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Heart in Hand

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"Okay, so remember, you'll run through a couple of drills with the kids, and then a scrimmage for the last half hour or so," Katy says. Darryl nods, skating a couple of quick, lazy swoops on the ice. He's not sure why she's repeating herself - it's not like Darryl hasn't done a million public relations events like this before. Granted, it's the grand opening of the new Adidas Arena, so the entire PR team has been running around like crazy for a whole week's worth of events, and the moment they found out Darryl was coming back early from summer vacation, they basically booked him solid for the entire thing. And this is why Darryl's here now, waiting for a bunch of local kids to come in and play for a while on the new rink.

"All right, here they come," Katy says, craning her neck anxiously. Darryl looks at her curiously; he hasn't worked with her as much as other members of the PR staff, but it's sort of weird that she's so nervous over what should be a fairly routine event. Sure, there are a lot of fans in the lower bowl, and there's a decent amount of media clustered around, but there was a whole lot more fuss a couple days ago with the actual opening; now all the events afterwards are much more low-key.

The kids start spilling through the rink door, a handful of boys and girls not even in their tweens yet. Darryl smiles a little awkwardly at the first few kids who make it to center ice first, a couple of them openly gawking at him. It's not that Darryl dislikes kids - just the opposite, in fact. Playing with them is always fun, it's just that hero-worship always make him really uncomfortable, he's always worried about messing up somehow.

( A couple years ago, Darryl had been at another community event at when this little boy had came up to him, literally shaking with nerves. Darryl had smiled as wide as he could and crouched down, but it hadn't helped much - if anything, the kid had looked even more terrified. But then before Darryl could say anything, the boy blurted out, "Knock knock." Darryl had scratched his head, but okay. "Who's there?" he asked. The kid had stared at him with huge eyes, completely silent, then abruptly burst into tears and ran away.

"Wow, I think you scarred him for life," Brynn had said, coming up to him; his family had been visiting him at the time. "What did you say to him?"

"Nothing, I didn't say anything!" Darryl had said, a little freaked out. Brynn laughed.

"Oh, Darryl, wait until the media finds out that in your spare time you enjoy traumatizing little kids," she'd said. Darryl had glared at her, still unnerved. "Thanks, sis, I guess that explains how you turned out, right?" Brynn had grinned at him sunnily. "Yup, if I turn out to be a screw-up, it'll be all your fault - see if you ever get a Hart Trophy after the truth comes out!"

After that, Darryl tries to be as gentle and smiling as possible whenever he's around kids. He just hopes he doesn't seem like a creep.)

Eight, nine, ten... Darryl counts as each one skates towards center ice, then looks back at the rink door in confusion - he thought the plan was to have eleven kids, enough for a full-scale scrimmage. Oh, but here comes the last one, except... Darryl feels his jaw drop as a tall, hulking frame emerges from the tunnel and quickly bounds onto the ice, shaggy hair and gap-toothed grin unmistakable.

"Hey, Darryl." Aleksey Jakovlevich Kuznetzov says, grinning wickedly at him. "How is summer vacation, huh?"

Dimly, Darryl's aware of the low buzz going around the crowd in the rink, which probably makes it more likely that Kuznetzov is actually standing there and this isn't just a spontaneous hallucination.

"Uh, okay?" Darryl says. "Kuznetzov, what are you doing here?" All the kids are gaping openly at the other player, and sort of hilariously most of them are looking at him with varying expressions of dislike – except for one dark-haired little boy who’s gazing up at Kuznetzov with stars in his eyes, his mouth open in awe.

Kuznetzov grins at Darryl. “I just want to see new rink, want to see if it’s better than Verizon.” He makes a show of looking around, then turns back and shakes his hand in a so-so gesture. “I guess is okay, maybe.” He looks at Darryl expectantly. “But I hear you playing hockey today, not fair you start so early, so I drop by! You doing with drills, right? Scrimmage later?”

Now Darryl understands why Katy seemed so anxious; great, he’s being set up by his own PR team.

“Yeah, I was going to get started on a shooting drill,” Darryl says uncertainly.

“Oh, my favorite!” Kuznetzov looks at him mischievously. “You gonna be goalie?”

“No, I’m not going to be the goalie!” Darryl snaps back. “Okay you guys, so here’s how the drill goes…” Darryl says, turning back to the rest of the kids.

And so, as surreal as it seems, Darryl finds himself running hockey drills with ten kids from Pittsburgh and Aleksey Kuznetzov. All of the kids are pointedly ignoring the Washington hockey player, acting as if there’s only one NHL superstar on the ice instead of two.

All of them except for that one dark-haired boy, who after a few minutes finally musters up the courage to skate over to Kuznetzov and poke him in the side.

“Are you really here? Is that really you?” The boy asks suspiciously. Kuznetzov grins and bumps the kid gently, which of course means that the kid almost falls over.

