It’s funny that, somehow, despite the success his team has seen every year, despite watching Jack and now Ransom and Holster head to the big leagues (and a few others to the farm teams or Europe), despite having been a starter with them for most of his career so far at Samwell, Eric “Bitty” Bittle is completely taken by surprise when he gets the first invite to a development camp for the summer between his junior and senior years. It’s from the Falconers, so at first he thinks it’s a fluke, a nice gesture to try and entice Jack to renew his contract (not that he’s considering otherwise) or maybe a PR stunt, “Hey look, we’ve got Zimmermann and his boyfriend”- which makes no sense since Jack isn’t out (management only know incase a tabloid somehow catches wind). He’s got class and practice, and Jack’s got practice and a PR event, so Bitty figure he’ll wait ‘til evening to call him- because even if it is legitimate it’s still something he needs to both gush about and get advice about, and he doesn’t really think it’s a text topic.
But then, as soon as he gets out of class, he gets another invite- this time from the Penguins and Jack’s “Uncle Mario”, who also knows about their relationship and has been trying to get Jack to move teams, so once again Bitty isn’t sure how seriously to take it. He starts taking the invites more seriously when, upon getting out of practice, he finds three more invites in is e-mail- the Habs, the Sharks (wouldn’t Chowder love that), and the Stars- none of whom have anyone who would know of his closer-than-just former-teammates tie to Jack. He’s floored, he has no idea how to react. Oddly enough for a DI men’s hockey player, he’s never even thought of the possibility of playing professionally- he’d dreamed of that level of success when he still figure skated, but for hockey? Never. He knows invites to development camps don’t necessarily lead to careers, but still… he needs to talk to Jack.
Just got out of practice. Call in 30 once I get dinner?
Eat more protein
Bitty rolls his eyes at Jack’s response as he quickly walks back to the Haus, which is empty when he gets there. Chowder is at his girlfriend’s, Lardo is at the studio, and Ransom and Holster are probably off doing schoolwork somewhere- no senioritis for either of them, despite the fact that their career plans don’t require their degrees. Too lazy to cook, he pulls his blender bottle out of the dishrack and the milk from the fridge and pours it in to the line. He adds a scoop of protein powder from the tub on the counter, screws the lid on the bottle and shakes to mix while he puts the milk away and grabs an apple from the fruit drawer. He sets it on the counter and takes a picture, which he texts to Jack.
Made it with milk, that enough protein for you?
He goes up to his room and opens skype on his computer. Jack calls as soon as he’s signed on.
“Haha,” Jack deadpans, eyeing the shake, then smiles fondly. “How was your day?”
Bitty pauses for a moment before answering, taking a swig of his shake to hide that he’s struggling to come up with an appropriate start to the conversation, “Surreal.”
Jacks eyebrows go up in surprise and he makes a wave with his hand, asking Bitty to elaborate.
“I got invitations in my e-mail today… to development camps.”
Jack doesn’t actually look surprised. Bitty notices.
“One of them was from the Falconers- did you know anything about that? You don’t seem surprised.”
Jack startles at that, “No, no I didn’t know about that- they don’t talk to the currently players, especially rookies, about development camps to try and keep us from biasedly suggesting any of our former teammates.” He takes a breath before continuing, “I’m just not surprised because, honestly Er? You’re a good player. Now, I might be a little biased here…” he blushes, looking a little sheepish, “but you’ve got the speed and stick skills to be great someday, I honestly think I played some of my best hockey with you on my line and the way this season is going for you guys shows that it wasn’t just our chemistry. Once we worked through your issues with checking, and now that you’ve bulked up a bit…” he smirks eyeing Bitty in a smug way that Eric can’t tell if it’s because of all the protein advice having an effect or because, well, because his boyfriend appreciates his appearance.
Bitty takes a long swig from his shake, soaking in what jack has said. “Oh, um, wow. I just, never actually thought about it? I mean, looking at where I came from and how I was when I started I just never figured this type of thing was even a possibility.”
“Now you said invitations, as in plural. Where else did you get them from, besides us?”
