Good Shift, Joey

Hockey, more than any other sport, has a tendency to get you in the feels department. The sport has, unfortunately, had some bitter, painful moments that make you want to cry. The sex abuse scandals in the nineties, and the growing problem of suicide and drug abuse among ex-players are just two of the things that can and will hit you.

It also has moments where players and communities come together to make the world a better place. Not least among those efforts is the NHL’s role in the It Gets Better program, and a growing movement to focus on mental health within the sport.

I just read the story I’ve linked below, and it hit me with that bittersweet feeling that we writers can only strive to match, but never excel.

Joey Moss

Flashfiction: “Cutdown Day”

This past weekend was the time when 30% of the roster of each NFL team lost their jobs.  “Why,” I hear you cry, “should I care about millionaires getting fired?”

Because 90% of them ain’t rich.  All those huge contracts you hear about in the NFL?  Yeah, those go only to a handful of guys.  The vast majority of players are making something around the league minimum.  Now, that’s still a good salary by most standards, but it isn’t “retire for the rest of your life” money.

A lifetime of work and training…

A lifetime of pain and injuries and broken bodies…

A lifetime of consequences…

All for an average of three years playing for the league minimum.

Now, I’m a football fan but not a “football guy.”  No, I’m a hockey guy.  I know hockey, and hockey players.  And it’s just worse there.  Take those three years and play them for a salary that is barely middle-class (if that much) down in the minors and that picture gets a lot harder.  The pain and consequences are still the same, though.

Although it was the period for NFL cutdowns that got me thinking, I had to run with something I know.  The piece below is based on memories from a friend of mine:

“Cutdown Day”

Shit, did he hurt.  Two hours of pushing hard, two hours of sprints and hits, two hours of sweat and exhaustion…why do it?

Why do it?

He asked himself that every single morning, now.  He hadn’t asked it as a kid, when his mom would get him up for practice.  He hadn’t asked it in college, either, when the other students Would all praise him for the last game.  He hadn’t it asked it then, but he had to ask now.

His friends from school, they had all gone on to jobs.  Cars and condos and real lives.  Him?  He had three roommates in a rented two-bedroom, a place that didn’t even have his name on the lease.

A last chance, then, to impress the team.  A last chance to keep his place on the ice…and to keep the apartment that the team provided.

When he’d arrived that morning, it had been there, that which he most feared: a note on his locker.

“You’re on the bubble.  As of now, I ain’t gonna keep you,” the coach had said at the meeting.

He had spent thousands Just to get himself to training camp.  Had spent countless hours working the phone to friends and acquaintances just to get the invitation, and now he wouldn’t make it.

A last hour on the ice.  A last hit of water before that hour’s scrimmage, and he felt the coach’s eyes.  Oh, he knew the guy was watching the others, the ones who would get the contract offers, but still he felt those eyes.  Felt the disdain.

He felt the shame, too.  He had never failed before.

“Last chance!” the coach yelled to the milling players.  “Play your way on to the roster, or go home!”

A whistle to start the scrimmage.

Broke and soon-to-be-unemployed, what did he have to lose?  His resume had nothing on it, nothing but the blood and sweat and tears of a life of 5:00am practices and late night games.  How did you sell HR departments on bruises and concussions and pain As a job skill?

Fuck it, he thought, nothin’ left to lose.

He stood under the shower, after, and tried to soak away the blood and bruises from the scrimmage.  Every hit, every shot, every play, had been his last.  He would go home to his parents, broke and ashamed.

He would apply for that job at the call center and give up the dream he had had since he was five.  He would turn into that bitter, drunk guy that every local rink has, the one bitching about the pro career he never had.

After the shower, he wasn’t even surprised when he saw the note on his locker.  His gut still clenched, and his body shook, but that was shame and panic and desperation, not surprise.

Up the stairs, then, and into the coach’s cramped office.  An office that stank of old gear and mildew and hours-long bus rides up and down the east coast.

He didn’t say a word, just sat in the one chair and stared at the folder that sat on the desk, his death warrant waiting to be signed.  He flipped it open without saying a word.  What was there to say?

The papers inside, they meant nothing.  The words meant nothing. They couldn’t penetrate the fog.

“I told you to be ready to go,” the coach said, with no preamble, nothing to soften the sting.  “Practice starts in the gym at 6:00 Monday morning.  Sign the fucking contract and get your ass out of here.”

His hands were still shaking as he signed.

Note 1 — my friend, the guy who so barely made the roster of a minor-league team, went on to play ten years in the NHL…for the league minimum every single year.

Note 2 — WordPress just force-changed their creation and posting system.  Yeah, the option to use this new system has been there for some time, but I’ve ignored it.  Now I have to use it…and I have no idea how to.  I hate it.  I hate it to the point that I’m not sure it’s worth it to keep this blog going.  Sorry, I know that sounds petty, but I want to write, not spend my time trying to use some software idiot’s definition of a “good platform.”  I don’t get paid for this, so why bother?  We’ll have to see…

There Go I…

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a hockey guy. I’m a hockey guy from, err, way back.*

*I’m pretty sure the definition of “way back” is when you see the sons of players you loved as a kid entering the league…

Now, most of the US sports-news outlets are garbage when it comes to hockey. I am, in fact, pretty sure that ESPN doesn’t even realize there is such a thing as a sport played on that mythical thing called “ice”.

