One by one the once Mighty Ducks had drifted away from the sport that had meant so much to them. It was obvious by the time they graduated Eden Hall that there were only two Ducks who were going to continue flying.
For Charlie Conway and Adam Banks, hockey had always been their first love.
Strangely, they had never been that close. They shared the bond that everybody shared as Ducks, but when it came to who they actually spent time with, Charlie hung out with Fulton and Guy and Averman, and Adam, when he socialized at all, spent time with Luis and Kenny and Julie. Charlie guessed that was because he'd never really been a Duck to begin with—not like the rest of them. Adam was the first Duck that Coach Bombay had brought to them because of sheer talent. In that sense, he had more in common with the Team USA kids.
There were few people as serious about hockey as Banks, and the guy was good, there was no denying it, so Charlie had assumed that Adam would skip college and go straight to the Juniors or maybe even a minor league club somewhere. Except Adam had surprised them all by going to college. When Charlie asked him why he shrugged and said his dad had insisted. Adam's father might want his son to be a hockey player—but he also wanted his son to get an education. Charlie had assumed that meant that Banksy was off to the East Coast. Maybe Yale, or Boston College where playing hockey was almost a guarantee of being drafted. But Adam surprised them all again by picking St. Cloud State, where Charlie was going.
Graduation from Eden Hall was more somber than happy, since they all knew this was probably the last time they'd all be in the same place at the same time.
Russ and Kenny had finally had enough of the cold and were headed back to California. Russ was giving up on playing hockey to pursue a career in sports broadcasting, which Charlie actually thought suited him. Kenny was going to try for one more Olympic run in figure skating, looking for the 2002 games at Salt Lake.
Julie still claimed that Minnesota winters had nothing on Maine, but she was done with hockey too, since colleges didn't allow co-ed teams, which Charlie thought, frankly, was bullshit. Her boyfriend, Scott (who, Charlie had never wanted to tell her, but bore a striking resemblance to Gunner Stahl), was at Michigan State and she decided to join him, more out of convenience than romance. But there was romance--Guy and Connie set their wedding for graduation weekend, which worked out well for him, since he only had to get them one present.
And so it went. Dwayne missed his family and, Charlie was certain, his cows, and signed with the Austin Ice Bats. Dean had found a productive outlet for his showboating and joined theatre, where he surprised everyone by actually being good, and decided to pursue a degree in musical theatre at Chicago's College of the Performing Arts. Fulton had found something he liked even more than hockey—working with underprivileged children, and was working with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Likewise, Goldberg was going back to his first loves—food, and Philly—and enrolling in the Culinary Institute of Philadelphia.
Averman...well, nobody was really sure what Averman was going to do. Not even Averman.
Charlie had never roomed with Adam before, and was surprised to find out how little he knew about someone he'd been on the same team with for eight years. He learned quickly that this was because outside of hockey...Adam didn't really seem to do much. He quickly made it his goal to drag Adam outside of his serious self to have fun, even if that was just spending an afternoon playing games on his PS2 and discussing the relative merits of NHL 2001 over NHL 2000 (Charlie approved of Owen Nolan being back on the cover, thereby returning the covers to the tradition of the power forward since, while Chris Pronger was a great defenseman, he was also a grade A douchebag).
In return, Adam's obsessive dedication made Charlie train harder and eat better than he'd ever had in his life, partly because when Adam's alarm went off at 5am Charlie couldn't go back to sleep. Banksy's “No Junk Food in the Room” rule made him roll his eyes until his saw a girl watching him in the co-rec as he pulled on his shirt after his workout, and damned if he didn't have a six pack.
District I hockey was tough. There was no varsity and JV, like at Eden Hall. There was playing and there was riding pine. He'd never been the low man on the totem pole before. Even at Eden Hall they'd come in as champions. Without Adam there, he probably would have given up within the first semester.