“Pittsburg, Montreal, San Jose, and Dall-,” his e-mail pings, cutting him off, he checks it quickly. “And Dallas, and now Las Vegas- that one literally just came in. Is that normal? To get so many in one day?”
Jack lets out a low whistle, “Not necessarily, but it’s also not unheard of to get more than one in the same day, particularly for players who don’t have an agent screening these things. What’s unusual is how many you’ve gotten, especially for a player who doesn’t have an agent already. Not having an agent shows that you probably aren’t thinking of playing professionally, so it’s pretty rare to get six teams inviting you to their camps.” He pauses, shaking his head, “I didn’t even get six teams inviting me, and I was a shoe in for the NHL…” He pauses again, this time grinning. “Good for you, Bitty.”
Bitty groans, hanging his head, then looks up. “Thanks, but what do I do?!? I have no idea what I want to do after school, if I even want to play professionally. I’m out, I even got up the nerve to tell my parents, and I don’t want to be forced back into the closet even a little bit by my career, and I don’t know how welcoming some teams might be to me. I don’t mind keeping our relationship on the DL for the sake of your career, but I don’t want to hide who I am. And if I’m not going to play, I should be applying for internships. And even if I do want to play, I have no idea if I can afford to do one of these camps, since I’d have to completely pay my own way or I’ll lose eligibility, and I’m here on athletic scholarship!”
Jack sits there for a minute, looking a little guilty, “Umm, I’m honestly not the best person to talk to about money issues? Or not knowing if you want to play professionally?”
Bitty rolls his eyes, “I know you aren’t, Mr. Calls-Several-Hockey-Legends-Uncle-And-Another-One-Dad. And as freaking out as I am about those things, my bigger concern is the whole out vs. closet thing, which would ultimately affect you, too.”
“I don’t think that will really be a problem…” Jack starts.
Bitty gives him a surprised look, “Elaborate.”
“I’m thinking about coming out next season… and not just me, others too. No one wants to be the first, but if we do it as a group…” he trails off.
“Really? Ya’ll figure any details or is it just a vague idea?”
“Not many details, I don’t know who all the others are, but it’s been understood that regardless of when/where/how anyone comes out, I won’t be joining those ranks until after at least one season, and the post season awards, because with, well, me, I want my hockey to be the focus, I want to prove that I belong and can handle it.”
“You do and you can.”
Bitty finishes his shake, watching his screen, waiting for Jack to say something more.
“So… ultimately by the time you graduate, and sign, if you, you know, do that… there will already be out players in the league. Including me. No need to hide.”
“Oh… that would be nice. Even if I don’t play. Because an out player of a high caliber, like you, or Kent, or … well, any ya’ll who are already established, would be great for younger kids, or even us college folk, to see. Because so far, out professional athletes have had shitty success making it once they’re out- I mean look at what happened with Michael Sam… and an organization named You Can Play ain’t that encouraging if it don’t got any proof and honestly I know and completely support why you haven’t come out yet- one battle at a time for you, Mr. Zimmermann, and this year that’s the doubters, but Kent is undeniably one of the top players and I can’t understand why he hasn’t even supported You Can Play yet.”
“He’s trying to stay very deep in the public closet until I come out- he figures that he and I pretty much need to come out at the same time if we want any control over it- all those rumors from when we were in the Q, eh? You know that they’re a little too close to the truth to really be able to deny them once one of us is out.”
“Well, that actually considerate of him, I think.”
“I know, eh? Kind of unexpected, given…”
“Yeah.” Bitty pauses, shakes his head, refocuses. “But still, ok, even if I go to any of these camps, and there’s no way I can go to all of them- some of them overlap dates, I have like, no professional experience for my degree? I mean, god knows what I want to do, but I should probably get some type of internship? Because going to these camps doesn’t guarantee anything and certainly won’t count as professional experience for any job I try to get after I graduate if hockey doesn’t work out. If I even want hockey to work out? Because bless your heart, I know you love hockey and it’s pretty much always been your dream to play, but I ain’t even daydreamed about it before.”
