change in a few weeks, when the leaves would begin their costume change and a damp chill would deepen its claim on the days.
“Not that I pretend to know much about it, but I guess you’re getting ready for the new semester?” Lynn said. She’d never gone to college or university. Right out of high school, she had joined the professional women’s hockey league—the National Women’s Hockey League. The professional part was a joke, though, because it only paid a few hundred dollars a month. Lynn had slogged in a factory making bicycle parts to augment her income, then made the transition to coaching in the same league a few years ago. It was a big step up for her to join Hockey Canada’s coaching ranks, just as it had been for Niki four years ago.
“You’d think I’d have the curriculum down cold after all these years, but I like to tear it down and rebuild it every year.”
Lynn laughed. “You would. Biggest perfectionist I’ve ever seen.”
Niki taught sports management in the university’s business school. Her classes were popular, especially with professional and semi-professional sports becoming bigger and bigger business in North America. And yeah, she was a taskmaster as a teacher, expecting her students to exhibit the kind of drive and ambition they’d need to get ahead in their work life. Schools were insular, protective. The real world, whether it was business or sports, was a snake pit.
“Which,” Lynn continued, “is why you were such a damned good coach. Your attention to the smallest details, for one.”
They stopped to gaze out at the river, gray today beneath the lightly overcast sky. A lake freighter inched toward the skeletal-like, murky shadow cast by the Ambassador Bridge, the ship’s mammoth steel hull so close that Niki could probably have thrown a stone and hit it.
“Ever miss coaching?” Lynn asked, and something in her voice told Niki the question wasn’t entirely rhetorical.
“I don’t think about coaching anymore. Haven’t in a long time.” It wasn’t a lie. Hockey was no longer on Niki’s radar because other, much more pressing things claimed her attention. Like making a living. Like being a single mother.
“You playing at all?”
“Recreational pickup once a week. It’s about all I have time for. Look.” Niki knew Lynn wasn’t the type to beat around the bush. Nor was she here for a friendly catch-up session. They were friends, but they were hockey friends. Lynn hadn’t even made the trip to attend Shannon’s funeral three years ago. “Why are you really here, Lynn? What’s on your mind?”
The look in Lynn’s brown eyes was forthright. “Hockey Canada is going to fire Coach Rogers next week.”
Mike Rogers was head coach of the women’s team and had been for the past two years. Niki knew it was highly unusual to start fresh with a new head coach six months away from an Olympics. In fact, it was pretty much guaranteed suicide for the team. The planning, the strategy sessions, the selection camps and meetings, would all have been taking place for months now. It would be like switching jockeys in the start gate of the Kentucky Derby.
“I’m not high enough on the ladder to know all the whys. But there are rumors.”
Niki considered pressing Lynn, but decided it wasn’t her business. Nor did she really care what was behind the firing. She was about to ask Lynn why she was telling her all of this when it hit her like a two-by-four across the shoulders. “Oh, no no no. No, you don’t, Lynn O’Reilly.”
Lynn didn’t try to deny anything. A small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, and one dark eyebrow posed a question.
Niki turned sharply and began walking quickly. It took only seconds for Lynn, with her longer strides, to pull even with her. “You’re here on a recruiting mission, aren’t you? Well, I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time, Lynn. Would have been cheaper and quicker if you’d just called, you know.”
“I was in the neighborhood.”
They walked in silence for another minute, Niki fuming inside that Lynn didn’t know her better than all this. Didn’t know that there was no way she’d even consider taking on a coaching job with Hockey Canada. It was about as likely as joining the astronaut program.
“You’re pissed at me, aren’t you?”
Niki stopped, fixed Lynn with a look that contained no forgiveness. She felt used. “There are at least ten good reasons why I won’t return to coaching, but only one that matters. To me, anyway.”
Lynn’s expression softened. “How old is Rory now?”
“She just turned ten this summer. She’s young, Lynn, just a kid. A kid who’s known more upheaval and heartache than a kid her age ever should.”