“Yup, is really me. What’s your name?” And it’s like a flood bursting out from behind a dam.

“I’m Andy! You’re my favorite player ever except my dad and Jamie – that’s my older sister and she’s a know-it-all but Mom says that I’m going to be taller than her someday – they both always tell me that you can’t be my favorite player because you’re a Bear and we’re supposed to hate you but you always score the best goals!” the boy says, throwing his arms up in the air.

Darryl isn’t quite sure how much of this Kuznetzov actually understands, since it was hard enough understanding all of it even as a native English speaker, but the other player is nodding along anyways.

“You like score goals?” Andy nods enthusiastically.

“Yeah, and I always want to leap into the glass like you do except Dad says that that’s showboating and it means I’m not a good sport,” he says, becoming glum. Kuznetzov looks down at him for a moment, then nudges the boy companionably.

“No worry, Andy, I show you how to celebrate scoring goal, okay?” Kuznetzov skates out of line and corrals one of the loose pucks before coming back. When it’s his turn at the front of the line, he turns back. “Okay, look how I do this, all right?”

Kuznetzov blazes forward like he’s on a breakaway, then wrists in a laser into the empty net at the other end of the ice. He kisses his glove and thrusts his arms upward in triumph, then after a few seconds he brings them down and skates back.

“Okay, you see how I only celebrate for three seconds? That is time limit when you are one scoring goal, you see?” Kuznetzov says to Andy, who nods. “Now I show you how to celebrate when your teammate score,okay?” Kuznetzov gets another puck and skates it up the ice, then passes it to a very bemused Darryl.

Darryl stops the puck with his stick, then looks at Kuznetzov skeptically. Kuznetzov gestures at him impatiently. With a sigh, Darryl half-heartedly sends the puck into the net. He turns back, and is greeted by an armful of screaming Kuznetzov, the other player leaping onto him.

"What the-" Darryl has to remind himself not to swear in front of the kids. "Kuznetzov, get off of me!"

"Woooohooooooooo!!! Goooooooooooooaaaaaaaal! Gooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaal! Yay Darryl! Yay Colton! Go 88!" Kuznetzov yells, clutching on to Darryl even as Darryl staggers under his weight. Darryl finally succeeds in prying the other player off, and Kuznetzov winks at him once before skating back over to Andy. "You see? You celebrate teammate goal a lot more than your own, okay? Because when you score, you know you can always be better, but when other people score, that means team do well and that is most important thing. And your Dad won't yell at you any more, I promise." Kuznetzov says, kneeling down.

"But some of the guys on my team are jerks!" Andy says. Kuznetzov shrugs.

"Okay, but they still your teammate, you gotta stick together. Hockey is team sport, nobody win game by himself. You want game like that, you play tennis or golf, you know? Nothing better than team win, Andy." Kuznetzov pats the kid on the shoulder. "All right, your turn for shooting drill - remember, only 3 seconds to celebrate."

Andy looks at him in disbelief. "But you always celebrate longer when you score," he says. Kuznetzov grins.

"Is because my teammates always want to celebrate longer, see? Now go on, go, go," he says, making shooing motions. Darryl tilts his head, thoughtful; this is not a side of Kuznetzov that he's ever seen before.

The rest of the drills run smoothly, with both Kuznetzov and Andy staying relatively quiet. But after the drills are done, Darryl can see the problem almost as soon as the words are out of his mouth: "Okay, now we're going to have a scrimmage, so let's divide up into two teams..." he trails off as nine kids immediately skate over to cluster around him, while Andy sticks to Kuznetzov's side like glue. Kuznetzov looks at Darryl, his eyes laughing.

"Is not very fair, is it Darryl? You really need so much help?"

Darryl opens his mouth, but before he can say anything, one of the girls next to him shoots back, "We're going to beat you by a couple of touchdowns, Andy, it's gonna be 14 to 0 by the time we're done with you!"

"You wish! You're going to begging us for mercy!" Andy says defiantly, then looks up at Kuznetzov uncertainly. "... Right, AJ?" Kuznetzov smiles at him.

"You bet! I play goalie, and you go out there and get hat trick, okay?" The kid squints up at Kuznetzov.

"You're going to play goalie?"

"Yeah, you watch, I get shutout!" Kuznetzov says, skating over to the bench to put on goalie pads and a chest protector.

Well, it's not quite 14 to 0, although it gets close; Kuznetzov is pretty laughable as a goalie, since he stays on his feet the entire time, although on the other hand he's big enough and quick enough on his feet that shuffling side to side in the crease works okay. The other kids shoot at Kuznetzov with a vengeance (Darryl winces every time they do, he's pretty sure that if Kuznetzov gets injured at Pittsburgh before the season even starts, then the entire Bears organization will probably come over to burn Adidas Arena down right after it opens), and each of them ends up scoring once, so that's good too. Darryl for his part manages to accidentally-on-purpose turn over the puck to Andy near the goal enough times that the boy pots more than a few himself against the other kid goalie.

