He tries to feel numb; he wants to feel numb, to not feel the crashing disappointment, the aching pain of failure, the sob burning in his throat. He tries to block out the boos, to not hear the murmurs around him, to see the looks the guys in the locker room are giving him. He doesn’t want to hear the voice in his head telling him how useless he is, what a fuck-up he is, how he can’t play hockey; but his mind keeps replaying the moment over and over again where he hadn’t even been able to take a pass from Easty correctly, when Smith had run right over him - every time he shuts his eyes he sees the puck bouncing away from him, the puck hitting the back of the net, the look Talbo had given him even as the first of the waves of nausea had swamped him. What kind of hockey player cannot control a simple pass, can’t take the puck and control it and protect it?
He’d known Coach’s comments about being embarrassed had been directed at him. But he’s way past embarrassment now and the team knows it. Somehow he’d stumbled through interviews with the press, not broken down, then found himself changing mechanically, trying to block it out. He’s leaving the locker room, walking down the corridor, no-one having spoken to him or acknowledged him since the game ended, just trying to get out of there when he hears a voice behind him.
“Justin! Wait up!” He glances back; it’s Ebs, of course it’s Ebs. And the thought of the quiet determination from him, of his insistence that Justin isn’t a bad player, that’s enough to cause the tears to prickle in his eyes, his vision blurring and splitting like a kaleidoscope. He keeps walking, he can’t do this tonight. Somehow, someone being kind is worse.
“Schultzy!” Ebs is more demanding now. Justin spins around, walking backwards.
“Ebs… I just can’t… ok? Leave it!” He shakes his head, waving at Ebs, trying to stop the rush towards him. Ebs slows down, looking at him anxiously.
“Don’t let it get to you!” Ebs keeps walking after him, but Justin doesn’t stop moving. He swallows a bitter bark of pain at that. Way past that now. That ship has long sailed. Having to stand and talk about his shortcomings to the press afterwards using standard hockey cliche “consistency… play harder… focus on hockey” has stripped any defence or protection he had managed to preserve. He wonders bitterly what would happen if he started to answer the questions honestly, but that’s the ultimate nuclear option and he’s just about hanging onto enough pride to not show that much weakness in front of a media that would simply commoditize it and wallow in his anguish. The fans might even enjoy it.
“Ebs.. really, please. Not tonight. I.. I just want to get home.” There’s a plea in his voice now and he can still feel the tears unshed, threatening. Ebs looks at him sharply, really looks at him, then nods.
“Ok,” he says, voice softening a bit. “You go home, get a good night’s sleep. I”ll see you at skate tomorrow.”
Justin nods, resumes walking to his truck. He doesn’t even really remember getting home, trying to maintain his numbed autopilot. HIs post match routine is mechanical, blessedly not needing thought on his part. It’s only after, once things are done, and he’s lying on his couch, that the dead weight descends on his chest again, the knowledge of just how much he is fucking up and how no matter how hard he tries, it’s getting worse and worse, spiralling away from him in a maelstrom of contempt and anger and mockery.
He doesn’t really recognise time passing as he lies on his couch, thoughts whirling around in his head. He thinks he dozes; knows he should go to bed, but it seems like too much effort. It’s easier to just lie there, letting the thoughts ricochet around and around in his head. Almost before he realises, his phone is vibrating with the alarm for morning skate. He glances at it bleary-eyed, shutting off the alarm as his tired brain registers he didn’t reset the alarm last night. He’d intended to get to practice early; he’s now going to struggle to get there on time. If he’s completely honest, he doesn’t want to make it. He wants to stay here, safely cocooned from having to face the world outside and the pain it brings him. But that’s not really an option.
Somehow he makes it, sneaking onto the ice virtually last, generating a dark look from the coach.
“So glad you could join us,” McLellan says watching him start to warm up. “I’d have thought that after last night, you’d have got here early to work on the things that didn’t work last night but really not surprised you didn’t.”
Justin flushes. There’s not a lot he can say to that - he knows any excuses will sound inadequate, so he ducks his head and keeps on stretching.
Practice isn’t too bad; there’s a few pointed comments in his direction from the coaches, but he keeps his head down, keeps working hard, tries to focus on himself and his d-pair.
Video is a shit storm however.
