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*

June, Boston Garden

“From the ninth floor of the Boston Garden, high above the ice, I’m Jack Edwards here with my colleague Andy Brickley and the already roaring seventeen thousand, five hundred, sixty-five Boston Brawlers fans. Thanks for joining Boston Sports Network’s coverage of Game Seven of the Cup Final. Just two options remain for the Brawlers and the formidable Shoreham Shock of Long Island, New York: win it all, or end a thrilling season with the disappointment of not having their players’ names etched into the base of Lord Stanley’s Cup.

“It’s news to no one who the real pride of Boston Garden is tonight, though. Standing on the shoulders of giants—and some might point out that at only five feet, nine inches in height, he could use the  boost—one Brawler has been in the spotlight week after week, game after game.”

“That’s right Jack: team captain John Watson is a veteran player, well respected around the league through his astonishing eighteen seasons, joined the Brawlers just this year through a series of trades after spending the past dozen years as a first-line defenseman with the Hamilton Thrashers in his adopted home town in Ontario. He’s esteemed by his teammates both on the ice and in the room, and this Brawlers team—which has been developing over the last three, four, seasons—has really coalesced around Watson in that leadership position. After last season’s disappointments, where the Brawlers barely made the play-offs and were picked off in five games during the first round, a lot of credit’s going to John Watson for bringing these guys together, raising morale in the room so that what we see on the ice in nearly every game this season has been classic Brawlers’ hockey.”

“Watson’s known for his no-nonsense, workmanlike playing style as well his cool head, and he has great hockey IQ. And speaking of hockey smarts, another player known for amazing knowledge of the game is Brawlers’ goaltender—and, small world, Watson’s countryman from Merry Old England—Sherlock Holmes, who is showing up every game throughout the long playoff run, and certainly in this final series, shutting down opponents’ scoring opportunities in a way that I’m tempted to describe as preternatural.”

“It does sometimes seem like Holmes must be getting divine messages ahead of every shot on his net, as his lowest-in-the-league Goals Against average of 1.93—and close to a 92 save percentage—proves Holmes has a truly unique talent in goal. Keeps his cool, Jack, always very settled and calm, and for a guy who’s technically not very big as goaltenders go, at six-one, one-seventy, Holmes can get big as a house to defend the net, making save after save in the clutch.”

“That he does, Brick. Who can forget the game at Milwaukee, back in March, when Holmes made sixty-four saves in sixty regulation minutes and let not a single Muskies puck get by him? And as you at home can probably guess from the absolutely deafening cheers here in the Boston Garden, the players have taken the ice; we’ll take a break and then it’s right back here for a scenario that fans—and probably players and coaches—both dream of, and dread. Sixty minutes. Three periods of play. One Game Seven to decide it all. When we come back, two options for the Brawlers and the Shock: Do, or die.”

 

Ten Months Earlier
August, Brawlers’ Training Camp

“Get at it, then. Three. Two. One. . .Go.” The conditioning coach, Bobby Whitehouse, blew his whistle and half the players burst across the line, sprinting up and down the gym, dipping down to tap the line on the floor at each end. “If you need to puke, use the buckets!” he scolded, perhaps noticing a telltale look of panic in the eyes of some of the players. John’s group was at the sidelines, some doubled over and heaving to catch their breath. John walked it off, pacing and kicking to stretch his legs. He’d given up wiping away the sweat—it was pouring off him everywhere, stinging his eyes, trickling in the small of his back. He sized up the other group as they did their shuttle runs.

Sherlock Holmes was quick as fuck, all lean, no bulk, with most of his not-terribly-impressive height stored in his miles-long legs. The best goalie in the league, two-time Vezina Trophy winner, Holmes was coming off his career-best season and through training camp looked as good as ever he had. John knew his job as a first-line defenseman would be markedly easier in front of such a talented goaltender. Thomas Gerhardt, in the lane beside Holmes, was his physical compliment, sturdily muscular like a Hollywood action hero. John had always admired Gerhardt’s playing, good workmanlike stuff, nothing fancy, and he put the puck in the net like a machine. Stripped down to his skivvies (most were wearing only the tight boxer-briefs they wore under their uniforms, stretchy exercise shorts, or basketball shorts), John found his eye repeatedly caught by a body so improbably close to ideal.

