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The History Bros

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Jack is on his way out the door, already pulling up his workout playlist for his warmup run to the gym, when he hears Ransom saying, “...five games in, they had to shut everything down because the entire Montreal Canadiens team got the plague. I’m not talking the sniffles here, okay, Bad Joe Hall died.”

“Jeez Louise. Bad Joe, Bad Bob--how many hockey players just stick ‘Bad’ in front of their names and call it a nickname? Y’all quit callin’ me Bitty, you hear, I’m Bad Bittle now.”

Jack drops his gym bag to investigate.

“Oh, hey, Jack!” Bitty’s sitting on the couch, carefully protected from the stained upholstery by a meticulously arranged pink-and-white quilt. “Ransom and Holster are teaching me about the history of the NHL.”

“He didn’t know what a Gordie Howe hat trick was.” Holster spreads his hands. “How this kid made an NCAA team...”

“By playing hockey,” Bitty grumps cheerfully.

Ransom shakes his head in despair. “We had to educate him right from the top.”

“So.” Jack folds his arms. “Instead of working on skills that might actually make you useful to our team right now, you’re dwelling on irrelevant things that happened a century ago..."

Bitty’s happy eyebrows start to wilt.

“...and you didn’t invite the history major?” Jack finishes, joining Bitty on the couch. “So you’re up to the 1919 finals--have you told him about how they used to switch back and forth between PCHA and NHL rules during the playoffs?”

The eyebrows are back in business. “Whaaat?”

“You boys aren’t qualified for this job,” Jack tells Ransom and Holster. “We’re starting over. So in 1875, under the Halifax Rules..."

*

They work through the origins of the Stanley Cup, early amateur versus professional controversies, nineteenth-century artificial ice technology, and the gameplay innovations of the Patrick brothers (which Ransom and Holster insist they’ve already covered, but Jack goes over it again just to be sure), and then Jack really does have to go to the gym.

He’s been talking for almost forty minutes straight, he realizes with a shock as he’s leaving. Bitty didn’t even want to learn about this in the first place; he must have been bored to death. Jack wishes, not for the first time, that he were better at picking up on those kinds of social cues in the moment. He’s fine when it’s just hockey bros, but Bitty...

Well, it’s unfair to think of Bitty any differently. He doesn’t talk or act like the rest of them, but then none of them are strictly typical hockey bros, and Bitty seems perfectly comfortable with the group. It’s not his fault that Jack can’t quite settle around him, that he gets quieter when Bitty’s around and gruffer when he talks at all.

Except, apparently, when it comes to combining hockey and history. Then he can’t shut his mouth.

He reaches up to take out his headphones after his workout and realizes he never put them in.

*

Jack is on his way to bring up another flat of Gatorade from the basement when he finds Bitty clutching his damp quilt and lecturing the beat-up old washing machine on the parameters of his expectations for the “delicate” setting. It seems like kind of a private moment. Jack tries to creep back up the stairs quietly, but Bitty spots him before he can escape.

“...not angry, I’m just disappoi--Jack!”

“Hey,” says Jack, coming back down. He might as well get his Gatorade now.

Bitty piles the quilt into a laundry basket. “Hey, you ran off so quick the other day I didn’t get a chance to say--”

“Sorry about that. I didn’t realize how much I was talking.” Jack hauls the Gatorade up to his shoulder and makes for the stairs.

Bitty trots after him with his laundry basket. “Goodness, don’t apologize! I wanted to say thank you. I learned so much, and it was just wonderful to see you all excited like that.”

Jack swallows his guilt. He already knew that he’s been more reserved around Bitty, but it’s still not pleasant to hear someone express surprise that he’s capable of enthusiasm. He silently resolves to try harder to relax.

“Well, we should talk to Ransom and Holster and figure out when we’re all free to do it again,” Bitty says firmly.

Jack pauses at the top of the stairs. “Wait, you want to do it again?”

“Of course.” Bitty closes the basement door behind him, hops up on a chair, and starts hanging his quilt on a clothesline strung high across the kitchen. “The NHL was barely even invented where we left off.”

Jack drops the flat of Gatorade on the floor next to the fridge, blinking up at the clothesline. How the hell long has that been there?

