The first time Sidney met Jack Zimmermann, it was mid July and he was sitting at the kitchen table of his parent’s house in Montreal. Jack was only a few years younger than him, three (?) Sidney thought, trying to do the math in his head. But watching him speak on the phone, sounding soft and concerned and speaking slowly in English, Jack seemed decades older than his 23 years.
Sidney had been at Bob’s house before, and met him many other times, and heard plenty from him about his son. But Sidney realised, watching Jack brow furrow, his face turned slightly away, that he could have never prepared himself for the weight of Jack’s aura, the cloud he carried with him.
“Okay. Yes, thank you Mr. Bittle. You too,” Jack said, putting his phone down on the table top, covering his mouth with his hand as a heavy sigh shuddered out of him.
“That sounded serious,” Sidney said, and Jack’s head jerked up suddenly. “Uh, your gate guard let me in. I’m Sid. Sidney.”
“I’m sorry, who?” Jack asked, but there was a telltale smirk on his face as he stood up, extending his arm to shake Sidney’s hand. He’d been told before that Jack Zimmermann was not funny, he was serious, and hard to be around. But Sidney liked him already. “Nice to finally meet you,” Jack said, politely. He was smiling, despite the obvious strain around his eyes.
“T’es ici pour voir mon père?”
“Yeah,” Sidney replied, nodding, “Was just in the area… thought I’d stop by.”
“Can I get you anything?” Jack asked. “A drink? We have coffee, water, Gatorade—”
“Water’s great,” Sidney sat down on the table, watching Jack cross the kitchen to the refrigerator and take out two bottles of water. As he sat back down, he slid the bottle back across the table to Sidney, who took it gratefully.
“I hear you’re doing well in college. Your hockey team…” Sidney trailed off, taking a drink just to have something to do. Jack nodded, seeming a bit hesitant. Sidney waited, but didn’t press him to speak on the matter.
“It was going well.”
Sidney hummed, and waited some more.
“I— I think I messed up,” Jack said, his mouth pulling down into a frown.
“Because you didn’t make it to the championships?” Sidney asked, a little confused. Sure, Jack would feel bad that his team didn’t win, and Sidney understood that; every year in the Stanley Cup, twenty-nine teams lost and only one won. To be a captain — to even participate — you had to fight, but also had to be prepared to understand that the odds were not always in your favour.
“No,” Jack said, although his tone showed his true disappointment. “No, I… I decided to run a risky play. One of the guys got hurt… a concussion.”
Sidney winced automatically. Just the word concussion alone set him on edge.
“He should be back skating next month,” Jack went on, “And last time I saw him he seemed… perfect .”
“You still feel guilty,” Sidney finished for him, eying Jack’s nervous hands as they spread out on the tabletop.
“We got knocked out next round anyway, so it didn’t even matter that’d we’d done the play. And Bittle got hurt for no reason… I just got off the phone with his father. Just checking in. Said he’s doing fine, but the guilt always comes back when I think about it.”
Sidney smiled. He couldn’t help it.
“Sign of a good captain there, Jack. You care deeply about your teammates.”
“He’s... so small,” Jack said, almost as if he were speaking to himself. “I worry.”
“Protein,” Sidney said, and Jack snorted as he lifted his bottle to his mouth to take a long drink from it. Moments later Bad Bob himself walked into the kitchen, shucking his jacket, looking surprised as he spotted Sidney at the table. A slow smile spread across his face.
“Crosby,” he said, “A pleasant surprise.”
“Bobby,” Sidney grinned, standing up. Jack watched with an easy grin on his face as the two men hugged, and Sidney dropped back down into the seat at the kitchen table. Bob grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and joined them. “J’paissais par là. J’me suis dit que j’allais visiter un vieil ami.”
“J’suis pas si vieux,” Bob replied jovially. "And your accent is still awful." Jack was checking his phone under the table, smiling down at it as Bob turned to him.
“Hope you’ve been hospitable, Jack,” Bob said, and Jack looked up, quirking an eyebrow.