Dread and grief and anger formed a hard knot in Niki’s stomach. Most days, she muddled through, doing her best to maintain a stable environment for Rory. Routines had kept her sane and Rory secure while they waited for grief to dissolve into something more tolerable. They’d recently begun to get a little comfortable with their new normal, but it was a process. A slow process. She’d kept everything the same since Shannon’s death. Same house, same Sunday dinners at Shannon’s sister Jenny’s house, same two-week-long vacation at a Lake Huron rental cottage every July. Even if she were interested in coaching Team Canada—which she wasn’t—she would never pack up Rory and move her to the team’s training center in Calgary for the next six months. It’d be far too selfish. And way too hard.
“Look,” Lynn finally said. “They’re going to be calling you in the next couple of days. I only wanted to give you a heads-up.”
“And to feel me out?”
Lynn shrugged, wouldn’t meet her eye for a moment. When she did, there was no apology in her stare. “All right. Here’s the truth. Hockey Canada wants you for the head coach’s job. They know your track record, know you’re a proven winner. You helped the team to gold at the last Olympics as an assistant coach, and before that you won two CIS titles coaching Windsor here. You’re money in the bank, Nik. Rogers has been losing his grip on that team for months. ’Course, doesn’t help that he’s been screwing one of the players.”
Niki blinked. Such unprofessionalism was absolutely forbidden these days in sports, even among consenting adults. The stakes were too high. “I don’t even want to know who.”
“No need. She’ll be quietly separated from the flock after Rogers is let go. The mothership wants all its ducks in a row before they cut Rogers loose.”
“And I’m one of those ducks.”
“You’re their top choice. And mine too. Not that I have much say, but I respect you, Nik, more than anybody in the game. There’s no other coach I’d rather serve under.”
“Thanks, Lynn. I mean that. And if things were different, I’d think about it.” She spread her arms out for emphasis. “But Rory’s my priority. And I won’t uproot her for the next six or seven months or put her through my long days at the rink, days or weeks of being on the road with the team.”
The hours would be ridiculously long. There would be meetings, practices, videos and notes to review, scouting other players and teams. There’d be exhibition games in and out of town, then of course a month in Vancouver for the Olympics. Rory liked it here, Windsor was all she knew, and her aunt and uncle and cousin were here. No, this was where she—they—belonged right now. “I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time.”
Lynn relaxed her shoulders, as though she’d fully expected Niki’s rejection. “How are you doing these days, Nik? I mean, really doing?”
Niki bit her bottom lip to keep it from quivering. People had mostly stopped asking her, as if after a certain number of years went by, all the bad stuff had magically evaporated or been forgotten. And so Lynn’s question threw her. “I’m doing okay. Rory and I have each other. And Shannon’s sister Jenny and her husband Tim have been great.” She didn’t much feel like explaining further. There was no way to accurately encapsulate her life or her feelings to someone she hadn’t seen in years.
“Well,” Lynn said. “Hockey Canada is still going to call you, no matter what I report back to them. You’ve got a couple of days to think about it.”
“I don’t need a couple of days to know I’m going to turn it down.”
Lynn could have pressed her, could have tried different angles to get her to change her mind, but she didn’t, and it was a relief.
“Are you still in Toronto or have you made the move to Calgary yet?”
Lynn fished a business card from her shirt pocket. “I’ve been out west a lot this summer preparing, but I’m officially moving there next week. This card has an email address that never changes. Keep in touch, all right?”
Niki pocketed the card, knowing she’d probably not make use of it. They’d had some fun times when they were teammates all those years ago, but a lot of things had changed since then. Niki had changed. Hockey wasn’t much a part of her life anymore. Well, except for her women’s scrimmage group that played once a week and hauling Rory to practices and games for her atom girls team. She barely even watched hockey on TV anymore.
“Come on,” Niki said after a moment in which neither seemed to know how to fill the silence. “I’ll walk you back to your car.”
They changed direction and headed down Sunset Avenue, the silence growing more awkward. The two women had little between them anymore, nothing else in common, except for hockey and the old days. And Niki didn’t want to revisit the old days. “So what do you think is the ticket to beating the Americans in Vancouver, any idea yet?” The US had finished second to Canada at the last two Olympics, but they were an ever-growing threat and had been getting better and better every year since. They’d won the previous two world championships against Canada, including a 4-1 spanking four months ago in Finland. The likelihood of Canada winning a third consecutive gold medal appeared less and less likely.