Of course they spend time reviewing his error which led to the goal. In glorious HD, slowed to watch over and over again. And again. And again. He’s starting to wonder if this is going beyond normal when he catches a couple of sympathetic looks being thrown his way from one or two of the players - Ebs, Seksy. But he’s also aware of the glares coming in his direction too; he guesses it’s easy to be 19 and a wonderchild, full of confidence in your abilities and certain that all you ever need to do is try to make things right. Hell, he’d been like that once. And it’s not like Justin didn’t know what he had done wrong; by the time they start to go through it for a fifth time, he feels like that particular play is engraved onto this eye lids and even the guys who are glaring at him are starting to get restive. He keeps his face impassive, trying to look interested while inside he resolutely battles down his feelings, trying to achieve numbed out zen, watching the images in front of him without thinking about them.
Fortunately, they move onto the Kings and the Ducks, and Justin is able to start focussing on the new information, things to think about for the next game, lose himself in that instead.
Finally the session ends and the players start to make a break for it. McLellan clears his throat.
“Justin, a word please?”
Justin feels his stomach tighten but nods in agreement, hanging back until the rest of the team have left the room.
“Kid, you’re saying the right things but you aren’t doing them and I don’t get from you any intention to do so. We’re going to sit you for the road trip, give you a chance to think about what you need to be doing and aren’t.” McLellan is watching him closely; Justin isn’t sure what he’s watching for.
“But..” Justin trails off. There’s no point in arguing with your coach’s view of you. He takes a breath. “Coach, I'm doing everything I know to play better!”
McLellan shakes his head. “Then you need to do more; it’s not working. You’re hurting our team when you’re on the ice. I can’t let you keep on doing that. There are 20 other guys all giving their all and they don’t need you screwing it up for them.”
Justin feels like he’s been punched. To hear his own thoughts repeated back at him so brutally is like stepping into an ice bath, freezing shock shutting him down.
“I’ll see you later on the flight. But we need to see a change in attitude from you.” And with that final pronouncement, McLellan leaves him blessedly alone, mind reverberating with what’s just been said.
He doesn’t know what more he can do; he’s done everything the Edmonton coaches have said to do. But he gets on ice and sometimes he just doesn’t know what to do anymore, the knowledge of how bad he’s been causing him to doubt his own decisions. He tries to play to the system but now, when he feels like he can’t trust his own judgement, he doesn’t know if what he thinks he wants to do is right or wrong anymore. All too often it seems to end up being wrong….
The travel to LA kind of passes in a haze. It’s hard to maintain his usual facade of ‘great team player’ when he’s left wondering how many of them think he is letting them down. He certainly feels a coolness from them and it causes him to retreat. He manages to go out to team dinner though, fighting with himself as he really just wants to hide away in his hotel room. He’s bolstered through it by Ebs and Seksy who flank him either side, keeping him in the conversation, buffer him and stop him from drifting off. All the same, by the end, he’s fading fast. He just wants to escape, to not have to make polite conversation, to ignore the looks, the awkward silences. Fortunately the game tomorrow breaks them up early, give Justin a chance to escape back to the solitude of his room. It isn’t much easier there, but he’s not having to maintain a face, he can let himself relax as much as he is able to.
Sleep eludes him again though, despite how little sleep he’s had recently. He manages a few hours, but wakes up, heart pounding and anxious, resorting to watching random reality shows to keep his mind from thinking and trying to lull him back to sleep. Cooking shows and DIY shows and anything else which catches his fancy and stops him having to think.
Eventually his alarm goes off, and he’s able to begin his day again, girding himself for a road trip day.
In the end, they lose to the Kings. Justin would feel guilty to say he felt relieved, but he can’t help breathing of a sigh of something - not relief - when the final buzzer sounds and his team dejectedly skate off the ice. They lost and it wasn’t down to him.
There’s not much post game down time, it’s straight over to Anaheim for the back to back. Dinner is a quick affair, everyone too down on the loss and trying to shed it for the next day. Early nights all around, and Justin takes the preventative measure of trying to sleep with the tv on this time; he finds some weird equestrian event from Europe with horses jumping brightly coloured poles. The sounds are soothing however and there’s just enough randomness to keep his mind occupied as he tries to will himself to sleep. He does eventually, only to waken up way too early again, anxious and adrenalin buzzing, wide awake yet desperately tired. With nothing to do, he hits up the hotel gym, hoping for it to be empty at the ridiculously early time.