“Papa. C’est Sidney Crosby . Évidemment.”
It was still strange to hear anyone say his name that way, let alone to hear Jack Zimmermann say it. Sidney knew that in the past there had never been a good time for an introduction; Jack had his troubles and Sidney had his duties and neither of them really had much in the way of time. But Mario spoke fondly of Jack, and Sidney couldn’t help but feel as if maybe he already knew Jack. And maybe Jack felt similarly; it hadn’t gone over Sidney’s head, the way Jack had opened up so quickly about his teammates, his guilt.
Bob patted Jack’s shoulder.
“Tu as parlé à Coach Bittle?”
Yeah, y dit, uh, y va bien. Bittle va bien.”
“T’as pas parlé à Eric?”
“Y’était pas à la maison. Maintenant oui, par contre,” Jack lifted his phone. “Excuse me.”
Jack got up to leave, his cheeks suddenly very pink under his father’s watchful eye. Sidney held out his hand, and Jack slapped it amiably as he passed by. At the sound of footsteps on the stairs, Bob sighed heavily.
“Clueless,” he breathed, and Sidney’s brow pinched in confusion.
“He seems to be doing quite well, actually,” he said, “And his team, well… Samwell was never known for their success, but they’ve been doing extremely well with Jack’s captaincy.”
Bob looked up, amusement sparkling in his eyes.
“Y’know, Sid… you are completely right,” he said, chuckling as he stood up. Sidney felt the change of topic coming from a mile away. “C’mon. I’ll show you the new boards I got in the rink.”
With Jack’s graduation coming up, Sidney had been sent to Massachusetts on Mario’s request to talk with him about possible signing opportunities. The world of hockey had been buzzing the last few months with the realisation that Jack Zimmermann of the Zimmermann Legacy was entering his final year of college before he’d undoubtedly return to the game. Sidney knew for sure that the Stars and the Aces were extremely interested, and there was even word of the Schooners trying their hand at capturing Jack’s attention. However the Penguins, Mario in particular, had a rapport with Jack rivalled only by the Habs, who were also very interested.
“Mario would have come,” Sidney began to explain, when they were already sitting down in the restaurant, “But I think he felt it would be less professional?”
Jack snorted, “We’re having tacos .”
“I said Mario felt it would be less professional,” Sidney joked. The waitress, looking pleased and jittery all at once and obviously recognising them both, took their orders promptly and disappeared again. “Anyway, they’re fancy tacos.”
It didn’t really feel like a business meeting. Once again, Sidney was struck by the way that he and Jack interacted, like they’d known each other for years, like they were on the same wavelength. Maybe they were. He couldn’t help but think that Jack would make an excellent addition to the Penguin’s lineup.
“I’ve watched some tapes of your Samwell games,” he said, “You all make a good team.”
Jack smiled fondly before cramming half a taco in his mouth, nodding his head in agreement.
“How’s that Bittle kid doing? After his concussion?” Sidney asked, and Jack suddenly looked incredibly determined to swallow his gigantic mouthful of ground beef all in one go.
“Well, good and bad,” Jack said, struggling with his food, “He’s terrified of getting checked. We started working through it last year but after his injury the fear’s come back twice as strong. We’re working on it again though. Nearly every morning.”
“You’re going one-on-one with him?”
“Yeah. He’s a great asset to the team when he’s not curled up on the ice,” Jack said, mildly. Sidney has seen Eric Bittle play, and he had to agree; Bittle was lightning fast on the ice, had determination and soft hands and a sharp eye. He was very good, but with Jack’s influence he could be great .
“So, you been thinking about your signing options?” Sidney asked, and he almost laughed at Jack’s obvious sigh.
“Listen… Sidney…” Jack started, and Sidney fought down a bout of giggles — he could sense was the beginnings of an ‘ it’s not you, it’s me…’ speech. “I’m glad it’s you talking to me today, because there’s no way I’d be able to tell Mario that I don’t want to play for the Pens.”
“Can’t say I’m not a little hurt, but ok,” Sidney said, smiling.