John cleared his throat and shifted his gaze. There were a couple of kids—Taylor Sawyer, 19, a showboat/scoring machine fresh from his high school team; and Corey Hatch, a good Christian boy of about 22 with a hometown wife and a baby already on the way, who’d played two years on the farm team after two in college in far western Canada—both of whom consistently embodied their playing styles even off-ice. Sawyer tried to accomplish a lot with minimal expense of effort, embellishing where possible, while Hatch was eager to please, genuinely thrilled to be there and willing to give up whatever was necessary to make sure the team advanced; he had enormous hockey smarts, the instinctual sort that couldn’t be taught. John figured Hatch would have a long career, probably Hall of Fame caliber, provided he didn’t get hurt or get moved up too fast. Sawyer seemed the type more likely to end up getting a DUI in the off-season and whose initial bright promise would be burnt out in a matter of a few years.

Jake Mellon was an archetypal Boston Brawler on ice—head down, working, always ready to drop gloves or take a hit to make a play—and every lap of his shuttle run was punctuated with screamed obscenities, grunting, growling, and wordless roars of fury. It was wasted energy, of course—without it he’d probably have gotten through the ordeal quicker, but it put some needed aggression into the air and seemed to drive the rest of the players on; John had to credit it.

The whistle blew and the runners pulled up, walking it off, clutching their guts, grimacing. A few collapsed to the gym floor. At once, another long shrill of the conditioning coach’s whistle.

“Awright, boys, that’s it for today. Final roster’s going to be posted in about an hour, so shower up then head to the team meeting room and Coach Lestrade will talk to you. Dom Crisafulli, maybe Haber, too, if he’s around,”  Whitehouse told them, naming the team’s general manager and the club’s president. “Whatever the roster says in the end remember you’re all part of Brawlers hockey, up here in Boston or down in Bridgeport. You’ve done some wicked work during camp—new guys and veterans both—and whatever way it shakes out, we’re gonna have a great team and a great season. Those of you who think you’re off the hook and won’t have to deal with me again, think again—I’m running training down in Bridgeport twice a week.”

“Aww, fuck, I quit!” someone called out—Chris Sullivan, a six-year Brawlers vet and a notorious joker with a dry sense of humour.

“Eh, Watson, who do you like?” Another veteran player—Pietr Kocur, a six-foot, seven-inch monster, the veteran defenseman close to John’s age, who’d been playing in a Brawlers sweater since they’d drafted him out of the European leagues when he was just 20—surveyed the guys in camp who still had question marks beside their names.

“Hammel looks good to stay,” John replied. “Sawyer’s a whiz kid but I don’t know about chemistry.”

“Agreed. I like Siven on the D.”

“Yeah, the scrimmages were good and he takes correction pretty well.”

“Holmesy’s not a fan.”

“Holmesy needs to mind himself upstairs and not worry too much about what’s going on in front of him,” John replied. Holmes was a save-making machine, reliably stopping almost everything that came at him as easily as if they’d texted him the list of shots ahead of the practice, but when he did let one by, it was almost always going in over his left shoulder.

“Anyway, guess we’ll know soon enough,” Kocur said, and bent to snatch his sweat-soaked t-shirt off the floor, then headed for the showers. Men started drifting en masse past John, exchanging fives and casual praise. As a pair of the youngest ones passed, John overheard their not-at-all-subtle conversation.

“So many old guys on this team. Kocur and Watson are, what, like forty?”

John was thirty-seven. He cleared his throat.

“Watson was a pity trade; the Thrashers are shit again this year and the league wants to give him a chance at the Cup before he retires.”

“Or dies!”

John had been working a towel against his neck for so long it was beginning to hurt. “I’ve no plans to die,” he piped up, following behind the younger players. “Nor to retire. I do have a plan to get the Cup, and if either of you is still here in an hour, I hope you’ll have the same plan.”

The prospects looked chagrined.

“’S’all right,” he assured them. “It’s true, I’m getting old. And maybe I did get moved here so I can get a championship—if that was the reason, no one said it to me—but let an old guy give you some advice—careful how you talk out loud about fellas you might want to buy beer for you, a few months down the road.”

