Normally Alexei liked interviews. In fact, normally Alexei Mashkov *loved* interviews. He knew the fans liked his mangled English, but every interview was actually a chance to practice and improve his language skills. Watching American TV and talking about hockey were not enough to make a man fluent in a third language.
So he was happy to play the big dumb oaf for the cameras, because he was a big dumb oaf, an olux , entertain the fans, watch his interviews later and look up words he wasn't clear on and practice better ways to say what he had meant.
Alexei was not, however, very happy to be told that he was going to have to say something to interviewers about Jack Zimmerman playing on his team, now that Jack had "come out" as bisexual.
("Closet? Where is closet? What closet?" The metaphor did not exist in Russian.)
"Why is an issue?" he asked George. "I think America was better than Russia. President Obama not call gays bad names like Putin."
George face-palmed (Thirdy had taught him that expression. Useful!). "Unfortunately, it's still an issue for some people, and for some sports fans." She looked at him over folded hands. "It's not a problem for you, is it, Alexei?"
"No! What, you think Jack looking at me in showers? I'm not think I'm his type."
He grinned and was happy that his assistant GM grinned back. "No, I don't think that. Some people will think that, though, which is why I want you to be prepared to tell them otherwise."
The next time he had a moment to talk to Zimmermann, he grabbed him in a hug, pounded him on the back, and said, "You got good taste in boyfriend, Zimmboni. Just not eat too many pies, eh? Watch diet plan, save some for your teammates."
Zimmermann blushed, stammered, and managed to say, "Thanks, Tater. That means a lot to me."
Truthfully, Alexei had almost forgotten about the issue--not forgotten that Jack had a boyfriend, since Bitty was spending more and more time around the team, but forgotten that he might have to have an official opinion about it--until the Men's Health interview.
George told the team that the article was going to focus on diet and workouts for hockey players. It didn't seem strange that the people from the magazine spent a lot of time taking pictures and video of optional skate and team practice, even if he didn't think watching them skate suicide drills or play three-on-three would be very interesting, compared to seeing an actual game. He did think it was strange that the writer and the photographer wanted footage of the showers and the locker room. The writer, a thin and stringy fellow with limp blond hair and a nervous laugh, asked questions of Guy, Marty, and Thirdy in the locker room, but didn't get around to Alexei until his workout time the next day.
"So how does it feel to be playing with the NHL's first openly gay hockey player?"
Alexei, feeling sweatier than he wanted to for an interview that wasn't immediately post-game, narrowed his eyes at the voice recorder in the writer's hand. "Zimmermann not gay. He is bisexual." He enunciated the words carefully.
"Are you at all uncomfortable in the locker room, knowing you're around a man who finds other men sexually attractive?"
Alexei laughed, which made the writer look so dismayed that he wanted to laugh more. "Believe me, before game, no one is thinking about who is attractive, only about hockey. After game, no one is thinking about anything except shower, except maybe Zimmboni. He think about next game already. That's why he is good scorer."
"Have you met Jack Zimmermann's boyfriend?"
"Yes, many times. He is also hockey player in college. And very good baker." And you're not getting any of Bittle's pies, he added to himself. Not even the leftovers.
"Does it make a difference, playing with an openly gay man?"
Alexei had never felt more frustrated by his still-limited English. "Is make no difference in how he play," he said, trying not to substitute volume for nuance. "Is make no difference in how I play. Two weeks ago, I'm not know Jack has boyfriend, think he has girlfriend because I see he's happy, yes? Now I know is boyfriend, is same person who bakes good pies. Is Jack playing different now? No. Zimmboni is great hockey player. Any team should be proud to have him."
He folded his arms over his chest, then unfolded them, shaking himself a little, when the writer took a step back as if Alexei might punch him. He was getting close to the point where he would drop his gloves on the ice, but this little shit was not another athlete; he would be as weak as a child compared to Alexei.
"I am from Russia, you know?" He told himself he was talking to a stupid child and softened his voice. "Russia is very bad country right now for people not 100% heterosexual. Government is very, very--" he searched for the word and was not interrupted-- "repressive. I am glad to play hockey in America because is better, for everyone. I will always have girlfriend, but I am happy for Jack having boyfriend. Other people's happy does not hurt me. It makes me happy."
The writer did not have much to say after that. Alexei took a cooling shower and called the little shit a stream of Russian insults, many of which implied that he was actually a homosexual, a prostitute, and the illegitimate son of three generations of prostitutes. After that he felt better and ate a slice of cherry pie left from Bitty's last donation to the team.
There were still over fifty more games in the season, so Alexei forgot about the Men's Health interview pretty quickly. A few months went by, and then he was enjoying a rare day off when he got a text from Zimmermann. Mind if Bittle and I stop by for a quick visit?
No prob , he replied. Bittle and his pie always welcome to me.
When Jack's little baker rushed in Alexei's condo's door, he wasn't carrying a pie in his mittened hands. He was carrying a copy of Men's Health, with a shirtless Zimmermann on the cover.
"I don't want to take up all your time, Mr. Mashkov, but I was wondering if, oh lord, I feel like such a fanboy! If you wouldn't mind autographing this for me."
Big brown eyes alight, Bittle opened the magazine to a spot he had marked. Alexei saw his own face on the page, serious, his shoulders bared by a tank top, the gleam of sweat on his throat. Below the photograph were his words from the interview: "Other people's happy does not hurt me. It makes me happy."
"Gladly I will sign it, but you must be calling me Tater. You are like team-mate."