“It’s not you,” Jack replied, and Sidney really did laugh that time, nodding in understanding. “It’s just, I’ve spent four years at Samwell, and it’s hard to imagine going too far from my friends. I really do want to stay nearby.”
“So, you thinking Bruins? Falconers?”
“I mean… not the Bruins, no,” Jack said, nose wrinkling just a touch, and Sidney snorted a little as he took a sip from his glass. So, the Falconers, he thought.
“That’ll make your dad proud,” he said, and a strange little smile settled on Jack’s mouth.
“Maybe,” he said.
Bob Zimmermann was in Mario’s living room when Sidney stopped by in late Spring, his phone pressed to his ear.
“Tu vas acheter quoi? Un four?” Bob’s confused voice floated into the kitchen, and Sidney tried his best to promptly forget all his French and not to eavesdrop.
Mario said, “Jack signed with the Falconers.”
“I saw,” Sidney nodded. It’d been one of the news notifications on his phone this morning. “Not surprised.”
“J’te dis juste ça d’même, Jack, tu vivras même pas là l’année prochaine. Tu vivras même plus là le mois prochain …”
The next part of the conversation was hard to catch. Sidney, still trying not to eavesdrop (and failing), heard words like “Expensive” “Bonus” and “Eric,” which didn’t really make sense to him.
“Jack…tu sais que je te soutiens…” Bob said, sounding like he was getting closer to the kitchen. There was a long silence, followed by, “Et que ça sera toujours le cas.”
Moments later, Bob appeared in the kitchen, pushing his phone into the pocket of his jeans, shaking his head.
“My idiot son is buying an oven as a birthday present… for a teammate .”
Mario looked confused.
“Oh, for Bittle?” Sidney asked. He tried to keep more in touch with Jack these days, asking about his teammates, talking about the silly college things that went down in what Sidney learned they called ‘the Haus’.
“Yes, for Bittle,” Bob said, looking just as confused as Mario.
“Oh, that’s nice. He enjoys baking,” Sidney said, checking his phone where it buzzed against his thigh. Beau, who’d been hoping the Pens could nab Jack, had been sending him intermittent sad faces all day. “Eric will like that.”
At the stunned silence that followed, Sidney looked up again to find Bob staring at him.
“Criss,” Bob said. “Y sont les deux pareil, Mario.”
Sidney made it down to Providence for Jack’s 25th birthday. With the season coming up soon they were both busy, but Sidney figured that he could make the time. It wasn’t going to be a huge party but Jack had dropped a few familiar names to Sidney via text message. He was looking forward to meeting some of the Samwell team, most of all the elusive Eric Bittle.
Since Jack had started getting acquainted with the Falconers, Eric’s baking had become somewhat infamous with nutritionists and dieticians, and coveted by the players of the NHL. Jack had promised there would be pies at the party, which was more of a barbecue gathering really, and suddenly the RSPVs had flooded in.
As Sidney arrived at Jack’s townhouse, he could already hear commotion and laughter from inside, smell cooking meat on the balcony above. A very tall blond guy ( taller than Geno, nice, Sidney’s brain supplied) answered the door, a bottle of some kind of craft beer in his hand, and he kind of shuttered to a halt at the sight of Sidney Crosby standing in the door, before quickly recovering and ushering him inside.
“Bro. You’re late.”
“Traffic,” Sidney shrugged, amiably, taking the beer being shoved into his hand “Where’s the birthday boy, eh?”
“JACK,” the blond shouted, ‘GREET YOUR FUCKIN’ GUESTS.”
Jack’s head popped around the corner, a broad smile appearing on his lips.
“Sid,” he said, “You’ve already met Holster. Holtzy, Sidney.”
“I know who he is,” Holster said, smiling wryly. “I’m gonna find Bits. He’s gonna freak.”
“He’s grumbling at Seggy over the grill,” Jack said, fondly, and turns back to Sidney, “C’mon up to the terrace, I’ll get you a— oh, well you already have a beer. Ok well, the terrace is nice anyway. We’re all up there.”