“Eric…” Jack starts, but Bitty keeps going.
“And there’s still the money issue. I work over the summer for a reason- I mean, if I find a way to pay for it I could probably go to one camp and just take the time off from work- but if I want to go to multiple? I don’t really know if I’d be able to work, lookin’ at the dates, which is a problem, because my scholarship doesn’t cover everything. It doesn’t cover textbooks, food not from the dining hall, or you know, fun. Just tuition, and half or room and board, which admittedly is a very large chunk, but still… If I was confident I wanted to play and would get offers to play in at least the AHL I’d just get a loan and be done with it, but the idea of me bein’ good ‘nough for that jus’ don’t seem to hold water.” Bitty stops, takes a deep breath, and bites off a chunk of his apple.
Jack shakes his head, “Eric, there’s no way you won’t get any offers, given how many camps you got invited to. You don’t have that many teams after you if you’re not at least worth an offer. And having been around professional hockey my whole life, having gone to these camps and seen who else is there, and having played with you- you’re at least AHL caliber. And at the rate you’ve been improving at…”
Bitty cuts him off with a look and a muttered, “What rate, I’ve gone up and down like a yoyo.”
“And don’t give me that look, the only reason you had that setback last year was the concussion, which would fuck with anyone’s game- I swear you I’ve seen you get less air from one of your jumps than from that check. Once we worked you through your fear again you just kept improving. I mean, your stats right now are up there with guys who were drafted in the early rounds but went to college anyways. And you still have a month of regular season and all of next year to go.”
“You know where my stats are at?”
“Yes.” Jack gives him disbelieving look, “I do still follow the team, you know.”
“But my stats aren’t, you know, the team’s stats.”
“No, but you are my boyfriend... I pay extra attention to you.”
Bitty melts a little at the soft smile on Jack’s face.
“And talk to Holster- he might have some insight on the hockey vs. career. Or know someone from when he played juniors who does. Wicks, too.”
Bitty pauses, slightly startled by the suggestions- he somehow manages to forget that a number of his teammates played juniors and that a few were even drafted (later round picks). He takes another bite of his apple chewing while he thinks. It’s a little surreal to realize that some of his teammates, his friends, will go on, have gone on, to play professionally and it’s even more surreal to realize that could be him.
“I think I will. Thanks for listening to me freak out and talking me through all this,” Bitty grins. “Now enough about me, how was your day?”
Epilogue: July 2016
Bitty nervously entered the makeshift cafeteria, scanning the room for any familiar faces. Seeing none, not that he’d expected to find any, he grabbed a tray and a plate and started through the buffet line, noting regretfully that there didn’t seem to be any desert. Settling at an empty table, he pulled out his phone, prepared to stem the boredom of being alone by checking on the ever-busy team chat. He’d just opened the app when he became aware of a presence.
“It’s gotta be him, no one else is that small!”
“It could be some underclassman, who didn’t play in the game against us…”
“Nah, bro, Nursey said he was coming to this one.”
Bitty looked up to see three guys standing on the other side of the table, looking at him.
“Hey, you’re Eric Bittle, right?” the middle one asks.
Bitty nods, surprised at being recognized.
“I’m Ethan Smith, I played at Andover with Nursey,” he continues as the trio sits down. “These are my buddies T. Jefferson,” he points to his left, “and Tommy Hayse, we play together at Union.”
“I recognize the names, though ya’ll look a bit different without all the gear” Bitty smiles, the nerves wearing off.
“Man, we’re actually kinda stoked that you’re here. You’re the fastest little fucker I’ve ever played against, and I played both prep school and juniors,” Jefferson says bouncing in his seat a little.
“Yeah, I’m like, really hoping to be on the same team as you for a scrimmage at some point this week, just to see what it’s like to have that type of speed on my side,” Hayse excited admits. “I watched one of your playoff games on TV and I swear- you looked faster than Kent Parson!”
“Weeeellll,” Bitty drawls, a cocky grin on his face, “I have it on fairly decent authority that I am faster than Kent Parson.”