 

“OK, boys, listen up just a couple more minutes for some final business, then you’re free ‘til ten tomorrow morning.” Head coach Greg Lestrade was the last of the bigwigs to speak to the team, following pep talks and we’re going all the way encouragements from the GM, team president, and the talent scout. “Look, I won’t repeat what’s already been said; I promise I’ll have plenty to say to you as time goes on. So for now I’ll just say that I think we’ve got a really well-balanced team, and we’re set up to have a really successful season. Now, we’re going to step out so you all can have your vote for team captain.” One of the assistant coaches started dealing out scraps of paper and a handful of pens. “Bring them out when you’re through and I’ll count them up.”

By the time Lestrade, the assistant coaches, and the suits had left the room, almost all twenty players who’d made the final roster were already folding their slips of paper. Sullivan collected them in his upturned ball cap. There was some chatter, some laughter, a lot of knowing looks. Holmes sat on a table pushed against the wall beside the door, and was the last to toss in his ballot. Sullivan pulled open the door and passed the hat to the coach.

“That was quick,” Lestrade commented, mugging, as he returned a few minutes later with the stack of paper scraps in one hand. He tossed Sullivan’s cap to him over the heads of the other men. “Take that; it stinks.” There was a ripple of laughter. “No surprise to you, I’m sure, your new captain by a vote of 19 to 1 is John Watson. Excellent choice.”

There were whoops and applause, and John looked appropriately humble. Lestrade motioned for him to step forward and speak.

“Yeah, thanks, thanks,” John said, taking a spot at the front of the room. “We’ve got an amazing group here. This level of talent is a ticket to the finals, so let’s focus on working hard, staying healthy, playing Brawlers hockey. Just a couple things I’ll put out there right from the start. First of all, captain’s practices are optional, in the sense that they are mandatory.”

There was scattered laughter.

“I promise they’re nothing near as bad as what we’ve been put through these past couple weeks. I’ve only had two men vomit. And only one died.” John grinned. “Maybe you know this about me from my time as captain of the Thrashers, but one thing I don’t fuck around about is off-hours behaviour. Whatever nightclub you’ve got a VIP table on standby, call and cancel it. You’re not about that.”

Sullivan pulled out his phone. “I’m group-texting bottle service girls all over town, Cap, hang on.”

“Yeah, I’d heard as much,” John joked back. “They’re only into you for your money, Sully.”

“You’re breaking my heart!”

“If you’ve got a free day, you’re at Children’s hospital or the like. Charity appearances are going to be your second job. I want the Brawlers to contribute more time and more money to causes than any other team in the league this year. The player who clocks the most hours gets a donation of five grand from me to whatever charity you like. All right?”

There were general noises of agreement.

“We’re twenty lucky fucking bastards; I aim to make sure we don’t forget it.” John crossed his arms over his chest. “The last thing I want to let you know is this: Every woman in or near this organization is my sister.” He raised an eyebrow. “You get what I’m saying? And they’re yours, too. The girls in the office are all Kocur’s sisters. That new rink-side reporter from BSN, Molly Hooper—she’s Gerhardt’s sister. Take a look at that big bastard; do you want to face the consequences of fucking that bloke’s sister? Of course not.”

“So, what, like. . .” Sawyer piped up. “Even the ice girls?”

“Especially the ice girls. The ice girls are your sisters, and mine, and Hatch’s and Mellon’s. You think Mellon wouldn’t break your nose if you tried to get with his sister?”

“I would actually murder you, Saws,” Mellon piped up. “You frickin’ pencil neck.”

John gestured with an upturned palm, “See? Mellon would murder you. So, in short, we don’t chat up, date, fuck, or even marry our sisters. Is that clear?”

The group grumbled its acquiescence.

“Excellent. Trust me, you’ll be more focused with that off the table. All right, that’s all I have for today. See you all tomorrow, and really, thanks again. I’ll do my best not to let you down.”

Thus dismissed, the players began to gather their things and filter out of the conference room, bringing to a close their first day as that season’s Boston Brawlers. John accepted some handshakes and slaps on the back as he returned to his chair, dragged his bag up onto it and began rummaging for his water bottle.