Jack was chattier than usual, smiling wider, so Sidney guessed that he had a few drinks already. He looked good, ready for the season, his navy button-up stretched tight across bulked-up shoulders. Sidney realised he was looking forward to playing against the Falconers now that Jack was on the team.
The second floor of Jack’s house was a large open space with a balcony at each end. Sidney spotted several familiar faces as Jack lead him towards the balcony that faced out on his back garden rather than the street. A guy with a ponytail and a moustache appeared to press another beer into Jack’s hand, shouting excitedly and slapping Sidney’s shoulder when he noticed him.
“That’s Shitty,” Jack said, laughing as Shitty disappeared again into a group of NHLers, “He’s a law student.”
On the balcony, Tyler Seguin seemed to be in charge of the grill, but the small, irritated-looking blonde at his shoulder said otherwise.
“C’mon, Bittle,” Jack said, loudly, “He knows what he’s doing.”
“ Does he?” Eric Bittle replied, looking murderous.
“ Yes, ” Tyler insisted, but looked as though he was about to start laughing. Sidney was already laughing.
“Jack,” Eric said suddenly, his voice pitching high and shocked, “Sidney Crosby is behind you.”
“I know,” Jack said, his eyes locked on Eric, “He’s here for the party.”
“Goodness gracious,” Eric said softly, eyes round and cheeks flushed. He must have been drinking too.
“He didn’t get this flustered over me ,” Tyler grumbled, and flipped a steak as loudly as he could.
Later in the evening, Shitty the Law Student brought out a cake littered with candles and everyone began to sing, slightly drunk and off tune. A very pretty and very small girl (Lardo, Sidney thought they called her, but he wasn't sure he heard correctly) climbed onto Jack’s back to hold him still while the Samwell crew, and even some of the Falconers administered Jack’s twenty-five birthday kisses.
Jack was laughing so hard that tears sparkled in the corners of his eyes.
For kiss number twenty-four, Letang ran up and shoved one of Jack’s teammates out of the way to plant a big wet smacker on his cheek. Jack, still laughing didn’t even notice when Lardo tilted his head down for the final kiss. He kissed Eric on the mouth, making a noise of surprise, eyes going wide. But he didn’t pull away. He almost seemed to smile .
As they broke apart, Eric looking shellshocked and Jack grinning, Shitty pulled a party popper over their heads and one of Jack’s ex-teammates — Justin — cranked up the music.
The party started getting wilder after that, and Sidney managed to stick around for another hour before calling it a night and making his excuses.
Halfway back to the hotel the realisation hit.
He hadn’t gotten any pie.
The game had been a wild one right up to the very last minute of overtime, when the Pens and the Falcs — tied 3 to 3 — then went to a shootout.
It was a tense affair. The Falconers hadn’t started so great; Flower had managed to stop Fletcher’s puck after Beau had scored on their goalie, Berg. Geno skated up next, shooting the puck almost effortlessly into the net. Kelley from the Falcs scored next, but Conor Sheary’s attempt on their goalie was a loss, and the Falcs’ Jones scored on Flower making the shootout 2 all. Tanger went out next but Berg blocked his shot like it was nothing, and Sidney held his breath. If the Falconers got the next goal, it would be over. Jack skated out onto the ice to shoot.
Of course, the puck hit the back of the net. Sidney hadn’t expected anything else from Jack Zimmermann.
He was irritated by the loss, of course, but in the few months Jack had been with them, the Falconers were already showing promise, and he liked to see that from a team even if it wasn’t his own. (He’d prefer if it was his own, though.)
A huge celly of Falconers formed on the ice, and in the family section Sidney spotted Bob Zimmermann, and gave him a thumbs up, smiling when Alicia waved. Eric Bittle was sat next to her, wearing the Falconers blue-white-and-gold.
“Bet you entire bank balance, small blonde boy with Bad Bob is wear Zimmermann jersey,” Geno said, raising an eyebrow at Sidney as they made their way back to the visitor’s locker room.