“The Americans are going with youth,” Lynn replied. “So they’ll be fast and eager, but we’re more disciplined and experienced. If our legs can come close to matching theirs, we’ll do fine. And we do have a couple of really good up-and-coming youngsters we’re developing.”
Niki thought about the two teams’ contradictory approaches—Canada bringing along their younger players more slowly, the US seemingly throwing their rookies into the deep end right away. It worked sometimes, because the younger players were fearless and didn’t know what it was like to lose to Canada. But she’d not been paying much attention to the two teams since the last Olympics, since Shannon died, and she only asked Lynn out of politeness. “Sounds intriguing, but the US must have at least some older veterans on their team, right?” A team full of rookies and sophomores wouldn’t cut it.
Lynn flicked her a sideways, unreadable glance. “Just one. She’ll take all the leadership on her shoulders, looks like. But I’m not sure her body will hold up. In fact, I’ll be shocked if she’s still in the lineup by February.”
“Who is it?” Even as the words left her mouth, Niki’s heart somersaulted as she realized her mistake.
The look on Lynn’s face confirmed what she already knew, though Lynn obliged with an answer. “Eva Caruso.”
Niki had to slam her eyes shut for an instant. Hearing Eva’s name jarred her, made her dizzy. And it pissed her off that it should have such an effect on her. Eva had been many things to her—a college teammate at Wisconsin, an adversary at the Nagano Olympics, and most of all, her lover. They’d been each other’s first loves, and in the years since, Niki had accomplished many things. She’d married, had become an instant parent, had turned to teaching. But nothing she’d done had been so simple, so pure, so consequential, so overpowering as loving Eva. In all the ways that mattered, Eva was like the first buzz from alcohol or the first high, and one that was never again to be replicated by another sip or another puff. Loving Eva was a feeling she’d never quite shed, like the tongue constantly worrying the divot where a tooth had once been. Gone but still there in some imaginary form. Eva had left an imprint in her soul, even after all these years.
But she didn’t want to talk about Eva, not to Lynn, not to anybody, and not now. She was past thinking of Eva, oh yes she was. So past her, that her rapidly beating heart was from the spicy burrito she’d had for lunch, she told herself. She didn’t give a shit what Eva did or didn’t do, whether she would prove to be Team USA’s hero or its fallen, pathetic star clinging to the past. No way. She would not think about Eva because Eva had nothing to with her life anymore and never would again.
Niki shrugged and affected a casualness that was entirely false. “Well, no matter who’s on their roster, I know you guys have got this, Lynn.”
The crunch of steel carving ice, the air so chilled that puffs of her breath rose in wispy white clouds before her, raised an exhilaration in Eva Caruso that was every bit as new and magical as the first time she’d ever laced on skates and glided onto a frozen pond. She’d been a fast learner back then, trading candy bars to the older kids if they’d show her how to skate backward, how to turn on a dime, how to get off a wrist shot. She was ten before her parents finally agreed to sign her up for organized hockey—a boys’ team on which she was the only girl. She’d taken her lumps that year, figuratively and literally, on her way to becoming the team’s second highest scorer. From there it was high school hockey, then NCAA in Wisconsin and playing internationally for Team USA, and finally, professionally for the National Women’s Hockey League and then the Canadian Women’s Hockey League before taking a leave of absence from hockey a year ago.