*

“The curse was broken in 1967, the last year of the Original Six.” Jack points to Bitty expectantly.

“Chicago Black Hawks, two words until 1986; Montreal Canadiens; New York Rangers; Boston Bruins; Detroit Red Wings; Toronto Maple Leafs,” Bitty dutifully recites.

Jack nods, satisfied. “So the Hawks finished the regular season at the top of the league and broke the Curse of Muldoon, and then the guy who originally published the story about the curse decades before that admitted he made it all up to meet a deadline.”

“Muldoon’s ghost made him say that,” puts in Ransom. “Take notes, Bits, the curse was real.”

Holster kicks him, dislodging Bitty’s quilt. Bitty squawks and fusses with it until the six-inch buffer between him and the bare couch cushion is restored. Jack rolls his eyes to hide a fond grin. Bitty and that stupid couch. Maybe if Jack signs an NHL contract he’ll buy the Haus a new one.

“So back then teams would just kinda hold onto the Cup for years and years, huh?” Bitty asks, examining the championship chart Ransom made.

“Dynasties, Bits.” Holster pounces on the chart with a highlighter and starts marking it up. “The Leafs, then the Wings through here--they didn’t win the Cup every year, but they finished the regular season top of the league for seven years straight--then the Habs until 1960, and then Toronto again.”

“Yeeeeaaaaah!” bellows Ransom helpfully.

Bitty holds up a finger. “Why are the Canadiens called the Habs?”

“Les Habitants,” says Jack. “That’s what early French settlers in Canada were called. Way back in the 1920s some reporter asked the founder of the Rangers what the H in Montreal’s logo stood for and he made that up. The H really stands for ‘hockey’.” He grins. “Trust a bunch of hockey players to be so original, eh?”

Everyone laughs, which almost never happens when Jack attempts to crack jokes. He’s having an unexpected amount of fun with this. The boys usually start drifting when he gets going on historical stuff, so it throws him off a little to see them all so interested.

They must have talked about hockey history before. It seems like an obvious topic of conversation. Jack tries to remember, and comes up with nothing. They talk about the current NHL a lot, but nothing too far in the past, nothing like this.

“Jack’s hockey history is way biased,” Holster tells Bitty. “Watch out or you’ll end up a Habs fan yourself.”

“Wait,” says Ransom. “Wait, does Bitty not have a team allegiance yet? Is he up for grabs?” He snatches Bitty’s arm, like the phrase is literal. Jack frowns. Bitty had better not end up rooting for Toronto. Leafs fans are not happy people.

“I’m a fan of whatever team Jack signs with,” Bitty declares. “Now come on, y’all, focus. Dynasties.” He waggles the chart.

Jack half-listens to Ransom trying to convince Bitty that a series of Cup wins in the 1960s is a good reason to swear allegiance to the blue and white (it is not) as he imagines Bitty wearing a Habs or a Falconers jersey with Jack’s name on the back. The unsettled feeling is gone, he realizes. That tension and worry he’s been carrying every time he’s around Bitty--somewhere between Frank Calder’s death and the Richard Riot, it disappeared. And in its absence, he suddenly knows what it was.

Bitty is gay. And Jack has been terrified all along that if he ever drops his guard then Bitty, who is gay, will be able to tell. About Jack.

Jack immediately slams the door on that thought. Hockey. There are people talking about hockey.

“Man, I wish I’d been there for that one,” Holster is saying. “Overtime in a Game 7 for the Cup? I bet that’s the only time that’s ever happened.”

“Wings did it twice,” Jack jumps in, desperate for something, anything else to think about. “1950 and 1954.”

“Clutch,” says Ransom admiringly.

“Funny story, actually,” Jack says. “The second time, they didn’t really win. Montreal scored in OT before Detroit did, but the puck bounced back out of the net and the refs didn’t catch it. Back then they didn’t have instant replay, so they just kept playing. Which means the Habs should actually have one more... uh. What?”

Ransom and Holster are staring slack-jawed at him. “How the fuck do you know?” Holster demands.

Ransom shakes his head. “I’ve never heard that. And I just did research on that game, bro. I take my Bitty-education duties very seriously.”