“I’m not free for captain’s practices,” came a deep voice from close behind him. He turned to find Sherlock, whose approach he hadn’t even noticed.

“I think I just said they’re mandatory,” John retorted, exaggeratedly frowning as if scanning his memory for an error he may have made.

“Yes, it was an excellent speech. Nevertheless, I’m not free.”

“Guess we’ll see,” John said, tilting his head and raising his eyebrows.

“You have your work cut out for you, keeping cohesion in this group—the vets respect you but some of them have been here much longer and are almost certainly wondering how a player only traded here in July is going to prove himself as captain; the Brawlers’ ethic is much different to Hamilton’s—it’s a completely different culture here. The younger players have all the usual hallmarks—think they know it all, each one used to being the star wherever he came from and unlikely to easily adjust to being low man, some of them never even having lived away from home before. They’re like fledglings pushed from the nest, cute balls of fluff who don’t have a clue how to manage their calendars, their alcohol intake, their finances, or their teenaged libidos. I don’t envy you.”

“I was Thrashers captain for seven seasons; I’ve been through all this stuff before,” John told him, not rising to the bait. Holmes was legendarily quirky: smart as a whip and equally capable of delivering a sting. He was grudgingly acknowledged to be the league’s best goalie, the player with the highest hockey IQ, and innately talented, but even as people praised him, they generally finished the sentiment with something along the lines of, . . .but what an arsehole. He was prickly and unfriendly, arrogant (though arguably he’d earned the right to be), and dismissive. He was no Miss Congeniality. John shrugged and assured him, “I’ll be all right.”

Sherlock hummed skeptically. “You’re thinking this is your last season,” he commented, eyes narrowing, scrutinizing John as though he were a questionable bit of something  Sherlock had found floating in his drink.

“Nope,” John replied instantly, with a firm shake of his head. He shouldered his bag, ready to move on from the conversation, which was starting to stink of sour grapes, though he couldn’t imagine why. He and Holmes had barely exchanged ten words all through training camp, and four of those were used up introducing themselves. “I’ve no retirement plans.”

“It seems a strange move for a man who’s played over a thousand of his fourteen-hundred, fify-six games in Hamilton, Ontario, to suddenly want to make a move to another team,” Sherlock said. “Unless he’s making a last run at a championship.”

“I’ve been making a run at the championship for eighteen years.”

“Ah,” was Sherlock’s only response.

John twigged suddenly. “Nineteen to one,” he mused, and widened his eyes disbelievingly at Sherlock. “You’re the one who voted against me.”

Sherlock touched the side of his nose. “You’ve found me out,” he said coolly.

“Who did you vote for, then?” John reached into the pocket of his track pants, to fish out the little stack of papers. He started sifting through them. Watson, Watson, Watson. . .Watson. . . At last he found the dissenting ballot. “You voted for yourself?”

“I always vote for myself.”

“There hasn’t been a goalie captain since the 1940s,” John protested.

“I voted my conscience; I’d be an excellent captain.”

“It’s against league rules!”

Sherlock said nothing, only went on staring at John for a moment, as John shook his head, chuckling, and tucked the slips of paper back in his pocket. “By the way, I noticed an interesting omission from your speech,” Sherlock said at last, as if the previous exchange had not happened. By this time they were the last two men left in the meeting room.

“Oh?” John prompted. “What was that, then?”

“You didn’t forbid fucking our teammates’ brothers.”

John cleared his throat, shifted his weight and glanced at the floor. As he was about to go along with the joke, telling Sherlock that gay shit didn’t even need talking about, he caught Sherlock’s eyes and what he saw there was something glinting and playful, but not exactly the joke John had imagined him to be making. Sherlock arched one eyebrow, said nothing. John cleared his throat again.

“Well, thanks for the feedback. I can see you think you have me all figured out,” John said, squaring his shoulders. “But you’ve got it all wrong.” He quickly added, “About my retirement plans, and about my ability to lead the team.”

Sherlock showed his palms in false surrender. “All right.”

John offered his hand and Sherlock shook it. “See you at practice,” John told him, and retreated quickly out the door and down the corridor toward the lifts.