The easiest time in her hockey life, the most gratifying in many ways, were those pond hockey days. The memories flooded through her, eliciting nostalgia for the joy of simply playing, of simply skating, and they masked any worries about the present or the future. Any worries about anything, really. When she strapped on her equipment and gripped a stick in her hands, nothing but that moment existed in her mind. Scoring, making a tape-to-tape pass, riding an opponent off the puck—those were the only things she cared about. But now, as she cut a hard turn left, then right to test her damaged knee, she questioned yet again if returning to hockey was the right decision. And not just hockey, but taking a final run at Olympic gold. The 1998 Olympics produced her one and only gold medal. Salt Lake brought silver, then a torn ACL in her left knee had kept her out of the Turin Winter Games in ’06. Her age was against her now—thirty-six—and so was her body. Her hunger too had waned, or at least the level of hunger required of an elite athlete to burn through the physical pain, to grind out the personal sacrifices, to put everything on the line to play the game she loved. Her once full tank was little more than fumes now. Until the past week, she hadn’t even skated in nearly a year. But dammit, she wanted to leave hockey on her terms, not on the terms dictated by her knee and by her age. If she could try one last time for gold, there’d be no future regrets. She could go out on top of the world.
Eva stopped suddenly, sending a spray of ice chips arcing into the air, then took off in a running start. She sprinted to the other end of the ice, her blades digging in for power before each stride, raced back again. She cursed the burning in her lungs, the quick lance of pain in her left knee. She wasn’t in good enough shape yet, not even close, and if she were a betting woman, she’d wager her chances of even lasting to the opening of the Olympic Games were about fifty-fifty at best. But Eva Caruso wasn’t scared of having the odds stacked against her.
She stopped in front of the Home bench to catch her breath and to wrestle her doubts into submission. She didn’t really need a second gold medal or a second silver either if that should happen. She didn’t need the grueling months ahead of her, didn’t need the pain that would accompany pushing her body to the limit, didn’t need the financial hit of taking a leave from her lucrative business of managing pricey home renovations and constructions in Traverse City, Michigan. She had nothing more to prove. She’d reached the pinnacle of women’s hockey and was talked about in the same breath as legends Cammi Granato and Haley Wickenheiser. Nothing to prove, but she had much to give back, and that too fueled her return to the game.
She wanted to mentor the young players with their kamikaze energy on the ice and their wide eyes that glinted like those of an addict chasing their favorite drug. Eva wanted a legacy that was about more than her on-ice accomplishments; she wanted also to pass on the things she had learned in her years of competing at the highest level of women’s hockey. She was duty-bound to save the young players some of the pain and heartache she’d endured. And they would be giving back to her as well, whether they knew it or not. She’d need to feed off their excitement and boundless energy if she were to survive the next few months. Hockey would, she hoped, once again become the nourishment and joy her soul craved.
“How’s the knee feeling?”
Eva looked up sharply. She hadn’t noticed Alison Hiller, head coach of Team USA, climb into the bench from the stands. Alison was the bitter pill she’d have to swallow in returning to the team.
“Fine,” Eva said, still gulping air like a swimmer who’d stayed under too long.
“Liar,” Alison said, exacting a thin smile. Eva knew the long-time coach couldn’t care less how she was feeling, as long as she was able to perform. “Think you’re ready for a full practice tomorrow? Or should we yellow jersey you for a couple more days?”
Yellow jerseys in practice meant the player was injured or rehabbing, and the other players were to go easy on her. Against her better judgment, Eva said, “I’ll be ready.”
Alison’s eyes narrowed skeptically, but she nodded once. “Good. I want to see you put in a good practice, then we’ll have a sit-down.”
By design, Eva had avoided Alison as much as possible these last few days. But that would need to change, as the team began working more closely together and more intensely to prepare for the Olympics. Their first exhibition game, against the University of Minnesota women’s team, was less than three weeks away.
“Fine,” Eva said.
Alison turned to go, then leaned back over the boards, something perversely pleasurable in her expression. “How’s this for some juicy gossip?” She didn’t wait for Eva to reply. “Team Canada’s announcing tomorrow they’re firing Rogers as their coach.”
“Good for them,” Eva snapped, not giving a shit what her rival team did or didn’t do.
“Guess who’s replacing him?”
Eva sighed impatiently. “I don’t know, Wayne Gretzky? No, wait. Mickey Mouse? Spiderman?”
“More like Wonder Woman.” Her laughter was like nails on a chalkboard. “Your old flame, in fact. Niki Hartling.”
* * *
Eva lay down on her narrow bed with an ice pack taped firmly to her knee. It was a relief to have been assigned her own room at the training complex. Being a veteran player had its perks.