Jack wishes he hadn’t said anything, because this is about to get embarrassing. “Um. Brick Jones told me. When I was nine.”

“You are one thousand percent shitting us," says Ransom.

Bitty raises his hand like he’s in class. “Who’s Brick Jones?”

“Only one of the best goalies in Detroit’s history,” says Holster. “And an old pal of Jack’s, apparently.”

“My dad’s,” Jack mutters. He chooses not to disclose that he actually knew the man as Uncle Pat. “I’m sure he told that story in an interview or something at some point.”

“Oh yeah, he definitely said in public that one of Detroit’s Cup wins was bogus,” says Holster, nodding. “Sure. No, bro, he never said that to a reporter. Are you fucking serious with this?”

“Forget it,” says Jack. “Where are we on the, um..." He grabs for the chart Bitty’s holding.

“Dude,” says Ransom. “Dude. No, you gotta tell us this story. How did that even happen? Did he just randomly mention to a nine-year-old kid--”

“Hey,” Bitty snaps, and everyone shuts up in surprise, because Bitty never snaps. “Jack said forget it. So 1967 was the end of the Original Six era! What came after that?”

*

The anxiety is back. At practice, at dinner with the team, around the Haus--every time Jack sees Bitty when they’re not talking about forward passing and Jean Beliveau, it sets in. Even worse, now that he knows what it is. He tries to tell himself that it makes no sense, that Bitty won’t know about Jack if he doesn’t tell him, and even if he did, it would be fine. Bitty is one of the nicest people he’s ever met, and on top of that, he knows what it’s like. He wouldn’t go to the press, or to Jack’s dad. Jack knows that.

Astoundingly, throwing logic at the problem doesn’t work out too well.

But when they’re talking about the history of hockey, it’s just... not there. Jack feels secure, in control. He knows what he’s going to talk about, and Bitty’s questions never take him by surprise, and there is nothing about old-time hockey that’s going to give him away. It’s safe. He can relax.

They work their way through expansion, blue-line involvement in offensive production, violence in the ‘70s, Bill Masterton and the adoption of helmets, and the WHA. Putting it all together requires more concentration than Jack expected. He’s known all this stuff for a long time, but he picked it up in bits and pieces--he’s never thought about how Conn Smythe’s time as a prisoner of war might have affected his accomplishments in hockey, or really considered the relationship between the growing prevalence of enforcers and the progression of changes to regulation protective gear. It’s an interesting process, asking himself what’s important, what Bitty really needs to know.

They’re watching early Gretzky clips (because some things just can’t be explained in words) and talking about the collapse of the WHA when Shitty and Lardo wander in, lugging Lardo’s weight in burritos.

“...offered to play backgammon on the plane for Wayne Gretzky, like, just stuck the fucking Great One in the kitty and--Chipotle!” Ransom grabs at the air in the direction of the nearest bag of food. “Tell me you got guacamole, my king and queen.”

Lardo withholds her armful. “You get your burrito when I get my Venmo notif,” she announces to the room. Jack opens his mouth to ask what that means, and she adds, “Except Jack. You can pay me back in cash.” She offers him a burrito.

“What’s in it?” Jack asks, vaguely trying to figure out what everyone is doing with their phones so frantically.

“Protein with extra protein,” Lardo says. “And protein tomatoes on top. That’s seven bucks.”

Jack fishes some cash out of his wallet for Lardo and bites into the burrito, even though there is definitely no such thing as protein tomatoes. It has chicken and rice in it, at least, so it pretty much fits into his diet.

“So what’re you brahs up to?” asks Shitty through a mouthful of chips.

“They’re teaching me hockey history!” says Bitty brightly. “We’re up to 1979.”

“Oh yeah?” Shitty steps up onto the couch and perches on the back. “Pop quiz: when did women’s college hockey start happening?” He crosses his arms, unimpressed at all the blank stares. “No guesses? Ballpark decade?”

“Uh.” Bitty glances at Jack. “Did we cover that?”

“I bet he didn’t.” Shitty shoots Jack a disappointed look. “People think of hockey as a white-dude thing, but white dudes are not the only hockey players.”