"Okay, everybody, I think we're gonna call it a day," Darryl says finally, after the half-hour is up.

"Ha ha, Andy, we got 9 and you only got 3! It's a blow-out!" The same girl who was taunting Andy earlier skates around him now, mocking. The boy looks down at his skates, a discouraged slump to his shoulders.

"Well, that not fair, because there is only one of him and there are nine of you, and you guys only get three times as many goals as Andy," Kuznetzov says, skating up and bending down to sling a comforting arm around the kid. "So that make you how many time better than all of them?" Kuznetzov asks Andy, looking down at him. Andy looks up at him, his brow furrowed.

"I don't know," he says finally. Kuznetzov opens his mouth, then shuts it.

"Okay, yeah, me neither," he confesses. "But you get hat trick, so hooray!" he says, taking off his goalie helmet and tossing it up into the air. Andy giggles, which turns into full-out laughter when Kuznetzov catches the boy up beneath his armpits and whirls him once in the air before setting him down again.

Darryl feels someone tugging at his sleeve. He looks down to see one of the younger girls looking up at him earnestly.

"Can you twirl me around like that too?" she asks, pointing over at Kuznetzov. Darryl sighs, then carefully picks her up and spins slowly around, except then all the other kids want a turn to. Darryl's actually a little out of breath by the time he sets the last kid down, and when he looks over he can see Kuznetzov smirking at him.

"All right, you guys, I think that's enough ice time for today," he says loudly. "But before you guys go, I have a present for each of you guys..." he skates over to the bench and comes back with an armful of 87 jerseys that he autographed earlier, passing them out to each of the kids, and all of them start putting them on enthusiastically. Except, of course, for Andy, who takes the jersey Darryl hands him and holds it at an arm's length, looking at it unenthusiastically.

"But I don't want to wear this," the boy complains. He looks up at Kuznetzov. "I wish I could have one of your jerseys, even though I guess everybody at school would laugh at me..." he says, trailing off sadly.

Kuznetzov looks at him for a moment, then says, "Wait here, okay?" He skates over to the side of the rink and gets his duffel bag from off the bench. He skates back with it slung over his shoulder, then sets it down, unzips it, and rummages around for a couple moments before pulling out a red Bears t-shirt.

"Okay, Andy." Kuznetzov says, "First, I write, To Andy, Congratulations on hat trick, Alex Kuznetzov," the player says, scribbling on the front of the t-shirt. "Now, I take this and turn inside out, and shirt go inside jersey, see?" Kuznetzov says, fitting the t-shirt inside the jersey with the sleeves pulled through. "If you go home and get mom or dad to sew Bears shirt to jersey, then you can wear jersey everywhere and people think you are Hawks fan, but inside you know you rock the red, right?" Kuznetzov says, raising his hand for a high five. Beaming, the younger boy slaps his hand, then races off the ice to show his family his newfound treasure. The other kids trail off a little more sedately, but as soon as the last one is out of earshot, Darryl turns to look at Kuznetzov.

"Okay," Darryl says resolutely. "Why are you really here, Kuznetzov?"

"What, I can't just say hello?" Kuznetzov says, leaning on his stick. Darryl just raises an eyebrow, waiting the other man out. Finally, Kuznetzov drops his gaze, looking down at his skates.

"I want you teach me how to be winner," he mumbles. Darryl stares at him; he must have misheard, or misunderstood.

"Excuse me?" he tries.

"Look, you have Stanley Cup ring, Olympic gold, so you know how to win," Kuznetzov says impatiently, looking up. "I want to know how to do that."

Darryl feels an unexpected welling of sympathy for Kuznetzov, something he'd honestly never expected to feel for this particular player.

"You know what you told Andy earlier is true, right?" he says cautiously. "I didn't win any of those games by myself, and you didn't lose any of your games by yourself, either."

Kuznetzov shrugs. "But I need to be better, my team depend on it," he says. "And last summer you turn yourself into 50-goal scorer, so yeah, Darryl, you know how to get better. I want to learn how to get better too."

Darryl hesitates. This is really weird.

"Like, what, you want to practice with me or something?" he asks uncertainly. Kuznetzov nods.

"Yeah, see how you practice, see how you train, see how you get better at whatever," he says. When Darryl still doesn't say anything, he raises his formidable eyebrows in a challenge. "Unless you afraid you show me anything, I beat you forever after that," Kuznetzov says, baring his teeth.

"I'm not afraid of you!" Darryl retorts. "Fine, you want to train together? Meet me tomorrow at eight at the Iceoplex, then.”

Kuznetzov grins at him for real. “So late, sleepyhead? I gonna suggest seven, but okay!” Kuznetzov skates away blithely, leaving Darryl standing alone and grinding his teeth in irritation.