It isn’t, and Justin’s eyes widen when he sees McDavid, pounding away on the treadmill. He nods at him, but doesn’t want to break his concentration. He’s obviously not the only one having trouble sleeping tonight. McDavid’s brows are furrowed as he runs like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
He sets his own treadmill speed to a steady pace, something that will help him work up a good sweat, but he can maintain for a while, puts on his music and goes for it. At some point McDavid slips away, quietly, without a word; Justin doesn’t notice, too lost in his own music and thoughts.
After an hour or so, Justin heads back to his room to shower and chill some more before breakfast and the start of another day watching his team play without him.
It’s late when they get back to Edmonton, flying in on the wings of yet more defeat. This one doesn’t feel quite so bad and the atmosphere on the plane, while not fun, is not grim either; they fought through to OT and got a precious point. Nevertheless, there’s a certain amount of gratitude for an off-day tomorrow to recuperate and rest up a bit. California is not the worst of the road trips, but back to backs are never fun; even after being scratched, Justin is tired of travelling and he knows how the guys who played are feeling. The group splits up quietly, departing into the night.
At least when Justin fails to sleep in his own house, he can get up and potter around in it, moving to his couch to doze through part of the morning instead. He’s woken up by his phone ringing.
“Hey Justin, it’s Peter Chiarelli here,” and with that Justin’s heart sinks. “I hope I caught you at a good time?”
“No, it’s fine,” Justin manages to stammer.
“Well I can guess you know why I’m phoning. We feel that it’s not working out for you here in Edmonton, so we’ve accepted a trade for you. I’d like to thank you for your efforts with us and wish you the very best in the future.” Justin waits to find out who he’s been traded to and then in a panic realises that Chiarelli’s going to ring off.
“Mr Chirarelli - who have I been traded to?” he asks desperately. He really doesn’t want to have to go on the internet and find out.
“Oh sorry. The Penguins. Good luck Justin.” and with that the phone goes dead.
Justin puts the phone down slowly. The Penguins? He knew if a trade were coming, it would be to a team which had a hope of making the playoffs but the Penguins? What can he offer Sidney Crosby’s team? He’s trying to remember what he knows about them; bad start, coach fired, coming on hot now… he quickly checks and they’re sitting in a playoff place right now, only a wild card, but still a precious playoff place and way closer to the playoff than he’s ever been with the Oilers. A quick glance at the current roster shows no-one he’s played with on the roster.
He’s not quite sure what to do next. Does he just turn up in Pittsburgh? It can’t be that simple.
He phones his agent.
“Yeah, we’ve just heard. Look, it could be a good thing? Change of scene, and the Penguins are contenders this year. They’ll be releasing the news anytime, so batten down the hatches, don’t speak to the media without speaking to me first. I’ll put out a standard ‘Looking forward to the new opportunity’ type thing for anyone who asks. Stay put, I’ll go and speak to Penguins. I think we’ll need to get a visa sorted though; you’re a Canadian, you’ll need a work permit to play for a US team, and you can’t enter the US before you get it. We’ll get started on that right away so we can get it in today. Still, it does mean you won’t be tearing across the country at no notice, it’s going to take a few days even if the Americans play ball, so you’ll get a chance to sort out your apartment there and pack and things like that.”
Oh. His agent hangs up on him and goes off to do agenty things, leaving Justin at a bit of a loose end - restless and unable to settle. He calls his parents so they actually find out from him first, flicking NHL News on in the background to see when the news gets released. They take the news surprisingly well; happy for him to get away from the Oilers and onto a team with a chance of making the playoffs. Disbelieving their son will be playing with Captain Canada - he manages a wry smile at that. While he’s talking to them, news of the trade breaks onto NHL News and his phone starts to vibrate and vibrate and vibrate. A 3rd round pick and salary retention is what he was traded for. He’s not sure what he feels about that; like they don’t believe he’s worth what he’s paid. He’s not sure he’s worth what he’s paid at the moment though, and he tries to tell himself they’re a cap-strapped team. Maybe they couldn’t take him if the Oilers hadn’t retained some salary. And how keen must the Oilers have been to rid themselves of him to do that?
He extracts himself from the call with the parents, promising to come see them soon. He might even get over while he waits for the work permit - it might be better than sitting around in Edmonton - but it is a nine hour drive.
After hanging up, he starts flicking through the texts which have come in; messages of regret and well-wishing from some of his team mates. It starts to sink in, what being traded really means. He feels a tightness in his chest, knowing he’s leaving the only team he’s known as a professional, will have to fit into a new team, new team mates. Remembering the good times with his team, his friends, even if it has been crappy recently.