“Of course he is,” Sidney replied, confused. “That’s Jack’s best friend.”
“Okay Sid ,” Geno mumbled. “Yes, looks very friend .”
“You ever think Geno sounds like the doge meme?” Beau asked.
“…I don’t even know what that means,” Sidney frowned.
Sidney wouldn’t call Kent Parson a friend of his, so he was a little surprised when Kent stumbled out into the hotel’s smoking area, and made a beeline for him in the back corner.
“Yo. Crosby,” Kent sat down heavily on the bench next to him, and kicked his feet up on the table, nearly toppling over a candle into the shrubbery. Sidney leaned forward to set it upright again before it rolled off the table.
“Parson,” he said, smiling.
“You’re missing the party,” Kent hummed, raising an eyebrow as he produced a brand new packet of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and starting to unravel the plastic packaging.
“Not much of a party person,” Sidney admitted, and Kent made a snorting sound, sliding one of the cigarettes between his lips and reaching for the candle he’d almost knocked over with his foot.
“D’you mind if I…?”
Sidney did mind. But, he was sitting in the smoking area… there were bound to be smokers.
“You know that’s bad for you,” he said, instead, and Kent fixed him with a dead stare as he lit his cigarette with the candle.
“Social smoker,” he said, at least having the courtesy to exhale away from Sidney, before slumping back on the bench, legs splayed in front of him. His tie was undone, his hair falling out of it’s careful, slicked back coherence from earlier in the night.
“It’s not very social out here,” Sidney pointed out. The patio was empty except for the two of them, “I’d say you’re a stress smoker.”
“Well fuck, you got me there,” Kent said, blandly, and Sidney struggled not to roll his eyes. “I saw some of your Penguins at the bar getting trashed, so why the hell are you out here?”
“I need an excuse to take a break from the party?”
“Uh, yeah , you do,” Kent said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. He puffed angrily on his cigarette.
“So what’s yours?” Sidney shot back, and Kent’s face fell, cigarette dangling dangerously from his mouth. A bit of ash fell from the cherry and onto the bench between his splayed legs.
“Okay,” Kent cleared his throat, “Okay, so, my ex is in there with this blonde guy — who, by the way, is really just a diluted version of me? He’s a latte, y’know, and I’m… an espresso. He’s milky , he’s like— milky and sweet, and pumpkin-y in the winter. And my ex is in there… looking at him like he’s the fucking sun and I can’t. I can’t be in there right now.”
“Milky,” Sidney said, and Kent angrily stubbed his cigarette out on the side of the bench, tossing the butt into the trash.
“Listen, if you knew the guy… you’d know he’s milky. And he doesn’t deserve Ja— he doesn’t deserve… my ex.”
Kent slid forward to the edge of the bench, staring down at his feet.
“Did you ?” Sidney asked, because Kent Parson was not his friend, so he didn’t have to be nice to him. Not really.
Kent’s head snapped up.
“Fuck you, Crosby.”
Kent stood up, to storm off, and there was a line of ash on the inside of his pant-leg. But Sidney didn’t tell him that.
There were a mishmash of players from various teams scattered around the Hotel’s dining room, drinking, laughing, bickering; a typical award ceremony after-party. Sidney stumbled upon Jack and Kris Letang sitting together at a table, speaking rapid Quebecois that Sid could only catch snippets of over Max Pacioretty’s laughter as he listened to—
“Eric Bittle,” Sidney beamed, and both Max and Eric turned to look up at him. Eric’s eyes went wide and bright.
“Sidney!” he beamed, “Sit down! Max, you don’t mind if I start the story again, do you? Darlin’, I promise you the end is worth it.”
Sidney sat down next to Eric as he launched into a story about… Frogs? Tadpoles? Who knows, because once Sidney caught sight of Jack, he really forgot to concentrate on what Eric was saying. Jack, although still deep in conversation with Tanger, couldn’t seem to keep his eyes off of Eric, following the enthusiastic, gesturing hands.