Thank God, then, for Canadian networks…

One of those networks — TSN, if you’re curious — just ran a story about a former NHL player named Joe Murphy. Now, Murphy was drafted very, very high in a star-rich draft in 1986. While he wasn’t a perennial All-Star during his NHL career, he most definitely was a legit player on any team in the league.

Then he disappeared.

No, really, he pretty much fell off the face of the planet.

A reporter from TSN recently took on the challenge of tracking Murphy down to see what had happened after his playing days. After much effort, that reporter finally did find him…found him drug-addicted, broke and homeless. After a fifteen year playing career, after earning millions, after having everything, Joe Murphy had become one of those guys holding a sign on the street-corner…

Now, the writer in me can make a hundred stories out of that situation; out of the why’s and how’s, out of the choices made, and out of the tragedies that resulted from those choices.

But I’m not just a writer…

I never knew Joe Murphy. I do, however, count more than a few current and former NHL players as friends. I know the pitfalls they face, and the prices they pay. Mental and emotional prices, as much as the physical ones.

I know the very fine line they walk, and how quickly it can all disappear. Especially after retirement, especially when — for the first time in their lives — no one knows their name. When no one is cheering, when every single aspect of the life they’ve led since they were three or four years old is different. When they no longer have a place or a purpose in the world.

It’s more complicated than just this, but that dislocation and desperation is one of the themes behind the fantasy story I’m currently developing, as well as being one of the reasons why it is (tentatively) titled Once Magnificent

Joe Murphy is not the first athlete to fall, just as he is not the first successful person to lose everything, but still his story resonates with me. Still, his story means something to me. As a guy who has lost everything more than once in my life, as a guy who battles my own private demon of depression, I can sympathize with Murphy.

No, that’s not quite right…

I don’t feel for Joe Murphy, I very well could be Joe Murphy.

Murphy, alongside a host of a nameless others, is one of those unspoken reasons why I write, why my stories and characters inevitably revolve around the flawed and the broken.

D21E96E2-4A53-405A-98D0-0E857B426261I’ve said a million times on this blog that I write for me. I’ve said that, but it’s not 100% true. I write for me, yes, but I write also for anyone and everyone who just might see a bit of themselves in my words. For anyone and everyone who might take even a grain of hope at burdens (and demons) shared. For those for whom that light at the end of the tunnel never seems to get any nearer…

True Greatness

Jackie Robinson started his first game for the Dodgers 71 years ago, in 1947. That is an accomplishment that we should never — that we can never — forget. Did it mark the end of racism? Not by a long shot. Did it change the fundamental facts of life in America in the 40’s? No. But it did mark a step down the right road…a very, very important step.

As much as I admire the courage and ability of Jackie Robinson, however, I’m not a baseball guy. I never played it as a kid, I never watch it on TV, and I barely understand the tactics and strategies of the only sport in the world that can rival golf, cricket and curling for sheer, mind-numbing boredom.

Nope, I’m not a baseball guy…I’m a hockey guy.

Now, unlike baseball, hockey is…er…pretty freaking white. That being said, there is an increasing presence of minorities in both the amateur and professional ranks. Dustin Byfuglien is a stud, I’ve loved Wayne Simmons all the way back to his time with the Kings, and PK Subban is a freaking machine (and one of those rarities in hockey: the player you can and should build your franchise around)…just names off the top of my head of players I admire. There are currently several dozen minorities in the NHL, let alone those in the minors. That’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the thousand or so who will play in the NHL in any given season, but every year those numbers grow. Especially in youth and junior hockey, those numbers are growing. And that matters, it matters a great deal.

But the story that doesn’t get told often enough is the man who started it all: Willie O’Ree.

F8399E3D-583E-4C6D-91BC-28866A4AB42AWillie O’Ree suited up as the NHL’s first black player in 1958. The first black player in one of the whitest sports in history (I’m looking at you, golf and auto racing, as the leading villains on that ignominious list of the lily-white). But the best part is that O’Ree is still with us, and is still active in the community. He still speaks to players — to kids and adults alike — and he is still working and fighting to open doors and create opportunities. He is still a source of inspiration and respect. He is still making a difference.

But he’s not in the Hall of Fame.

Wait…what the fuck?

He’s not in the Hall?

Are you kidding me?!

How the hell is Willie O’Ree not in the hockey Hall of Fame?!

Don’t get me wrong, I love the greats…I love Gretzky and Howe and Orr and a list too long to get into, but O’Ree didn’t just play, he changed the sport. He didn’t change the style of play like Gretzky, nor did he redefine a position like Orr…no, he did far more. He opened the door for every black and brown kid with dreams of playing. He opened the door for players like Subban and Iginla and Fuhr and Carter and Byfuglien and the rest of the greats that came after him.

But he’s not in the Hall.

He is eligible for nomination this year (again), in the Builders category. Now, there is a limit to the number of players who can even be nominated as candidates, and he is up against guys like Brodeur and St Louis and a host of others, but all that is needed is ONE member of the selection committee to champion him as a nominee.

Just one.

Imagine if Jackie Robinson were not in the baseball Hall of Fame…

If you are a hockey fan at all, or a fan of recognizing the folks who truly mattered, do me a favor and let those folks with a say in the matter know that Willie O’Ree doesn’t just belong in the hockey Hall of Fame, he is the very definition of an all-time great.

Here is a link to the list of selectors.