Sitting alone in the locker room, Chris turns the talent scout’s card over in his hand. He is still digesting the promise of a professional deal, but the idea of leaving school for a semester does not sit well with him. Even though he would finish out the year, he is unsure if such a deal is common or smart. The athlete pulls out a piece of paper that has been taped inside his helmet and runs his thumb around the stiff edges. He reads his plan to get a degree in case going pro never happened or he suffered an injury, the words bringing him comfort. Yet, Chris can feel a part of himself already screaming to take the deal. Picking up his stick, he examines every mark that he has earned on the ice. The fact that he is paying more attention to his gear than his studies comes to his mind, but he has never had trouble cramming at the last minute or passing a test with no preparation. It makes him wonder if losing a semester is that big a deal since he will be allowed to continue his studies.
“Even if it’s online classes, I can still get the degree,” Chris whispers to himself. Going into his locker, he pulls out his pads and starts putting them on. “On the other hand, I might not be able to do the field work to get my degree. Teaching was always going to be a backup since I was good at it. Although, I could become a coach. Not really sure what I would have to learn for that to happen.”
“For one thing, experience and the ability to study,” Coach Warner says as he steps out from behind the lockers. Removing his cap and clipping it to his belt, he struggles to hide the scowl on his face. “You don’t like studying, Mr. Garcon, which is a problem. Do you know how many books and manuals I read every week? The game is always changing, so I have to stay current with my knowledge. Dumb luck and common sense will only get you so far before someone with facts and true insight get in your way.”
“Sorry about that, sir,” the student automatically blurts out. Picking up his skates, he checks the blades to make sure they are sharp. “I was only considering my options. Mr. Zalen made a decent offer, but told me that I’d have to make some sacrifices. That’s if I want to head for the pros early, which he thinks I could do.”
“Do you believe him?”
“It’s possible, but I’m not sure it’s what I want.”
“Fighting between desire and logic, are you?”
“Not sure I understand.”
Coach Warner cracks a tiny smile before sitting on the bench across from his student. “I mean that you’re at a crossroads. You desire the shot at fame like all humans do. To be a professional athlete is your dream and it looks like you can achieve it. On the other hand, you’re not a stupid boy. You know how an injury can end it all and that’s if you reach the next level in the first place. These scouts always butter up those with even a bit of talent because they get a finder’s fee. We both know this fact. So, the logic side of your brain is telling you that you should stay the course.”
Nodding his head, Chris grabs his helmet and stick before getting up to leave the locker room. He is surprised that Coach Warner remains sitting, so he quietly returns to his bench and meets the man’s steely gaze. A distant voice can be heard as announcements are made to the gathering crowd, most of them coming to the game out of school pride instead of interest in the sport. Thinking about all of the people who cheer for every little thing causes Chris’s face to flush with mild anger. Having loved hockey since his childhood, he cannot wrap his head around people coming to an event and not bothering to learn about it beforehand. He is most annoyed by the name calling and angry shouts from spectators that think they are helping by harassing the other team. It is the type of energy that he hates absorbing from the crowd, but he cannot stop to yell back and get them to be more positive.
“And you won’t escape that by going pro,” Coach Warner says as if reading the young man’s mind. Leaning forward, he pulls out an old photo of himself dressed in a familiar hockey uniform. “I learned the truth the hard way. A lot of negativity out there when all you want is to have fun. Entertain others and make them happy with your actions. Nothing wrong with that, but those in the stands don’t always see it that way. To some, you’re a puppet that they can control through their words. Makes me sick and it looks like it’s doing the same to you. Just another good reason for you to consider Mr. Zalen’s offer very carefully. It won’t be easy to come back from your decision.”
“Well, I might get lucky and have a bad game,” Chris argues with a smirk that is met with a frown. Averting his eyes, he focuses on a chalkboard that has the team’s current record written in big numbers. “I was joking, sir. I know you want us to try our best and that’s why we’re second in the division. Winning today means we take first place, so I won’t do anything to jeopardize that. Sorry if I’m already becoming a problem since my head isn’t right. That scout got to me and I’ll put him out of my mind. He’s something I can tackle later. Do you mind if I ask why you quit playing? I haven’t seen any sign of injury, so did you simply get bored with that side of the sport?”
“I will ignore how insulting that sounds,” the teacher says, an unmistakable edge to his voice. He stands and goes about cleaning up the locker room, his mind focused more on picking the perfect explanation. “My decision came after a near-death experience eighteen years ago. I was in an accident that killed a lot of people. None of my teammates since they were practicing and was . . . acting like an idiot. I took the sport seriously, but I loved the adoration more than I should have. Well, I survived the accident and got out of the hospital to find that nobody really missed me. The world went on and forgot all the things I’d done. Wandered around for a bit and decided to teach. This is why I push for all of you to focus on your studies as much as the sport because it holds no loyalty to you. Doesn’t matter how good you are or how seriously you take it, the game, and life in general, can turn on you instantly.”
Shocked by the answer, Chris takes a final look at the scout’s card and tosses it into his locker. “Never thought about that. No offense, sir, but I think I’ll still talk to Mr. Zalen about my options. I respect your opinion and experience, which I will think about and even bring up during the conversation. To be honest, the chances aren’t high that I’ll go along. This will be more to see if I can get exactly what I want. I need to keep some kind of backup plan in case the game tosses me aside. Maybe they’ll have something that can help with paying for everything that my scholarship doesn’t cover.”
“Can’t fault you for trying to grab as much as you can,” Coach Warner admits, his right eye twitching slightly. Hearing a telltale cheer from the crowd, he checks his watch and realizes that it is almost time for the team to hit the ice. “Take your things and finish getting ready. I’ll be with you in a minute. Just need to get my own head in the game. The team won’t win if I’m thinking of something else. As far as this scout and going pro issue, you do what you think is right and I’ll respect your decision. Only thing I ask is that you keep me in the loop and come to me if you need help.”
“I promise, sir.”
“Great. Go tell the others that I’ll be joining you soon.”
With a smile of relief, Chris grabs his gear and rushes out the door to deliver his mentor’s message. Waiting for the sound of footsteps to vanish, Coach Warner heads for the locker and takes the scout’s card. He sniffs at it with disdain and holds it in his fingers, the sight of the thin object making his blood boil. Reading the scout’s home address makes him even madder, the city being on the other side of the country. For a second, he considers putting it in another player’s locker, but knows that will only cause confusion. Taking a deep breath to relax, he crushes the card in his hand and listens to a voice in the back of his head. He snorts to get it to be silent, a final noise making him think the internal specter gave him a raspberry.
“I was really hoping he would see us to a championship,” Coach Warner mutters before pulling out a lighter. He sets the card on fire and flicks it into a nearby sink, which turns on to douse the flames. “Looks like things are moving quicker than I was promised. Always knew her impatience would cause some trouble. Going to have to talk to the others about that. Nothing I hate more than being left out of the loop.”