Jack hates that look. He hates disappointing people. “We talked about Larry Kwong and Willie O’Ree,” he offers weakly. “I don’t really know much about the history of women’s hockey.”

“Why is that, you think?” Shitty asks. “Why don’t you know much about the history of women’s hockey, Jack? Don’t tell me you don’t enjoy women’s hockey, you almost cried during the women’s Olympic gold game.”

Jack did not almost cry during that game. He may have come close during the medal ceremony, when the comeback victory really sank in, but not during the game. “I don’t pay as much attention as I should, I guess,” he says awkwardly.

“Fucking right,” Shitty says. “And nobody else does either. That’s the first thing you gotta know about women’s hockey, Bits. The reason you don’t know about it isn’t that it’s not good, it’s that nobody’s paying any fucking attention.”

“So when did women’s college hockey start happening?” asks Jack.

Shitty leans forward with his elbows on his knees. “18-fucking-90s, man. Women’s hockey was way more of a thing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And they were good. When half the dudes were off getting killed in World War I, the men’s pro leagues considered signing female players.”

Jack didn’t know that. How did Jack not know that? He listens intently as Shitty tells them all about the Preston Rivulettes, the decline of the women’s game after World War II, and Abby Hoffman disguising herself as a boy in 1956. Jack did actually know the Abby Hoffman story, but he hadn’t realized there was so much history leading up to it. He’s going to have to do some research on this.

“And then in the ‘80s Canada made half an effort to tug its head out its maple-drippin’ ass and started up college hockey for women again. That’s where you were at, right?”

“Yep,” says Holster, practically gargling the last bite of his burrito. “We’re finally just about up to Jack’s dad!”

Jack’s stomach feels weird. There must have been something wrong with his burrito.

“There haven’t...” says Bitty, and bites his lip. “Have there been any... players who have come out? There haven’t, have there?”

He’s looking at Jack. It’s terrifying.

Slowly, Jack shakes his head. “Not yet.”

“Not cis male,” puts in Shitty. “Seriously, interrogate your fucking--” and Jack cares about this, he does, but Bitty is still looking at him, and Jack knows all too well what it feels like when he’s about to fall apart.

*

“Jack?”

Jack bites back the urge to say “I’m fine,” because he hasn’t been asked. He turns away from the hallway wall where he’s been resting his forehead. “Yeah.”

“Do you want to skip the part about your dad?” Bitty’s eyes are big and concerned. “This is just supposed to be for fun. I don’t want to make it rough on you.”

“Oh, don't worry, I’ve spent my whole life answering questions about my dad.” Jack smiles, and notices Bitty looking at his lips.

Jack opens his mouth a little to make sure he's not imagining things. Bitty keeps staring for a second before his glance startles away.

“I’m used to it,” Jack says, and holds on for dear life as his world quietly reforms around him.

*

They make it through the ‘80s, even though the ‘80s are Jack’s dad, and Jack’s dad isn’t history. He copes by repeatedly turning the discussion back to the Iron Curtain, which is definitely history. Fascinating history that they should all be paying a lot more attention to, in his opinion.

Eventually he gets fed up with all the questions about his famous connections and passes off lecturing duties to Ransom and Holster, who can mostly be trusted to get things right after their own birth year.

Jack goes upstairs, and lies down on his bed, and thinks about Uncle Pat.

He doesn’t remember what led up to that conversation about the missed goal. All he remembers is a sly grin and a whisper, not like an important secret, more like a snuck cookie. Jack never asked him about it again, barely thought about it except when people talked about how many times Montreal had won the Cup. The goal wasn’t called, didn’t count, so it didn’t seem important.

Ransom is right, now that he thinks about it. This would have been a big deal to a reporter. Uncle Pat must have never mentioned it to the press.

Jack thinks back with an adult’s perspective on all the dinners Uncle Pat used to show up to alone. He would sit by himself in a corner after the meal, watching everyone else chatting and laughing, and no one except Jack ever sat with him to talk. Uncharacteristically rude of his family in retrospect, come to think of it. On impulse, Jack calls his mother and asks her about it.