Midway through their junior year Adam had the option of going into the draft. Charlie could see that he wanted it more than anything, too. To be done with school and just out there, doing what he'd wanted to do his whole life.
“I'm getting old,” he complained one night to Charlie. “Two more years here is two less years out there playing pro.”
With characteristic optimism, Charlie had simply smiled. “Yeah, but you can play pro hockey until you're what...forty? Chelios is 41 and he's still amazing. You only get four years of this, Adam. That's it. Four years...compared to twenty.” He bumped Adam's shoulder. “Enjoy it. These are going to be the last two years of your life you'll be surviving on ramen and going out for pancakes at 3am, staying up all night because you have a final the next day.”
Adam's expression was skeptical. “I'm supposed to enjoy that?”
“...well, <i>yeah</i>.” Charlie smiled. “How many people never get that chance?”
Two years went by more quickly than even Charlie had imagined it would, and he was sure that Adam was going to go one place and he'd be sent another, and having to start over somewhere new, without any of the Ducks, terrified him. Not having the money to go to Raleigh, they gathered around the television.
“Ovie's going to go first,” Charlie predicted, sitting down on the couch as he handed Adam a beer. “Just you watch. The dickbags always go first.”
To his massive disappointment and no one's surprise, Ovechkin <i>did</i> go in the first round, to the Capitals.
But the first round was almost over, and they were digging through the coupons to find a deal on pizza when the Atlanta Thrashers called Adam's name. Charlie whooped so loud that the downstairs neighbors thumped on the ceiling.
“Sorry, Mrs. Finch!” he said, automatically. But he couldn't stifle his excitement, or his pride. The phone was ringing off the hook by people calling Adam and congratulating him, which Charlie watched with a detached sense of shared joy while he waited to hear his fate. And then it happened. Round five.
“The Atlanta Thrashers select Charles Conway, center.”
Charlie stared in disbelief, and it wasn't until Adam physically shoved him that he blinked out of it. It wasn't the Ducks. It wasn't the Wild. But it was <i>Adam</i>, and that, Charlie realized, was the most important part. They'd found that out when they played as Team USA—they were Ducks, no matter what jerseys they wore.
“Hey...at least it's a bird?” Adam said, in that sly, quiet tone that Charlie had underappreciated in his youth.
And then the universe fell apart.
It was the first time in history that a professional sport's entire season was canceled due to a labor dispute, and Charlie could not fucking believe it.
“We could go to Europe,” Adam said. “Russia...Sweden...”
“Yeah, except for the fact that they speak <i>Russian</i> and <i>Swedish</i>,” Charlie shot back.
Adam sighed and gave Charlie a patient look. “Or the UK. They've got small hockey clubs all over Britain, and I've got family in London.”
“Oh, do you have family in jolly old England?” Charlie mocked in a horrible parody of an English accent. “Guess I should've called you beefeater instead of cake eater.”
His jocularity was met with an intense stare. “I have to play, Charlie,” Adam said quietly. “I'd like it if you came with me, but I can't make you.”
So he'd gone and spent the whole stupid year in England, where the food had sucked and the weather sucked, but where they were playing, and how did he let Adam talk him into coming here? Was he really that codependent?
It was a rainy afternoon in July when Charlie came home to the flat they shared above the Indian curry restaurant to find Adam packing.
“They made an agreement,” Adam said without turning his back. “The lockout is over. We're being called back.”
Charlie pounced on Adam with possibly too much enthusiasm.“Thank you, Jesus!” He hopped onto the ancient bed, bouncing with excitement. “Say goodbye to bad food and worse weather and incomprehensible plumbing!”
Adam had laughed, a rare smile on his face, and waved Charlie off. “Cake eater,” he said, but there was fondness in his tone.