His phone starts ringing (again) before he gets too maudlin; this time it’s his agent so he answers it.
“Right, we’ve got the paperwork underway for your work permit. That should be coming through next week - Pittsburgh have to formally submit it on your behalf. Their GM - Jim Rutherford - is going to call you at 1:30 so don’t screen his call please, then some of their front office will be in touch about arrangements…”
He drones on for quite a while, talking logistics and arrangements and media handling (apparently their PR department will be in touch about approved interviews). Justin tries to take it all in, but his agent is obviously used to to shell-shocked traded hockey players as he finishes up what he’s been talking about by saying “And I know you won’t have got all that, so don’t worry, we’ll email you through a synopsis. But the important thing is not to miss Jim Rutherford’s call! This is a great chance to move on and show the league what you can do.”
Justin promises to take the call and manages to hang up. He does start to see why he pays the guy so much money; he wouldn’t have even known where to start.
He makes a half-hearted attempt to start organising his stuff while he waits for the time to tick around to 1:30. When it does he laughs at himself when he realises he’s sitting at attention on his couch, waiting on his call, as though the GM can see him.
On the dot of 1:30, the phone rings and Justin answers it carefully.
“Hello Justin, thank you for taking my call, I’m Jim Rutherford, call me Jim,” the voice is older than Justin expected, quite husky, his tone warm and friendly. “I wanted to call to say how happy we are that we managed to pry you away from the Oilers and we’re looking forward very much to seeing you in black and gold in Pittsburgh. We feel you can make a real difference in helping us reach the playoffs and go in deep.” Justin finds his jaw dropping; Jim is saying everything Justin might have expected to hear in a press conference, but there aren’t any press here to puff their new signing off to. Justin wonders why he’s saying it. “We believe the game we’re playing in the Penguins is very suited to your skill set, and we’re delighted to add more depth to our blue line. We think we can go all the way this year.” Jim pauses; Justin guesses he’s waiting on a response.
“Thanks Mr Ru… I mean Jim. I’m really happy to talk to you today; it’s a great honour to be traded to the Penguins, you have a fantastic hockey team and I’m going to play hard and try not to let you down.” Justin’s aware that he sounds nervous, he’s gabbling a little, but dammit he wants to create a good impression.
Jim chuckles. “PR will love you if you keep giving perfect hockey answers like that, Justin. We know you’ve had your problems in Edmonton and while I don’t want to speak ill of the set-up there, we believe we have a team which can help you be the best you can be. I can’t make you any promises for beyond this season, but we want to give you an opportunity to show what you can do now. Now, the office will be in touch with logistics, and they’re in contact with your agent as well. We’ll get the visa sorted. Leave the paperwork to us; get yourself ready to come here and I look forward to meeting you in person.”
Justin is kind of amazed, manages to stammer out another ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ to Jim before he hangs up. For the first time, he feels a little bit of hope. The whole tenor of that conversation was so different from anything that’s happened in the past four or five months. It seems like the Penguins want him - really want him. He can’t get his head around that thought - why would the Penguins want someone like him?
He starts to respond to his team-mates and friends and family before he gets too swamped. He also half-heartedly starts to go through his house, putting out stuff to pack to take and stuff to leave for now. He might as well keep the house until the off-season.
It’s early afternoon when his phone rings again. Something about the number seems familiar so he answers it carefully - he thinks it’s got a Pittsburgh code - ready to bail if it’s the press.
“Hey is that Justin?” the accent is east coast Canadian, and it seems fairly familiar. But…
“Who is this please?” he answers cautiously.
“Oh, sorry, have the press been calling? It’s Sid here, Sidney Crosby. I got your number from Jim Rutherford after he called you earlier. I just wanted to call you to welcome you to the team and check if there was anything I could help with.”
Justin might be 25, a professional hockey player who has played against any number of world-beating hockey players, including Crosby himself, but he’s pretty sure that his eyes are just big love-hearts just now. Sidney Crosby is calling him! This day just cannot get any more surreal….
He takes a deep breath, tries not to gush. Confident pro-hockey player. Not fan-obsessed hockey groupie.
“Sid, thanks for calling, that’s appreciated. I think it’s under control at the moment, I’m just kind of waiting for the paperwork to be done so I can come and join you. I’m so excited about that.”
“The waiting must be hard,” Sid replies sympathetically. “It’s not what you expect after a trade. And we just want you here. You’ll love the team, they’re a great bunch of guys. Sully - Coach Sullivan - has got us playing real well. And Pittsburgh loves its hockey, the fans here are great.”
