Tito didn’t quite know when it had happened. In fact, he was probably in love with Mat for much longer than he even knew, but that was no surprise. Mat was like a magnet, people couldn’t help but be drawn to him. It was something that happened subconsciously, Mat attracted people without realizing it. Probably from the time Mat had greeted him in French by saying “Bon Matin,” Tito loved him. He didn’t know it at the time, but looking back it was so obvious that Mat would be the person that Tito could spend his life chasing after.
Of course, back then, when they were fifteen or sixteen, things were so much simpler. Mat was some kid that Tito would see a few times a year. They were just two kids who dreamed about making the NHL, a dream that seemed unlikely but nevertheless they held out hope. This was the hope that made Tito focus. If making the NHL was the end goal then Tito was okay with sacrificing things in the present. The ache of missing his brother’s birthday while on a road trip or the homesickness that came while in Shawinigan would all seem worth it once he made the NHL. Making the pros didn’t come without sacrifices, Tito knew that so all the crushes that came and went after never being acted on seemed trivial. Then again, all those crushes that came and went weren’t Mat.
Ever since Ivan Hinkla, Mat was a constant in Tito’s life. At first, they’d texted occasionally. Mat wrote to him in French and always had helped out bridging the language barrier between the quebecois and the other Canadians on the team. But the universe kept bringing them back together for World Juniors. Slowly, Mat evolved from being a good hockey friend to being a good friend. They’d won Ivan Hlinka, but since then, they hadn’t won together. He’d hated the feeling of third place in the World Juniors. He was used to losing, but even after all these years, the feeling never really went away. Mat hated losing too, but he didn’t internalize it in the same way that Tito did. Besides, Mat had racked up twelve points in the tournament, he had a performance to be proud of. Tito, well, he went home and spent hours shooting at the practice goal at his billet parents’s house.
Every time that he was put on a team with Mat the feelings that he buried in between tournaments resurfaced. Mat was an intangible, a question mark that Tito didn’t have an answer for, but every time he returned home from seeing Mat, he buried his feelings again. Acting on those feelings, if he ever did, could be shelved. There was no sense of urgency to act on them. Mat was on the other side of the country for most of the year and their friendship survived on Snapchats and video calls, that was enough.
But then the draft happened. Tito didn’t believe in signs. He wasn’t particularly superstitious either, but if he was, surely being drafted 16th and 28th overall by the same team was a sign. He had expected Mat’s name to be called earlier and even though Mat hadn’t said anything, Tito was certain that Mat had expected to be drafted higher. The past year hadn’t been fair. Mat’s injury had stalled his progress and Tito had felt helpless after getting pics of Mat resting while his teammates were away on trips. He couldn’t do anything to speed up Mat’s recovery and the fact that he was able to play while Mat couldn’t didn’t seem fair. But as Tito heard his name called 28th overall, he wondered if it had all happened for a reason. If Mat had been healthy, he would have been picked sooner. Tito knew how talented Mat was, he knew the scouts knew how talented Mat was and he knew the Islanders had made a good choice. Tito had put on the jersey and the snapback that they’d tossed at him and made his way to the press conference where journalists were busy covering the draft. Tito was shepherded through the questions, offering pre-prepared answers and hoping that he didn’t forget any English words.
“How does it feel that Mat Barzal has also been drafted by the New York Islanders?”
“I’m excited. Mat’s a good friend of mine. We’ve played together before, and I’m excited that we’ll be playing together and, uh, hopefully bringing a cup to New York.”
By the time that Tito was allowed to return to his hotel room, he was exhausted but happy.
Are you still up? Mat texted.
I don’t know if I can sleep . Tito replied.
I’m coming over.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, there was a knock on the hotel door. Tito opened the door and Mat barged in. “I’m so excited,” Mat said, pulling Tito in for a hug.
Tito staggered back but tightened his grip on Mat, “Me too. I didn’t think…”
“Fuck, I can’t believe it, we’re going to New York together. We’re gonna win a cup together, you know,” Mat said.
Tito wanted to ask how Mat could possibly promise that, but Mat’s enthusiasm was so bright that Tito didn’t dare question it. He smiled and Mat sat on the bed already pulling up some tourist destinations near the Barclay Center and making hypothetical plans. Tito sat back against the headrest and looked at the pictures that Mat was showing him. Mat was taking a lot for granted, that they’d both be healthy, that the contracts would work out, that they’d stay up, but Tito was excited. He knew though, as he listened to Mat talk about the plans for the future that his pesky feelings that he’d tried so hard to push aside would be resurrected. He could hide them for a few weeks every year when they played on the same team, but being on the same professional team was different. He knew that he was in trouble. He also knew that he would always need Mat more than Mat needed him. But for that moment, he allowed himself to bask in the excitement of being drafted together. Everything else could be put on pause.