“I always got the sense that Pat wanted to be left alone,” she says thoughtfully. “I always checked in with him every once in a while, tried to make him feel welcome, but he just wanted to sit by himself.”

The poor guy must have been so annoyed with Jack for bothering him. “Why didn't you tell me to leave him alone?”

“Oh, I think you were the reason he came at all,” she says. “He loved you. He would have been a wonderful grandfather, but he never even had kids. He was always a loner. Goalies, you know. Strange guy. Very strange sense of humor.”

Jack remembers that, remembers Uncle Pat laughing at lots of things Jack didn’t understand, saying things that weren’t jokes like he thought they were. That was how he sounded when he told Jack about that goal--like he thought it was funny, and that Jack’s blunt incredulity was even funnier.

“I always wondered how you felt when he died,” says Maman. “You must have been nine or ten? You seemed all right, but you always were so quiet it was hard to tell.”

And that’s when Jack gets the joke.

*

Bitty wanders in ten minutes later, humming The Hockey Song. There’s a general Haus rule that if a door is open it doesn’t need to be knocked on. If it had been anyone else coming in, Jack would be wishing he’d closed it.

“Now they’re all just arguing about which NHL team is the best,” Bitty reports, rolling his eyes. “Nothing new on that syllabus, I’ve heard it all more times than I can shake a--Jack? Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Jack says, because he’s been asked.

Bitty perches on the bed next to him and pats his hand sympathetically. “I knew all that talk about your dad was getting to you. God knows I love those boys, but they don’t know when to leave well enough alone. You just tell me if you want some time to yourself, okay now?”

Jack doesn’t turn his hand over to grasp Bitty’s, but he gets close. It would be so easy to start talking, to tell Bitty everything he’s thinking about the 1954 Stanley Cup and his overdose and how completely ridiculous it suddenly is that history happens because of regular people deciding to do one thing instead of another. Bitty looks like he’s listening. He looks like he wants to listen.

Jack is sure now that for a decade and a half, he was the only person alive who knew about that goal noncall. If he’d died from those pills, it would have been gone with him. If he’d died, no one else would ever have known.

Jack slowly, gently, lets himself think about things no one else knows.

*

Hockey Shit With Ransom & Holster

clutch, adj. the quality of being able to reliably come through big in a tough situation.

A clutch player is one who performs well under high pressure. Goals can be clutch, as well as people who make a habit of scoring them. Overtime goals and game-tying goals scored late in regulation are most often described as clutch.

A team can also be clutch. Winning after coming back from a big deficit is clutch. Coming together as a team in an important game is clutch.

To be clutch, you have to be able to keep your cool. Don’t panic.

Just stay calm and make the play.

*

"Oh," says Bitty. He looks down at where his hand is resting on Jack's, like he's not sure whether he should leave it there. "Really?"

"I was worried that you could tell," Jack admits.

Bitty shakes his head. "If gaydar was a real thing, I'd have lost a lot less sleep over straight boys." He chuckles sheepishly and starts to move his hand off of Jack's.

Jack turns his hand palm-up, gently catching the tips of Bitty's fingers. Bitty stills.

Either they're going to kiss or not. One or the other. It will happen or it won't.

*

"My overdose opened up the gates for a conversation that a lot of people had been trying to have already, and forced the NHL to reevaluate its mental health and medication policies. And that movement is still ongoing. History isn't done." Jack tries to smile. "So, Bad Bittle, I think that just about catches you up to the rest of us."

He's seen Ransom and Holster individually speechless before, but never both at the same time. He smiles for real at their wide eyes. "Thanks for getting this started, boys. It's been fun."

"Thank you, Jack," says Bitty. "I feel like I understand half of what y'all are yellin' about in the locker room now. And the other half has to do with bodily fluids I'd rather not get to know."

"Well!" Jack claps his hands. "It's leg day, who hasn't hit the weight room yet?"

Ransom and Holster immediately disperse, muttering about homework. Bitty stands up, careful to avoid the brown splotch on the front of the couch. "I'm in," he says. "I spent too much time working up these glutes to let 'em wither away."

"Attaboy," says Jack, and spends his workout thinking about things that haven't happened.