Justin has to laugh; Sid is trying to sell him on the Pittsburgh experience like he’s a free agent with a choice but he sounds so damn naively enthusiastic about it all. You couldn’t possibly rebuff that, it would be like kicking a puppy.
“For sure, I’ve heard good things,” he says diplomatically. “I just want a fresh start to see what I can do and that’s what I’m getting with a great team which is contending.” He can almost feel the glow of pride from Sid. It actually reassures him - he knows Sid’s the golden boy, the poster boy for pampered NHL player, the franchise face, but he obviously cares deeply about his city and the team. But still, Justin’s a failed player who’s likely going in as a rental. They probably won’t treat him like Sid. They’d be stupid to treat him like Sid. The fans certainly won’t treat him like Sid - after Edmonton he’s hoping for apathy from them, anything else is dangerous.
They talk for longer - it’s only after the conversation has ended that Justin realises how much Sid has learned about him. It didn’t seem like an interrogation, but he’s very subtly found out a lot about Justin in a short space of time. Even down to Justin wondering if he should go visit his family before the visa arrives.
“Do it,” Sid had said instantly. “Once we get into playoffs, things get crazy intense. All there is is hockey and family time is very limited. And we want a good deep run this year, all the way to June and we think we can do it. Take the time now to see them because if things go how we want, they’re going to have to come see you and even then you’ll be focussed on the playoffs. So go see them now, while you have time.”
Justin hadn’t even thought of it in those terms; why should he, when he hasn’t ever played in the playoffs? But he’s speaking to someone who has reached the playoffs almost every year of his career, been to the finals twice and won the Cup once - he’s as much an expert on playoff hockey as anyone is.
In the end, someone at Justin’s door had really ended the call. He’d answered, still on the phone to find Ebs there, who had simply waved in greeting. His ears had perked up however when he heard Justin say “Sid” and next thing Justin knew, the phone had been wrestled away from him.
“Hey Sid, it’s Ebs,” Ebs had said without preamble, grinning widely. “We’re sending you a good guy here, one of the best, and you’d better look after him for us! If you can’t win him a Cup, I’m going to be mad at you.” He’d laughed at whatever Sid has said in response, handing the phone back to Justin.
“Don’t believe anything Ebs says about me!” Sid had said almost immediately to Justin. “It’s all lies”. Sid had still been laughing as well, and Justin wanted to have that familiarity, that ease with him.
Their conversation had ended soon after, Sid being just too polite to continue it when he knew Justin had company but assuring him that if he needed anything, anything at all, just to give Sid a call. “If I can’t help, I’ll know someone who can!”
He looks at Ebs questioningly when he comes off the call. “How do you know Sidney Crosby so well?” he asks. “He says I’m not to believe anything you say about him”.
Ebs grins. “Well we did win a gold medal together at Worlds last year!”
Justin waves his hand in apology; he really shouldn’t have forgotten anyone on his team actually winning something. Then he mentally kicks himself for thinking of Ebs as still being on his team when he isn’t anymore and fuck, that’s a hard thought.
“I came around to see how you were doing, to find you on the phone to Sid! Moving on already? I thought you loved us Schultzy!”
Justin can’t recognise everything he hears underneath that question. Ebs has tried to keep it light, but underneath it, there’s pride and sorrow, maybe anger too? He looks at Ebs.
“I’m going to miss you guys,” is all he says, and yeah, the tears are suddenly there and he’s fighting them back because he’s not going to cry in front of Ebs. He hasn’t yet. He’s not going to start now.
“Shit man, I can’t believe you’re going. We’re going to miss you too. But it might not seem like it now, but it’s going to be good for you. Sid’s a good captain, the Pens have a good reputation.” Ebs shakes his head. “They won’t throw you to the wolves like we have and then blame you for getting hurt. They play your kind of hockey. You’ll be good for them too.”
“When did you get so wise?!” Justin says, semi-mockingly. He wants to believe Ebs, he really does, but he also doesn’t want to let on how much he wants to believe him.
Ebs grins. “I’ve always been the brains of this outfit. Hallsy has the looks, Nuge is the...well he’s Nuge and I’m the brains! So anyway, as the brains, I came round to organise you as I bet you’ve been wandering around the house, thinking too much, not getting anything done.”
Justin blushes. Ebs really does know him too well.