The AHL was like...boot camp for hockey players. Suddenly instead of playing the 45-50 games he was used to, they were playing 80 games. He hadn't played this hard...well, <i>ever</i>. Even in Coach Bombay's Captain Blood days it wasn't like this. Three, sometimes four games a week, and constant travel—and not like the travel in the UK, where everything seemed to be at most two hours away by train. No, this was Manitoba one night and San Antonio two days later. Adam, of course, seemed to thrive like he was built for this, but when they finally made it off the ice more often than not he would fall straight into bed.
The guys were like nothing he'd prepared for either. A lot of bright-eyed bushy-tailed draftees like him and Adam, but the guys he really liked were the veterens, the lifers. Two minutes into his first practice he realized just how much they could teach him—and that they were more than happy to share their experience. They weren't just teammates. They were skating coaches. Stick handling coaches. Strategy coaches. He'd thought he'd known hockey, but it seemed like he only knew half of it.
The only thing familiar was Adam. Adam was just...there. Reliable. Adam made sure he got back to the hotel room and that he remembered to take off his shoes before he went to bed. Charlie set the alarm so that he wouldn't be late for the bus the next morning. It was like freshman year all over again, and once again Charlie was pretty sure he wouldn't have survived if Adam hadn't been pushing him the entire time.
“Banksy. Pack your bags.”
Charlie wondered if he would ever find John Anderson less than intimidating. He looked up, across the locker room to where Adam was getting suited up.
His expression changed for a moment, a quick slide of eyes towards Charlie, and then he nodded. “Do I have practice first?”
“Nope—gotta make the red eye. Rucchin's out.” He slapped his clipboard against Banks' shoulder and moved on. “Don't fuck it up.”
Rucchin. He winced internally, though he was watching Adam's reaction. They'd heard about the concussion—had talked about who was going to get called up. Maybe in the back of their minds they'd thought about his chances, but they hadn't talked about it. Hockey players were a superstitious group.
He finished dressing in silence, watching as Adam got ribbed by their teammates. Finally, he stood up and crossed to where Adam was slowly getting undressed, a thoughtful frown on his face.
“So...looks like you're leaving us,” he said slowly. Adam's eyes met his, and that frown deepened. “I'm proud of you, man,” he assured him, and squeezed his shoulder. “Your dad would be too.”
Maybe that shouldn't have been the ending. In the Hollywood story of their lives, Charlie hoped that he got called up with Adam and they played together until they were old men. But his life wasn't a movie, and when Adam got called up and went to Atlanta, the thing that had been Charlie and Adam was no longer.
Adam fucking killed it that season, not only making himself look good, but the Wolves look good too. He couldn't count the number of reporters and sports bloggers (this new thing, he still wasn't exactly sure how it worked) who wanted to talk to him about Banksy and what Banksy had been like as a kid and as a Duck. He gave them the story they wanted—the young prodigy that made good, the band of ragtag hockey players who benefited from his talent—but that part was easy. The Ducks had always been a good story, and Charlie was more than happy to tell it, as many times as people would listen.
The Thrashers came back to Chicago for their first game against the Hawks almost a month later. As Charlie skated off the ice after practice he saw a familiar figure in the locker room, and the sounds of enthusiastic ribbing that came more from pride than from jealousy, and it was like he'd never left. They fell back into the companionable rapport that he knew now wasn't just from being Ducks. Yeah, when he saw Averman or Terry there was this bond, this connection that came from where they'd been and what they'd gone through. But he and Adam were the last of the Ducks, and that meant something to Charlie. Always had, and always would.
People always talked about dynasties in sports, but the Ducks were the kind of team that was more than a dynasty; they were a team that came along once in a lifetime. Like the Greek athletes of the Olympics they'd played for something bigger. They'd played for pride, and self-respect. They'd played for every kid out there who had newspapers strapped to their shins instead of padding, for every kid whose dad skipped overtime pay to see them play or whose mom stitched their name on the back of an old football jersey. They'd played for every kid who'd chosen the love of the game over popularity, and for kids who'd never had popularity to begin with. When Adam and Charlie stopped playing hockey, that was it. There would be no more Ducks. And that kept him going when nothing else could.