And then finally, Sid spotted Kent at the bar, brushing ash off his slacks and shooting a plaintive glance in their direction, so quickly that it might not have even happened.
And everything slid into place.
“ Oh ,” Sidney said, somewhat louder than he intended, because everyone at the table stopped to look at him. He could feel his cheeks suddenly getting hot, and cleared his throat. “Sorry. I, um, Eric, I interrupted you. I’m sorry.”
Jack was watching Sidney across the table, his face composed but his cheeks flushed, and Sidney knew the feeling well enough the recognise the subtle panic in Jack’s eyes. Sidney aimed for a reassuring smile, but wasn’t sure he quite nailed it when Jack’s eyes widened, and he forcefully turned around to launch back into conversation with Tanger.
It was late, close to the end of the night when Sidney finally found Jack retrieving his and Eric’s coats. It wasn’t uncommon to bring a friend to an event like this, and Sidney knew that Jack had felt safe showing up with Eric… and he now also understood the hard look on Jack’s face when he spotted Sidney coming towards him.
“Jack,” he said, once again aiming for warm and reassuring and then berating himself for missing the mark.
Jack took his jacket and slid it on, draping Eric’s over his arm. Eric was still in the dining hall, surrounded by a group of besotted players, wives and girlfriends. Everyone loved Eric, Sidney included, and he wondered how he had missed it before.
“Look,” Jack began sharply, “I don’t know what you think you know—”
“Jack,” Sidney said again, frowning as Jack plowed on anyway.
“—Bittle’s one of my best friends. He’s my best friend . And—”
“So go for it,” Sidney said, simply. Jack’s rant cut short, his eyes going wide. He looked around, quickly, and took Sidney’s arm, dragging him a little farther away from the coat check.
“Just… go for it. If you haven’t already, I mean… be with him.”
“Um” Jack said.
“You look at him like he’s the sun,” Sidney replied, and it sounded fucking stupid coming from him, but he suddenly understood what Parson had meant. “Like he’s too bright and too warm and you’ll never be able to touch him. But you’ll still sneak a glance every so often.”
“Oh god, okay, shut up,” Jack said, quickly, looking torn between laughing and crying. “I have to go. I have to get Eric, we have an early start to go back to Providence.”
“Sharing a hotel room?” Sidney asked, as casually as he could.
Jack was flushed again. “Yeah,” he said, shooting a glance towards the door into the dining hall.
“So, make the best of it,” Sidney shrugged, and tried his best not to smirk. He failed, guessing by the way Jack leaned forward and stood on Sid’s foot. Jack rolled his eyes and walked away, and Sidney stepped back into the hall just in time to see Jack draping Eric’s jacket over his shoulders and shaking him gently, playfully, out of his conversation with Nathalie Lemieux.
Jack steered Eric out of the building with an arm wrapped around his shoulders, an easy smile on his face and Eric leaning into his side.
“Eric give me pie,” Geno said, appearing seemingly out of nowhere and scaring the heck out of Sidney. He was holding a tumbler of vodka (probably) in one hand, and a white cake box in the other; it was cheerfully tied with a yellow ribbon. “I’m go eat in kitchen. Can come if you keep mouth shut.”
Sidney suppressed a laugh, unsure if Geno didn’t want to be seen eating an entire pie or just didn’t want to share with anyone except Sidney.
“Yeah, ok,” he said, because he still hadn’t tasted any of Eric’s baking, despite how the legend surrounding it just continued to grow.
The pie was amazing, so much so that Sidney ate at least twice what he originally planned, and would have continued to eat if Geno hadn’t taken the pie tin away from him, and sat down on the floor in the hotel kitchen to eat by himself.
“I’m hope we see Bittle again,” Geno said tiredly, as if he was too full to move, “Nice boy. Best pie.” The alcohol didn’t seem to have broken his English too badly, but it still made Sidney smile.
A text flashed up on the screen of his phone, left idly on the countertop next to the industrial sized oven. It’s a text from Jack, a single thumbs-up emoji.
“Yeah. I have a good feeling about it, G.”