As her knee throbbed, her heart revisited that old familiar ache. Hearing Niki’s name—even thinking about her—was a knife that always sliced her deep and sharp and clean, before pulsing into a dull hammering pain that took minutes and sometimes a drink or a pain pill to sweep away. It shouldn’t be like this after so many years, Eva told herself, angry that it was. She and Niki hadn’t been a couple in eleven-and-a-half years, hadn’t come face-to-face in about six. Their parting, on the eve of the ’98 Olympics in Nagano, had been messy, ugly, complete with yelling, the smashing of trophies, the tossing of a lamp and the scattering of clothing from a dresser in their shared apartment until the place resembled the aftermath of a tornado’s destruction. They couldn’t get away from each other fast enough, couldn’t wait, days later, to go hard and reckless at each other in the final game for Olympic gold. It was a collision in the neutral zone with Niki that had sprained Eva’s knee for the first time, beginning its slide into the taped up, sewed up, glued together excuse for a knee she had now.
In the years since, they’d both carefully and intentionally ignored one another in the few instances they crossed paths. It was as though they’d never shared a bed, never shared their lives for nearly four glorious years where they were inseparable, where their love had consumed every ounce of their awareness, every minute of their time and energy outside of hockey and school. In those days, Eva couldn’t draw a single breath without feeling Niki right there in the center of her chest. To go from that to a big fat nothing between them, a black hole, was a whole new kind of pain. Eva had decided a long time ago that she had to stop caring if she ever saw Niki again. Had, in fact, to stop thinking about her. But all of that, it was now clear, was a joke. Niki was the one absence in her life she would forever feel.
Niki rejoining her national team couldn’t have come as a bigger surprise to Eva. And not as an assistant coach this time, but as its head coach, if Alison was correct. Of course, Alison wasn’t exactly the perfect model of honesty and morality. Years ago, she had taken pernicious pleasure in firmly placing the wedge between Eva and Niki that ultimately led to their undoing as a couple. Alison had been Team USA’s assistant coach then, and her task, which had come all too naturally, was to make sure her team had worked up a hateful lather for the Canadians. You can’t merely dislike your opponent, you must hate them, she had warned her players more times than Eva could count, calling their rivalry a war and all kinds of crap that, over the course of the months leading up to the Olympics, had worn away at Niki and Eva’s relationship like a grinding wheel to a stone. The final straw was a couple of floppy disks, clearly labeled as Team USA property, secreted in a pocket of Niki’s hockey bag. Eva had been rummaging for a roll of tape one evening and discovered them. The minute she was alone, she shoved the disks one at a time into her old desktop computer and examined them long enough to realize they were her team’s detailed notes on its players and strategies. A digital playbook, as it were, and it was devastating in the hands of an opponent.
Eva shook her head as she remembered Niki’s impassioned denials that she had stolen the disks and then her own refusal to believe Niki. It was evidence of how far their relationship had eroded, of how much their love had evaporated in the face of such pressure, of such fierce competition, of such construed hatred for the enemy. To Eva’s horror, she discovered months later that Alison had planted the disks on Niki as part of some sadistic and misguided strategy to ramp up the hate between the two teams. And of course, to drive Niki and Eva apart for good. The damage was irreversible. Niki had moved on, unwilling or unable to forgive Eva for not believing her. And Eva, well, Eva hadn’t tried to repair things between them because in her heart she knew they’d begun drifting apart long before that stupid stunt of Alison’s. She’d justified her casual attitude by deciding their love wasn’t worth fighting for, that Niki would never love her again, that there was no point in trying to reconcile. Somewhere along the line, she’d begun believing it, especially when it seemed Niki had no intention of reaching out either.
Eva rolled over, shook a Percocet from her bottle on the nightstand. She swallowed it with one gulp of water. It was only one pill. Normally, it was an Advil or two at bedtime, but tonight, with Niki on her mind and the prospect of Alison taking center stage in her life for the next few months, an Advil wouldn’t be nearly enough to kick her spirits into something resembling happy.
Eva closed her eyes, wondering not for the first of many times, what the hell she had gotten herself into.
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